13 - 28 May, 2007

Sunday - Monday, 13 - 14 May

Walked out the door onto Peachtree at 9:55am, Sunday, May 13, stopped for an omelet in the neighborhood, then gleefully pulled our rolling bags to the train to check in early at ATL. One stop at the ticket counter and one question later and we were granted a non-stop flight to Madrid (instead of our earlier, one-stop through JFK). This meant, however, that we would pass the afternoon in the airport’s international lounge. Fine by us.

The flight went by quickly, and having arrived in Madrid, we walked through the airport about 1⁄2 mile to the subway, on to the Renfe station, then caught our high-speed AVE train to Cordova, arriving by 2:00pm: twenty hours after our Atlanta omelet.

We rode the city bus to within five blocks of Hotel Lola, then walked the rest of the way through the Juderia (the old Jewish quarter of the city) with streets too narrow for the bus. Lola is a somewhat restored, authentically current small hotel, almost a B&B in feel. Old furniture mixed with recently re-tiled floors; uneven walls with an antique armoire and chest; copper bath fixtures and locally made bath tiles.

We hit the streets after unpacking and made ourselves go about, sort of planning what we might do the next day. Sitting at a corner café with some vino tinto, we soaked up the fact that “we’re here.” Though we passed it on our way to the hotel, we take a leisurely stroll through the grounds of the Mezquita: Cordova’s premier historic site.

During the Middle Ages, Cordova was one of the most brilliant and largest cities of Europe, boasting nearly a million inhabitants. It was the home of philosophers such as Seneca (a Roman Stoic philosopher born in Cordova about 4 BC), Averroes (a Muslim born in 1126 who translated Aristotle and was an enormous influence on Thomas Aquinas); and Maimonides (a Jewish philosopher born in 1135 whose works on Jewish law and ethics were influential on all three “religions of the book”). Marisa remembers her undergraduate class on the intellectual history of Europe from 1100-1500 and we both find the conjunction of history, philosophy, and religion fascinating in this now-small city in southern Spain.

The Mezquita (mosque) was built from the 700s to the 900s on the site of an earlier Visigothic church. When the Christians took back the city of Cordova in 1236, it became a Cathedral. From the outside, this mix of religions was not as apparent as it would be during our visit the next day. We walked through the Patio de los Naranjos (Patio of Orange Trees). These trees appear to be planted in stone, but are, of course, planted in soil served by a precise irrigation system. The grounds have a slight slope which allows water from one side to flow downward, feeding all the trees in minutes. We gazed up at the former minaret, now bell tower. The sky was a brilliant blue, so we took several photographs.

Next, we stopped by a local store to buy two bottles of inexpensive but lovely wine, Jamon Iberica (Spanish cured ham), and a sampling of local Andalucian cheeses. We retired to our room, promising ourselves to stay awake until 8:00pm so that we could sleep the whole night.

Couldn’t make it. We fell asleep slightly before that to the sounds of female voices echoing up to our room, bouncing off the hard surfaced walls and floors.

Tuesday, 15 May

We ate a breakfast of chocolate pastries and café con leche at Hotel Lola, then were away to the tiny streets of Cordova. Shops open at 10:00am in most cases, so we strolled beyond the old city wall and back again, seeking one of only two historical synagogues left in Spain. The square Sinagoga was built in the mudejar (Moorish) style in 1315 and is lavishly decorated with Hebrew psalms and stucco. The upper part has a balcony once reserved for female worshippers and now the home of local pigeons. After the Christian reconquest and the forced departure of the Jews from Spain in the last years of the 1400s, the synagogue became variously a hospital, a church, and what it is now: an historic site.

Back to the Mezquita. The courtyard was crawling with tourist groups – French, German, English, Japanese – waiting for the opening time at 10:00am. This was not a problem because the church-turned-mosque-turned-cathedral is huge with acres of indoor space. A forest of more than a thousand red-and-white Moorish arches extends in all directions, with various chapels, niches, pillars and walls marking later additions, both Muslim and Christian. At the center of it all lies the 16th century Cathedral addition, which also pierced the roof of the Mezquita to accommodate the cathedral’s 150-foot high stained-glass windows.

The two of us played a tug of war with the camera in order to capture the feel of the place for memory. The juxtaposition of religious, cultural and architectural custom is unique. It seems to be a present-day echo of how militant and transitory religious mandates can be. Breathtaking, confounding and mammoth in scale.

Renaissance dome Double Moorish arches Mihrab pointing
to Mecca
Moorish arch meets
Gothic ceiling vault
Cathedral in the middle
of the Mosque

We made reservations for a 2:00pm lunch, then walked all around the Juderia. In and out of multiple shops we went, looking at custom leather, custom tile and ceramics. Through multiple openings in the walls of tight streets we saw inner, flower-laden courtyards of old, rich homes. (Any people we saw coming and going were older.)

We saw students and observed several large buildings with tiles implying college campuses. The shops, after many ins and outs, seem to have varying combinations of exactly the same stock, as if owned by the same people. At the very least, the local merchandise is made under agreed standards and the shops have suppliers in common.

Lunch at El Caballo Rojo was among the best we’ve had in Europe. Ten minutes after we were seated, the place packed in. We lingered for nearly two hours, then strolled back to the hotel for a little siesta.

In the cool afternoon, we stopped into a house museum called Casa Andaluci that has a collection of artifacts to match its 12th-century structure. We then made our way to the Guadalquivir River, walked around the city wall, eventually making our way to the Alcazar (palace fortress) of the Christian Kings (meaning Ferdinand and Isabella). Pronounced “al-kath-a”, the Alcazar dates from the 14th century and hosted Christopher Columbus prior to his first voyage of 1492. The building itself is not a notable site, but houses various items taken from earlier civilizations (Roman mosaics, sarcophagi, etc.) It seems to be a work in progress, with much to be identified and organized for future visitors. What is impressive about this location are the splendid gardens: stunning and calming all at once. Formally laid out around fountains, pools and jets of water, the gardens are said to be at their best in May and June. The largest statues are of Christopher begging for money from Ferdinand and Isabella.

By the time we finished, it was 7:30pm and we thought we would rest a bit before coming back out for dinner (no respectable Spanish restaurant would dream of opening for business before 8:30pm). Wade went back out to look for a place within fifty yards, but instead came back with a block of dark chocolate. We decided that another dinner of jamon, queso, chocolate and wine would be just the ticket and called it a night.

Wednesday, 16 May

Wade’s plans to visit the bullfighting museum fell through as the building was under renovation. With no other concrete plans, we took the day off, essentially, and sat on the streets at cafés, people-watching and reading.

The highlights were two wonderful meals. Lunch at Casa Pepe de la Juderia included another version of Andalucian gazpacho and a tomato/seafood salad. For dessert we ordered tiramisu with “biscuit” flavored ice cream. The waiter had asked, we thought, what language we wanted to speak. Instead he showed up with a platter decorated with icing of red, white, and blue spelling out “England.”

We strolled some more in the afternoon, taking a break at a café (Meson D La Luna) that sits in what amounts to a breezeway created by an arch in the city wall. There seemed to be about five or six beggars that frequent the tourist crowds in the Juderia: only one male, the rest female – we recognize the young pregnant one who works all day at it.

At this lovely spot, we saw our second talented busker (there had been a pretty good guitarist in a doorway on Tuesday). This young man with a ring in his nose and tattoos on his elbows, played a wooden, 9-inch flute to beautiful effect in the echoing courtyard of the café. We tipped him and asked where he was from: “Italia!”

A slow walk back to the hotel for a rest preceded our evening meal at El Churrasco just a few doors down from the hotel. We chose the Menu del Dia of three courses: Andalucian gazpacho, pork loin, and custard. This time the waiter spooned in the onion, cucumber, croutons and tomatoes into the cold soup. Delicious.

Two hours later we walked back to the hotel, then over near the Mezquita to see a flamenco show. Sold out. We weren’t sad: just stuffed and tired.

Thursday, 17 May

After a quick check-out and a short cab ride from the Juderia to the bustling streets of the modern city, we boarded the AVE high-speed train for a 45-minute ride to Seville. Another cab took us to the front door of our Hotel Londres. We were again in an old city, but not in the heavily touristic section of Santa Cruz. This lovely section is still filled with narrow streets and old structures that seem never to have been abandoned nor allowed inappropriate renovations. Our hotel was also near the high-end, pedestrian shopping street of Sierpes, so we window-shopped on our way to our first objective: the Cathedral.

This is another Andalucian structure that had a Moorish-Muslim life stacked upon an older Visigothic structure. The giant Christian overlap is, of course, now dominant. Built in 1401 on the rubble of the main city mosque, the Cathedral is entered (like the Mezquita in Cordova) through the Patio de los Naranjos. The crowds of tour groups and school kids were daunting, but the eyes always turn upward in an overwhelming structure like this (only St. Paul’s in London and St. Peter’s in the Vatican are larger.) The impression is one of awe, naturally, and of the crushing power demonstrated over the people by both Church and Crown; how could the people doubt the God-ordained position of men who could buy and build such intimidating structures?

The organ is at least six stories high; the gilded high altar even taller; the caged, private prayer chapels have stained glass form the 15th century. Elements of Moorish influence dominate until some later feature is given focus by placement.

The outside shows the struggle of building compatible structures attached to older ones. The bell tower (La Giralda) is, of course, a Renaissance structure on top of the former minaret, now crowned by bells and the decoration of the times. We climbed to the top via brick-lined ramps (much easier than stairs). At various intervals, there are small displays of 15th-century carpentry tools, old bell parts, and information about the building of the Renaissance portion of the Giralda. From the top, the views of Seville are stunning.

The weather was perfect – a bit warmer than Cordova – and the tour crowds reflected that. As we took a lunch break in a Santa Cruz café, we watched group after non-Spanish group pass in the narrow way. We wandered through the Barrio de Santa Cruz, coming across a number of small shady squares and walking alongside a wall of the Alcazar.

Deciding that a flamenco show is in order, no matter how tourist-centered, we stopped by the El Patio Sevillano to purchase advance tickets for an early evening show. After resting and reading back in the hotel, we headed out to see what we expected to be the tourist version of the local dance of passion. Whether this is or is not that version, it was a stunning, pleasing, too-soon-over event.

Two guitarists were magnificent; two male vocalists and eight dancers (four men and four women) stomped, clacked, spun and “vogued” their way through ninety minutes of frontally delivered energy. The singing of the men made us think of the Muslim call to prayer: that whining, sometimes non-melodic chant. Juxtaposed as it was with beautiful guitar and both hand-clapping and castanet-cracking, the impression was of many elements, more than the few that there were. The dancers wore traditional costumes and had the full aspect of the expected attitude on display. Marisa noted that the Spanish flamenco dress makes the Norwegian bunad look like a shapeless coverall: these dresses left little to the imagination.

A late dinner (for us) at a restaurant that was filled with families: that is, kids from infants to teens out with their folks at 11:00pm. Seville’s big news of the day had caught us by surprise: their soccer team had won a European title the day before and the team was riding a boat down the river as we walked nearby after the flamenco show. Crowds covered each bridge, cheering, as the team made its way by air (from Glasgow where the game had been played), by sea (the Guadalquivir River) and now by land (as they walked through crowds to the Cathedral to receive God’s official blessing for their victory).

Friday, 18 May

We started the day with our only Starbucks stop so far, then proceeded to the Reales Alcazares. The bulk of this building dates back to 1364 when Pedro the Cruel started construction on a residence in the middle of the Moorish fortress. Small parts of the original structure remain, but for the most part the “newer” building was decorated by the finest artisans from Andalucia in the mudejar style.

Again, crowds of tour groups bumped into us, each other and the walls. The mixture of Moorish and Euro styling is even more pronounced than at the Cordovan Mezquita and the Seville Cathedral: more of the mudejar designs have survived because successive rulers had respect and appreciation for the work. Outside, the impressive gardens are large, ornate, and full of terraces, pavilions, fountains and ponds: a blissful refuge from the Seville heat.

Afternoon rest, lunch, and some contact home via the Internet-connected computer in the hotel lobby.

The Museo de Bellas Artes is just around the corner from the hotel in this district of the city called Arenal. Located in the former Convento de la Merced Calzada, it features a collection centered on Seville artists, augmented by others (Velazquez and El Greco, for instance, as well as a Picasso on loan from the Guggenheim in New York). All had some connection to the city during their careers. As with the rest of Spain, religious art dominated well into the 19th century. The museum itself is a haven of simplicity, giving full attention to the art, not itself. Like most of these Andalucian structures, it has a number of courtyards with fountains and benches close by.

After leaving, we sat at a sidewalk “Snack Bar,” while facing the street. We ordered a number of tapas – jamon, small fried fish, queso – and enjoyed the Friday evening crowds. Accordion players (not very good ones) came through. Many baby carriages and groups of young people made us think of our shopping mall culture back home.

As the later dinner hour arrived, the streets began to clear and the remaining shops closed down. We closed down as well.

Saturday, 19 May

Off to Café de Indias for breakfast coffee, then a cheap cab to the train station. We noticed that Madrid, Cordova and Seville all have recently designed stations. (Oddly, there is no security checkpoint at the Seville station.)

That’s not the only feature reminiscent of the old days on European trains: a seemingly middle class man in a polyester dress shirt swept past us to take his seat, inundating us with a wave of foul body odor. Now off the high-speed line, this train was a Regional one – stopping often on our three-hour trip to Granada. The station there is older and small as well.

Short trip by cab to the Hotel Carlos V, which occupies the fourth floor of what appears to be an office building of late 19th century build. It is around the corner from the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, a lovely old church that appears to still be active. People were entering and exiting the church in evening dress: a wedding?

We hit the street right away (at 3:00pm) to tour the Cathedral. Started in the early 16th century, the cathedral is a Baroque masterpiece of white and gold interiors. On this busy Saturday, we were literally crammed into place with hundreds of others in tour groups. We remembered that traveling in November was easier than this, but May was our only choice in 2007. Oh, well… the gardens were lovely.

We also visited the Capilla Real that is attached to the cathedral. Originally destined for Toledo, the Catholic Kings (Ferdinand and Isabella, remember?) decided to build their tombs in Granada and erected a sumptuous memorial for themselves, their daughter and son-in-law. As jaw-dropping as the buildings are, the treasuries in these Spanish cathedrals are something else again. The gold and silver removed from the New World makes the ornaments and instruments of worship and governance something quite different from those seen in other European countries.

Making our way back, we decided to stop for a drink and landed at what appeared to be a Spanish frat party. Not really, but the beer and noise were abundant. The café appeared to specialize in mojitos, margaritas, daiquiris, and pina coladas. Huh? A table of middle-aged, rough-looking, paunchy, cigar-smoking men were all having their mojitos. A strange look.

We closed out and made our way back to the hotel for a rest, then went back out for dinner at Ocaña where we made a meal of Serrano jamon and Manchego cheese. Hitting the Super Sol grocery store before closing, we picked up supplies: two-liter water for 32 cents, Rioja wine for two Euros, and a sleeve of biscuits for less than 50 cents. Bedtime.

Sunday, 20 May

We started out the day both admitting that we had hit the sight-seeing, walking-tour “wall.” But the day that followed revived us.

One hot chocolate and two café con leches each as we sat on the hotel balcony, gaining energy. We grabbed a cab that climbed the hill to the Alhambra.

Meaning “red fort” in Arabic, the Alhambra comprises a series of buildings begun by the Moors in the 9th century. Our glorious weather persisted as we took our time up and down stairs and ramps (all rather gentle), up terrace and tower, soaking up all we could of this plot of earth designated as sacred and beautiful by succeeding sultans of Moors and kings of Christians. With timed entry and reserved tickets, the huge crowds dissipate across the many acres of gardens, meeting rooms, residences, “oratorios” (places to confess love of Allah), and defensive towers.

The Alcazaba is the earliest part of the complex. Most of what remains today – solid walls and battlements – dates from the 13th century. Climbing up the towers affords a beautiful view of the city and its Moorish quarter called the Albaicin.

(Moorish Quarter)
Convento de
San Francisco
Carlos V Palace

The jewel of Andalucian architecture, however, is the Casa Real constructed by the Nasrid dynasty between 1331 and 1391. A series of buildings, patios and enclosed gardens, this structure is more than could possibly be expected. The decoration illustrates the culmination of Moorish art in Spain: intricately modeled stucco (including honeycombed ceilings of stalactites), geometric mosaics, ceramics, Koranic quotations and lines of poetry, and lacy woodwork in Lebanese cedar.

We passed through the newer section of the palace and stopped in rooms near the Patio de Linderaja once used by Washington Irving. Having picked up an English copy of his Tales of the Alhambra at the gift shop when we entered, we both looked forward to reading this for the first time.

We ended our visit strolling through gardens on the way to the Generalife, the summer palace of the kings of Granada. Containing a large semi-formal garden where streams and fountains are surrounded by avenues of cypress, jasmine, roses, and orange trees, we discover the best view of the Alhambra towers and palace are from these windows.

View from Generalife

After nearly four hours, we were satisfied and pleased; this place had more than lived up to its billing. Following guidebook recommendations, we stopped at Le Mimbre Restaurant just outside the entrance to the Alhambra and had a fine meal. Marisa ordered the local Andalucian soup which turned out to be a hot soup that included grapefruit, ham, a poached egg, garlic, raisins, pine nuts, and mint.

We closed down the place after lingering for two hours, then cabbed it over at 4:00pm to the Albaicin in order to walk down the hill alongside the Darro River, a popular stroll and a good vantage point from which to look back up at the Alhambra. The Albaicin is a warren of narrow, cobbled streets that reveal luxurious courtyards within. As usual, we stop for libations along the way, but pick up a few souvenirs as well.

We returned to the hotel balcony to relax, but the sounds of a parade begin. We learn from a British couple that someone named Mary something or another has just been sainted and the progression has begun. We had seen a bit of this on television the evening before and now confirmed that a statue of the saint’s likeness was being borne throughout the city, stopping at churches who would then ring their bells until the statue left again. Lots of fireworks – not the colorful kinds, just the loud banging white ones. (See the second photographic view from the Generalife above and you'll see a few of the fireworks going off.)

We couldn’t see the procession, but heard it come closer and stop in front of Santo Domingo just around the corner. We noted a little altar boy in maroon velvet and white lace running with his parents: was he late? The bells rang until 11:00pm and the last fireworks ended at 1:15am.

Sunday, May 20

We spent the morning on the balcony again with just a quick interruption to try and see into the Santo Domingo church and its gardens, but all was closed. We took a cab for the twelve-kilometer ride to the airport, ate a light lunch there, and flew to Barcelona on a 75-minute ride.

Our pal, Robert Anderson who lives in Barcelona, met us. Joined by another guest from back home in Atlanta, Jimmy Harbottle, we all got into another cab, then caught a train for the 90-minute ride down to Salou on the Mediterranean Coast.

We descended from the train at 6:30pm and walked along the pedestrian walkway by the beach. The sea was inviting, very few people were in view, and we knew that the relaxing part of our vacation had begun.

Robert’s place is on the top (fourth) floor of a condominium building with a balcony and a wonderful view of the sea. The space has all the essentials in about 300 square feet: kitchen, full bathroom, two twin beds, and a living room. Robert gave us the keys and a quick practicum on the use of the condo, then returned to Barcelona with Jimmy.

On their recommendation, we had dinner at Costa Verde just across the street: mussels marinara and a large, fresh salad. Back to the condo and sleep.

Monday - Thursday, 21 - 24 May

The beach here is well presented: the tallest buildings are only four or five stories; mature palm trees line the paved, curving pathways (one for bikes and one for walkers); cafes and restaurants sit behind the row of paving and offer a good, shady or sunny perch from which to look at sand and sea.

There must be aggressive marketing of the Costa Daurada in England. Not only are there wrinkled, goose-shaped Brit bodies on the beach, there are also fish-and-chip shops and an Irish pub. (Though, it must be said, there is an Irish pub in every city we’ve ever been to – even in South Korea.) There are, of course, many from the rest of the EU: mostly Germany and France. Our waiter at the Tropical Restaurant – Roberto from Mexico, just below Laredo, Texas – said Wade was only about the fourth American he had seen this year.

The relaxed norm here allows women to sunbathe topless. Marisa found it civilized and utterly practical for looking one’s best in every dress or blouse: no tan lines to deal with. The semi-nudity option is taken by less than a majority of women, and even in the rare event that a slim, attractive young lady plays along, there is nothing especially provocative. (There are far more saggy old men and women anyway.)

Back to the waiter… He’d been there six years and Wade asked, “How do you find it here?” Roberto responded, “The Catalans can be a little rough, a little snobbish. Otherwise, it’s a good place.”

Then he spoke briefly of the Moroccans who show up here and get sympathetic treatment (i.e. a cheaper visa than his from Mexico) even though they are generally poor, unskilled, and often unwilling to contribute. We walked the numerous gauntlets of these erstwhile merchants, all in their teens to thirties, as we went to the beach each day. Perched on the low beach wall, their wares are spread on a bench opposite them, forcing walkers to pass in between. Though one feels no threat, it is easy to see why they might be seen as an unhappy addition to this community. There are, after all, multiple souvenir shops on the streets that, presumably, pay taxes and rent for the privilege of selling to the public. On our last day at the beach, three police officers appeared and more than twenty of the street salesmen scooped up their things in blankets and ran pell-mell alongside the shoreline, yelling at each group along the way to join them. Apparently, their activities aren’t legal and are tolerated only intermittently.

At an internet café where all signage is most prominently English, Wade met three Irish adolescent boys waiting their turn. He could barely make out a word they said, initially, but soon heard questions about football and baseball. (Wade was checking scores as his online minutes ticked away.)

Finally, the oldest one asked, “You know Beyonce?” “The singer?” Wade asked. “Sure. She’s my cousin,” said the boy with a straight face.

With each trip we make to Europe, the homogenization of cultures becomes more noticeable, sometimes aggressive. Whereas this may be partly due to our practice of conscious appreciation of differences – a policy of acceptance, if you will – there is a sense of loss to culture of both distinctions and subtleties one celebrated in memories of first impressions on other trips.

Thankfully, though, many ancient center cities of Europe lasted beyond the years of war and neglect. With the new international preservation movement, these old gems will at least hold the non-Disney reality in a place of honor, even as they are inundated by trinkets and Coca-Cola, pizza and beer. (As Wade wrote this, he looked at a sandwich-board advertisement featuring Bart Simpson hawking ice cream in Spanish.)

And yet, with all our efforts toward acceptance of unifying culture, we hold our prejudices close as referenced by Roberto the waiter. We are all cultural and social snobs at bottom (even if the manifestation is to be a snob about snobbery in others).

We saw ships go by.

Friday, 25 May

On the morning of our fifth day at the beach and after re-setting the condo according to Robert’s routine, we walked the two kilometers down to the Salou train station for the ride to Barcelona. Robert met us at the Passeig de Gracia station just two blocks from his apartment in L’Eixample: a beautiful section of Barcelona just north of the Placa de Catalunya and in the midst of the world-famous Gaudi buildings. Indeed, his apartment is a Gaudi-designed structure.

We stopped for coffee at Farga on the way; two coffees and two beers later, we stopped once more about thirty yards closer to home for some sausage, fries, and more beer at Otto Sylt. Fabulous.

Arriving at Robert and Luis’s amazing apartment, we were soon joined by Luis who couldn’t wait to share a music video with Marisa. (They were both born in 1962 and share a musical history). While Robert prepared dinner, we watched Madonna in Ciao Italia! made in 1988. Marisa and Luis reminisced about college in the 1980s.

Later on at the kitchen table, we stuffed ourselves with Robert’s fine pork loin and seemed to rejoin our conversation from three and a half years before when we’d last sat there. The boisterous atmosphere seemed to delight all four of us as we talked over each other, laughed loudly and had more glasses of wine.

At 1:00am we made our way to bed, the echoes of weekend party on the streets wafting to our open doors on the fourth story: a surprisingly agreeable lullaby.

Saturday, 26 May

Morning found our hosts still resting, but Luis let us out the front door which had been reinforced and triple-locked since a break-in some four years before. We walked out into the bright 9:00am morning and hit Starbucks for a sit-down with the International Herald Tribune.

Then we headed down the Ramblas, down to the Gothic Quarter and its labyrinth of shops. Along the way, the crowds multiplied so as to make contact-free passage impossible. (Again, the peril of traveling in the summer months.) The tight streets of the Quarter accommodate shops upon stores upon cafes, and the feel is that of an ancient shopping mall made modern. We saw so many more shops – on purpose – than we had seen on the previous visit. On our brief spin through the Boqueria market we remembered from before, the crowds were virtually impossible to move among.

We headed out of the fray and back to L’Eixample in order to find space and seated comfort. A pris fixe meal at familiar Farga took care of us for two hours.

After a siesta and some reading in the bedroom, our hosts treated us to a night-time visit to the amazing fountain show at Plaza Espanya. We got off the train to see huge crowds jammed all around the vast place in front of the palace on the hill. The show was about to begin featuring these fountains that had been shut down when we were last in Barcelona. “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey) began to play as the waters began to dance above the central pool.

Witnessing a mixture of alternating spires, mists, streams, geysers, and multi-colored lights, the crowd was jubilant, popping digital and cell-phone flashes without pause during the two 15-minute shows.

We stopped for a wonderful meal at Samoa around 11:00pm and talked for more than an hour about all the family connections of Marisa and Robert, as well as the societal and political commonality we could conjure.

Sunday, 27 May

We left our beds for the street by 10:00am. Marisa parked Wade at the “Natural Break” café on the Ramblas while she went to photograph the sculpture exhibit we had seen before. Crowds of tourists and their kids crawled over the bronze statues as busy Barcelona began another rousing day. (Though Sunday, this was an election day in Spain.)

We strolled to find a café – La Trovadora – not crowded on a cross street and sat on the sidewalk, purposely sitting upwind of a cigarette-smoking couple. Soon a septuagenarian Catalan gentlemen in a sharp grey suit, supported on a braced walking stick, sat upwind and lit a long cigar. While he sipped his espresso and puffed, we alternately shivered and roasted under the windy, bright May skies. The occasional whiff of sewer reminded us of every city of size we’ve visited – including our own and the street where we live.

We ate the sausages for lunch from Otto Sylt again. Relaxed Spanish families with young children joined us and the kids smiled and made faces at us strangers and we felt all the more at home with the world of normal people.

After a siesta, Robert invited us to watch a video during his personal happy hour in the parlor of his home. We watched Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning performance of Liz II and mixed those images with our mental pictures of the piece of Europe we were now enjoying. As in our previous visits, our hosts delighted in taking us to their favorite Chinese restaurant – Felicidad – where the Asian staff speaks very good Spanish.

Back at the apartment, Marisa presented Luis – a piano music lover – with an Elton John music book she’d brought for him from Atlanta, much to his delight. Unwilling to completely let go of our visit, Wade sat up till 2:00am with Robert and Luis, enjoying every moment of philosophical and bombastic interaction.

The following morning we took a quick cab to the airport for the flight home.

When we leave a country after an enlightening, pleasing and exhausting visit, we often say to each other, “We have to come back here soon!” In this instance, though, we have learned that it is important from a reward vs. inspiration perspective, that new frontiers be stormed and alternate approaches be used.

Our enjoyment of the last leg of our journey was specifically – and quite sincerely – awarded to us by our good friends and hosts, but we were disinclined to expend the energy required for a “fresh” look at the magnificent city of Barcelona we had savored three and a half years before.

This is useful to us to remember, to take every opportunity to enjoy friends and relatives in their homes, while remembering that return visits to cities, for their own sake, suffer due to comparison to those golden, unique, first impressions.

And this point is underscored emphatically by the warm, grandiose, noble, humble, rousing, solemn, fresh, fermented and welcoming region of Andalucia. Cordova, Seville and Granada each have unique offerings of history and culture, even as they share the story of the three “peoples of the book,” Christians, Muslims and Jews. The architectural give and take, though a repeated theme in the south of Spain, never gets tiresome in the study and in the physical experience. Even the Flamenco music echoes with the multiple influences, indigenous, freely imported or forcibly inserted over the centuries.

The influence of both European and American corporate culture is evident, but it does not yet overwhelm the individuality of each of these cities. Not even the larger Spanish identity can yet blend these unique cities into some national, cultural gazpacho; each one puts its singular gifts on display with a sort of neighborhood pride.

Andalucia is a spectacular place. We must go there again!