Spain trip, 2013

Akos Szoboszlay, with comments by Richard Russell, AKA Ricardo



NOTE: Google deleted the fotos so none of the foto links work! I plan to upload fotos to a new server when I find one that allows uploading my captions (rather than forcing me to type it all in all over again!)

This one-month trip in June 2013 was one of our best in terms of enjoyment. This article is a merging of emails sent during the trip, with more details added here. I tried to stick to interesting and educational points, omitting the mundane or redundant, so it's not a literal "log" of the trip.


Children-suitability: Portions of the trip report contain scandals of the Catholic Church and some gay observations. Children should be given the link to the slide shows, or shown the slideshows, not the trip report. The slideshow link is:



How to view slideshows: 

The slideshow links will open Google Picasa in your browser. For best viewing, the browser should take up the full screen. (Horizontally, photos are 1600 pixels so HD TV is also good.) To start the slideshow, first click the first photo in the album, to enlarge it. Then, at the top of the window, click "slideshow". If you don't do it this way, the captions under the photos will not appear. Use the left/right arrows to advance or go back.

Altogether, there are 284 photos which will take about an hour to view.




Silicon Valley to Toledo, Spain

There are no direct flights between Spain and the Bay Area, so we flew there from San Jose via Chicago.


We had a great lunch between airplanes in Chicago airport at Frontera restaurant by Chef Rick Bayless (who had a TV cooking show). Incredible. The best tortilla soup I ever had: very strong roast poblano peppers flavor — which are ground up. I wanted to try his cooking for years after watching all his cooking shows, and thought I had to go to Topolobambo (in Sinaloa, Mexico) where he has a restaurant. (It's a small fishing village where I visited once, and from where the train line starts that goes thru the beautiful Sierra Madre, where you can see the deep Copper Canyon on the way to Chihuahua. I've taken this train many times.)


We landed in Madrid and then boarded the new train line to downtown, which was not there on our last trip in 2009. There, we transferred trains to Toledo. On all our trips, we go to small towns for the first 4 days or more so we can get over jet lag. That way, we don't get run over while dazed, by forgetting to look for traffic when crossing streets. Toledo is an ideal town for that. (Landing in Paris, try Versailles; landing in Rome, try Orvieto; landing in Budapest, try Pécs, landing in Vienna, try Sopron in nearby Hungary.)


Toledo Play slideshow  [I recommend seeing the slide show after reading each trip report section. The same link is at the beginning and end of each section.]

Most streets are so narrow that they only have one lane of traffic (one way). Many streets are pedestrians-only. Some streets are so narrow that if you have a vehicle, it must be burro width or else you will scrape against the walls of the adjacent buildings.


Toledo is basically the same as it was in medieval times: Castle walls, fortress, old churches, monasteries, and a Caravaggio painting in the cathedral [the painting is of Saint John the Baptist; amazingly detailed, especially his feet and grape leaves in the background -:Ricardo]. There are a lot of moor buildings and ramparts. We also had great food. Our favorite restaurant (Alfileritos 24) was a modernized one that incorporates medieval columns and wooden beams. Of course, the food was the highlight. We ordered tapas — that is, small portions but many dishes. 


We went to one restaurant (Taberna el Embrujo) several times to have their incredible chocolate cake — and where we discovered Magno, a delicious brandy.


Our hotel was centuries old, but had modern bathrooms. It took about 4 days for us to get over the jet lag, during which time I was not in a writing mood. The hotel [named Hostal Casa de Cisneros] is on a one-lane street, the other side of the street is a side of the Cathedral. [We promised the hotel-keeper to encourage our friends and family to come to Spain. It is an amazing country, both relaxing and exciting, and a better bargain than France or England: — Ricardo] 


The daylight here stays until about 10 pm and dawn arrives about 6:30 am, so this enables doing a lot. 


We were walking down a street in Toledo about 10 pm and we saw a long procession coming, with a Jesus statue on a platform, preceded by a brass band and first communion children, and followed by the bishop and lay people (probably including parents). During this time, we had to duck into a doorway because there was no room for them to pass on the narrow street: one lane wide without sidewalks.

Play slideshow  [of above section, which is Toledo.]


Mérida Play slideshow

Mérida, the next town we went to, is famous for its large number of Roman ruins. The big ruins were well preserved: Arena (like Colosseum) for gladiator fights, Teatro Romano for theater, and Circo Romano for chariot races with four horses each, as in the Ben Hur movie. There were also temples, aqueduct, bathing/swimming baths and ruins of houses. Many of these we came upon just by accident while walking along the street, and we were pleasantly surprised. There was the amazingly long Roman bridge across the river, still in use but today only by pedestrians/bicyclists. A fort built by Arabs was adjacent to the bridge, to control traffic. The new and excellent Roman Antiquities Museum exhibited beautiful mosaic floors — many complete — and a myriad of small objects. I was surprised to see tweezers, buttons, what looked like dentist tools, as well as beautiful glass decorative objects. (Interesting note: Mérida in México also has a lot of ruins in the vicinity — from the Maya. I once went there by train — including a Pullman — from California. It took five days.)


Our favorite restaurant in Mérida, recommended by Lonely Planet, is named Casa Benito. Our favorite items were fish&prawns in dark lobster sauce, cold tomato soup, and chocolate mousse. In Spain, most menu item words are completely different than Mexican Spanish, even for basic words such as using "gambas" instead of "camarones". We just order without understanding and get pleasantly surprised. The shrimps come either headless or with heads and beady eyes, in different sizes, depending on the dish.


We spent two days looking at Roman ruins in Merida, but we missed a few items, so plan on 3 days if you go. In addition, we took a day trip by train to Cásera, a small medieval town that was similar to Toledo, but on a much smaller scale. We had a great lunch there of tapas.


Mérida was founded by Emperor Augustus a few decades before Christ, to protect the important bridge that still exists today, Puente Romana, and he settled Mérida by veterans of his armies to whom he gave land. The streets were laid out in the typical Roman grid pattern. In medieval times, they changed that to a random pattern. Walking in the city would be very confusing except for my GPS, which greatly increases efficiency and finding things. (I use an iPhone and download local maps at the hotel using WiFi.)


The title of  Augustus (and other emperors or caesars) was Pontifex Maximus. I saw this in the ruins, dating from before Christ. When we were in Rome, we saw "Pont. Max.", the abbreviation for the same title, on many public places such as the famous Trevi Fountain that tourists all see. However, this title was not attached to the name of a Caesar, but of a Pope!  The Popes usurped the title of the Caesars, and applied that to themselves! Then, they broadcast the title they usurped by building something people go to see, and chiseled that in.


We spent two days looking at Roman stuff in Merida, but we missed a few items, so if you go, plan on 3 days for Mérida plus a day trip to Cáceres (next).

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Cáceres (day trip) Play slideshow

From Mérida, we took a day trip by train to Cáceres, a small medieval town that was similar to Toledo, but smaller. It was very interesting, best explained by slideshow. We had a great lunch there of tapas (at La Tahona restaurant).

Play slideshow


Sevilla Play slideshow

We arrived in Sevilla (in English, Seville), after a 4 hour train ride. I was surprised how sparsely populated southwest spain is. In Italy and Hungary, you come across a village every 10 km or so. Here, it is 50 km. In between villages is one of these, which changes about once an hour:

   •     oak trees with grass in between the trees (50%). This is how Santa Clara Valley was described initially.

   •     chaparral (10%)

   •     agriculture, usually grapes or olive trees (40%)

[The train ride between Mérida and Sevilla reveals the beautiful Andalusian landscape, right out of the poems and plays of Federico Garcia Lorca, whose biography I'm reading.  His contributions to Spanish culture are impossible to over-estimate; he was a brave and great man, and his assassination by fascists in the first days of the Spanish Civil War was a terrible loss to literature and humanity: — Ricardo]


Main market in Sevilla:

For San Jose and the entire Santa Clara valley, there was "Race Street Fish and Poultry", which we were very sad to see closed, the last of the best sea food vendors. Here, there were half a dozen "Race Street Fish and Poultry" equivalents in the market, one after another, with even more variety of food. We saw huge tuna (cross section) from which they sliced. There were whole eel and all kinds of fishes, clam types, live snails (trying to escape). Everything was very fresh.


From the red meat vendors, whole bunny rabbits (complete with fur, head to cute tail). The vegetable vendors' radishes were huge. There was water melon with real black seeds and very red color, which is no longer available in the USA, and Richard's favorite, flat beans.


The entire market had been rebuilt since we were there last. They put a huge modernesque "curly waffle" roof on it, named "Parasol", quite nice to look at and to keep cool underneath when you are at the top level, which is a park. The floor below that is the market. Below that is the ancient Roman city that they excavated and is now a museum.


The prior days went from cool (sweater or jacket) to very pleasant (T-shirt). On this day, the temperature went up suddenly to 43C (109F). Our plan was to see Sevilla early in the trip (before it got even hotter), then stay mostly near coasts which are cooler.


Our favorite restaurant in Sevilla, same as on our last trip, is Enrique Becerra. In fact, we selected the hotel to be close to it. We order tapas, and wine by the glass. We order a total of about 18 different line items, but the cost is only about 60 e (about $80) for two people, including tax and drinks. That's our main meal of the day, at 1 pm when it opens, and we get full. We only have a snack for dinner — we don't get hungry for a meal. Our favorite item is a soup, named "ajoblanco" which is cold almond soup with roasted garlic and olive oil on top. It has a mild, pleasant taste, and is native to Andalucía. We had paté, which came in a martini glass —  it was creamy — with a poached egg on top. Dessert was a goat yogurt with wonderful mango and raspberry essence.


For our snack this evening, we went to a Churros con Chocolate store. This is analogous to a donut shop. The churro is basically the same as in Mexico: a "donut" that's usually not toroidal but straight, and not sweet. In Spain, the churros are not fried until you place your order for maximum freshness. You dip that, still warm, into a hot chocolate that is so thick it's more like hot chocolate pudding. Some people eat churros with tea or a cold drink. We, of course, take the chocolate.


We came across a shop that had a picture of a cold chocolate drink in the window. We went in, and there were 3 machines churning different chocolates, and a nice chocolate aroma. I ordered one. Then Richard ordered. I then ordered a drink of 4 small cups of different chocolates. Wow. I got my chocolate fix. This store is called Valor, and went back every day while here. (It's actually a chain, and we also went to the Valor in Barcelona.)


We went back to the Parasol — which looks like a flying waffle, two blocks in length — to see the Roman City underneath. After going down a ramp, we came to an elevator. We thought that was to go to a still lower level. Instead, the elevator brought us up, directly to the top of the Parasol. What a surprise, first because we didn't even know you could do that, and second, for a wonderful view of the city, as well as of the Parasol itself from the top.


After that we returned to the Roman city at the basement level. It was quite interesting: various houses, most with mosaic floors in the rooms, a center courtyard with a pond for cooling, and also a well for water and a sewer system that joined the brick sewer line under the street. There was a business where they salted fish to preserve it for later eating.


On another day we went on what was probably about 10 miles of hiking, walking beside the river along paths, and through parks at the edge of the city. One had a huge sculpture, about 100 feet tall, that was quite interesting: a man trying to break out of an egg. On the way there we crossed an interesting bridge over the river: the pedestrian/bicyclist path was in the center, and the bridge, altho a suspension type bridge, was held up only at one end (instead of two towers such as the Golden Gate Bridge) with a huge beam (or tower) that leaned backwards. On our return we took the bus because it got too hot. One señorita was fanning herself with those typical Spanish fans. We went to another tapas place recommended by Lonely Planet. My favorite items were salmorejo (tomato soup with iberian ham pieces) and paté, which is now illegal in California.


After lunch we took a siesta as the Spanish do. The streets actually pretty much empty out between 2 and 5 pm. In the evening we went to Alameda de Hercules, which is like a long park that is lined with restaurants and bars on both sides, some with live music. We had Mojitos. They make them strong here.  [Note from Ricardo: — In Spain, they put an enormous amount of brown sugar in the bottom of a mojito.  Don't stir it up or the mojito will be too sweet.]

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Cádiz Play slideshow

This port city on the Mediterranean is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe. It was here since 800 BC when settled by Phoenicians. It is on a former island that is now linked to the mainland by a causeway. It is a lot cooler than Sevilla. We even needed a sweater or jacket in the evening and morning. Richard had a craving for meat so we ate at a Basque restaurant: Atxuri. He had steak and I had veal. We ordered Basque wine: Ramon Bilbao Rioja 2009 which was delicious and light. The appetizer was flat beans [Romesco] for Richard ("wonderful" he said) and peas (home-husked) for Ákos; both were topped with a little Iberian ham for taste. They served french-fried potatoes, and the irregular shape showed they were home made. I like eating them with catchup, so I asked for it. Instead of a catchup bottle — which they don't have here, apparently — the waiter brings a saucer of home-made catchup: It was the best catchup I ever ate my entire life! The veal was the best I've had since my last trip to Europe. In the USA: They don't have real veal, only one-year-old cattle that they claim to be "veal"!


Dessert was a wonderful chocolate cake. Unlike chocolate in the USA (cakes, candy bars, etc.) they don't over-sugarize it, which is a gimmick to fool eaters, to compensate for skimping on — reducing the amount of — chocolate. The chocolate in Europe is real, very unlike over 90% of "chocolate" you get in the USA, which is often filled with dark-brown food coloring chemicals to further achieve the fraud. Chemicals are much cheaper than good quality real food. One final point:  I (Ákos) ate Swiss chocolates between the ages of 4 and 7, while living in Switzerland, and even collected the paper wrappers of the large varieties there that Apa and Anya bought. After moving to the USA, I knew that, from age 7, that the American chocolates were total crap, with the only exception being Hershey's chocolates not because they were good, but because they were edible. Everything else I had to spit out, from Baby Ruth to Butterfingers to Mars "Chocolates". It wasn't until 1975, flying back home from my first return trip to Magyarország [Hungary], when I had to transfer airplanes by spending an overnight in Zürich, Switzerland, that I was able to load up on Swiss chocolates that I bought in Zürich, both to eat and to take home, that I finally experienced real, high quality, chocolates, once again.


Today, of course, you can buy Lindt and other fine chocolates from Zanotto's and other high quality supermarkets. But European chocolates in the USA is a recent phenomenon: Along with chayotes, raspberries in winter, etc., the selection/availability of foods was much more limited in the USA than it is today. For example, there were no farmers markets in the USA that I encountered until the past decade. Even in 1959, we shopped at Safeway. Yet, we have seen farmers markets everywhere that we have gone in Europe, Latin America, Bali, etc., on all our trips. These were never eliminated as they were in the USA by the supermarket culture. We actually enjoy walking thru markets and seeing all the varieties of foods, sampling, buying, tasting.


An interesting point about Spanish cooking: There are salsa and chile sauces that are delicious. However, they never have "picante" in any sauce, spice, or cooking, which is badly translated into Americanese as "hot" — despite the fact that the temperature is not elevated. This is very unlike either México or Magyarország, which have various degrees of this phenomenon in sauces, spices and cooking. In both of these countries, the word that describes that phenomenon is correctly translated into Americanese as "sting". (For Readers who like to compare grammars of languages, see details at bottom.)


While eating lunch I sunned my head. I had it completely shaved, three times, in fact. The barber said my head hair is so thick. He had to first use the electric machine, then shave it by razor, then shave it by razor again. Yet, it wasn't all off because it felt like my head was made of velcro when putting on a t-shirt — it would stick to my head.

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Arcos de la Frontera (day trip)  Play slideshow

We spend a day trip in this town. Similar to Olvera (next), a hill town with white buildings.

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Olvera Play slideshow

We arrived at this small town named Olvera, in the mountains of southern Andalucía. The bus left at 1 pm from Cádiz, the big town, and there was only one bus per day that went there. Because the restaurants don't open until 1 pm, the time that we left, we were very hungry when we arrived at 4 pm. We immediately walked to a restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet, La Bodega Pitarra, rather than first drop our luggage off at the hotel.


What a fabulous lunch! To start, we had the best salmorejo on this trip — cold tomato soup with ham and, this time, also egg pieces on top. Then tomato-tuna salad — topped by garlic and olive oil, but no lettuce. The tuna was not canned — they baked it themselves as verified by the taste and texture. It was the best tuna salad ever! Then we ordered a soft-cheese plate, goat cheese but very mild tasting compared with goat cheeses we get in California. This came with orange jam and honey, very well paired, and toast. The main dish was a pork that arrived raw. They brought a very hot black stone to cook it on: we put the pork slices on it ourselves right at our table, and rotated them once. The pork was local, and what surprised us was how lean it was: it was shoulder blade, he said. We had asked for a wine list, but he had none. In fact, he had no wine selection. He had just one wine, a Rioja. It was delicious, and was way better than average (compared with other Spanish or California wines), and we ordered a second bottle. The cost was only 9.5 euro per bottle ($12 US), much cheaper than in California. We found this all over Spain: Good wine is inexpensive. We also ordered that Rioja many times after that.


After desert, Richard ordered brandy, which in Spain translates to "cognac". After the meal, I asked the waiter — who was also the restaurant owner — to call a taxi to take us to the Hotel Estación. He said there are no taxis in town, and offered to take us there himself! Which he did. Upon arrival, Richard noticed that his day pack was missing. The restaurant owner said, "no problema", and they went to get the day pack. Richard inadvertently left it at a park-bench on the street while loading the car — the result of mucho drinks. It was all there, including his passport, which shows how honest people are in Spain. In fact, we were never over-charged anywhere, not even by a taxi, and waiters have often told us "enough" when we were ordering, so we didn't over-order, or over-eat. That's honest!


Our hotel, a former train station below the town — the town and castle are on a hill above that — was absolutely wonderful. There was no traffic at all. Our hotel room windows (there were two plus the bathroom window) overlooked olive groves, and beyond that, a mountain with a castle.


The next day we rented bicycles and went along a dirt road with olive groves on both sides. The terrain is mountainous with rocky outposts that are perfect for castles. We came back for lunch at La Bodega Pitarra and we were again rewarded with something delicious that we had not eaten before: Arroz Marisco Caldoso. This is a cross between paella and French bouillabaisse (seafood soup). It had fish, shrimp, mussels and clams, with rice (yellow color from saffron) and broth. In a hot climate, it is preferable to have liquid in the food. It was delicious.


Afterwards, we walked up to the castle of Olvera, the highest point in town. It was originally built by Moors and provided a great view of the region. We were the only ones there. The caretaker explained items in the museum — where, again, there were no visitors but us. I was by then starting to understand and hold a conversation with locals which initially I had difficulty due to the Andalucían dialect being different than Castellano: They lop off consonants which makes it harder to understand, especially since I actually learned and speak Mexican. They say they have trouble understanding Mexican.


On our way back I stopped at a department store — very small in terms of those in America, on three floors — and it was just like the TV show on PBS, "Are you being served?" I asked for underwear, and there were 4 different people who served me, two women and two men. It was all very amusing, some trying their English on me — the few words they knew. [Laundromats only exist in the largest cities in Spain, Italy, and Hungary so include laundry in travel planning by checking Lonely Planet — but we overstayed in Olvera. In France, laundries are ubiquitous.]


I need to mention an interesting point for Hungarians [Magyaroknak]. For the toast during breakfast, they provided butter, jam, and pig grease (like bacon grease), to put on the bread. I thought they only had pig grease on bread in Magyarország. I ate it regularly while in grade school during lunch: with slices of new onion and salt, it was delicious! Now, it's not considered healthy for the sedentary lifestyle. I didn't try the pig grease, but only because I don't eat salty foods for breakfast.


Next day: Rail trail: 30 tunnels in 35 km.

This was the most spectacular rail-trail we ever bicycled: 30 tunnels, longest being 990 meters long, with some others half a km long. Richard described it as "the most remarkable bicycle ride in my life." The rail-trail was 35 km long, almost all downhill, and at both ends there is a hotel, the former train stations at the towns of Olvera and Puerto Serrano. I noticed that the line extends further, so I'm guessing that they might extend it after renovation — after removing debris from landslides.


I took one photo of 3 tunnels: from one I was in, and looking at the next, and thru that, the next. Scenery comprised pretty crags, small cliffs, native forest, and small olive orchards. There was a river along part of the way. The longer tunnels have some dim lighting, but they didn't always work. I had a small focusable headlight (on the head) which I always travel with, in case of power outage or emergency. Some tunnels have a curve inside the tunnel, which makes for interesting bicycling. I was surprised at how many bicyclists there were using the rail-trail, including small groups of grade-schoolers, as well as small groups of fast bicyclists in their 20s, wearing their outfits.


The rental bike was neither comfortable nor tuned up for shifting — and I had already rejected 4 other bicycles for more obvious malfunctions — but it was fine for going downhill. We lucked out by staying at the higher altitude hotel for our starting point. To get back, we called a taxi after first inquiring about the price: 45 euro. He arrived with a 4-bike carrier attached to the hitch mechanism of the taxi. The distance to get back was almost double, using the existing roadways.


For our final day, a heat wave hit so we mostly just read, swam in the hotel pool, and ate more great food! I read a book about Ratzinger, Pope's War by Matthew Fox. It's shocking.

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Trip to Donostia

This town is on the north coast of Spain. We took the bus to the big town (Sevilla) and then two trains to cross Spain, transferring in Madrid. It took us all day.


The second train had a couple surprises. It included dinner in the rail ticket price. (We were expecting a late dinner after arrival.) It was very good — I had fish like trout — and included a choice of wines and of liquors. At one station, the 8-car train was being split up to go to two different locations, and we had to hurry to go from the back of the train to the front, because only the front 3 cars were going to Donostia.


Donostia Play slideshow

In Euskia — Basque — Donostia is the name of this city. In Spanish, it is "San Sebastian".


What a dramatic difference from Andalucía. In the middle of the day, in Andalucía, t-shirt or no shirt. In Donostia, sweater, jacket or both. For sleeping at night, in Andalucia, a sheet without a blanket. In Donostia, a sheet and two blankets — at end of June!


Next day we had lunch at a favorite place in town from our last trip, Kursaal. The dessert was the same as before, just as wonderful, and I shouldn't explain it because it's all in the taste, but the menu described it as "french toast" with ice cream.  Richard told the waitress what good English she has. She stated she attended Mission College in Santa Clara, and had a teacher who, it turned out, was Richard's colleague. What a coincidence!


We spent an entire week in Donostia in 2009, and we saw all the sights, so why did we go back? Answer: Pintxo bar hopping and restaurants.


This town is world famous for Pintxo bars. Pintxos are appetizers you eat, usually with your fingers, in 3 or 4 bites. Many are artistically created. Different bars have their own specialties.


The restaurants in Donostia and the surrounding area — some are in the countryside — are among the best in the world. We went to Mugaritz (3 Michelin stars) again, located in beautiful countryside, and Richard thinks it was even better than when we ate there in 2009. I think it's a tie, but the foods were completely different. I did miss the foam food and chocolate bubbles for dessert — it's no longer in vogue. They change the menu every year, they said. The waiter recognized us from last time. I guess we are characters.


We described the restaurants that we went to, and the Pintxo bars, in our 2009 emails, so I won't describe them here. However, see the photos — ink is below.


We kept up with the news. We bought the International Herald Tribune, but also got online news. The local newspapers even carried, on their front-page, the US Supreme ruling about marriage (same-sex) and we were happy about that.


A related interesting point is that on two occasions, we saw gay flags in public places. We saw a huge gay flag, all by itself, in a traffic circle upon entering Sevilla. The other flag was a normal size one on a building, with other flags. We don't know the occasion for these flags, other than apparently June is gay month, world-wide, something I didn't even know until then.


To Barcelona:

We took a train to Barcelona. The first section went uphill through mountain scenery and had a lot of tunnels. After reaching the high point at Altasus, the train went downhill. When it got to flatter ground, I continued reading my book (Pope's War by Matthew Fox) on Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict:


This book is shocking. It details many cases of how Ratzinger, at that time head of the Office of the Inquisition, took direct action to prevent priests who committed pedophile acts from being fired (or taken further, prosecuted for their crimes). Previously, bishops were able to fire or prevent pedophile priests from "working" with children. Ratzinger prevented that by ordering all bishops in the world to give him jurisdiction of all pedophilia cases. Many bishops pleaded with Ratzinger, after the priest repeatedly raped children, to allow them to fire the priest; but Ratzinger prevented any action to be taken to thwart the pedophiles, until the press/media started to publicize it. Ratzinger even awarded major honors to pedophile enablers — who both enabled (by transferring pedophiles from parish to parish whenever too many complaints arose) and covered up their crimes from police. One was Cardinal Law in Boston, who was promoted to a top Vatican job. This simultaneously prevented the District Attorney of Boston from prosecuting Law for his illegal acts.

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Barcelona Play slideshow

We spent an entire week there because there was so much to see and do. We got a nice hotel room with a balcony overlooking a quiet street — shut off to car traffic — just a half block from the Rambla. The Rambla is the world-famous street from which the English word "ramble" originates. The center of the street is a very wide sidewalk, and the cars go on both sides of this, but only one lane on each side, with no parking. In fact, there is no signal light or vehicular cross traffic the entire length of the Rambla, which extends for the length of the old city (1.4 km or almost 1 mile). An important point is to compare the number of people walking versus the number taking cars. Even at 11 pm at night, as I returned to the hotel, the Rambla had more than 100 times as many people walking than any street in Silicon Valley. 


A few days later, at the city museum, I notice the Rambla was a river, with the outer city wall — dating from Mediaeval times — along one side and farmland on the other side. Some of the inner city wall — dating from Roman times — still exists, as we saw, tho usually the upper levels were usually modified by building on top of the walls.


The next day, we went to a restaurant named "Tickets" that incorporates some of the techniques of El Bulli, which was the top restaurant in the world until it was closed down last year. (We tried to eat there for years, but could not get a reservation. It was completely booked for the whole year within a few days after it it started accepting reservations in January.) [Richard's comment about Tickets:  There were three examples of what is called "molecular" cooking in the USA and "evolutionary" cooking in Spain.  In "molecular" cooking the elements of the food are dissembled and re-assembled to convey the essence of the taste.  There were two "molecular" olives, "molecular" gazpacho, and "molecular" cheese.  It really is original.  Looking something like a gelatin, the flavors are different and more intense than any I have ever encountered.  The lunch at Tickets was a birthday treat from Akos, and a very nice treat it was.]   


The next day, we went on a guided bike tour of Barcelona. We try to do this in all cities we visit, and end up seeing sights we would have missed otherwise.


Later, we saw the city historical museum, which is on several vertical layers — the bottom layer, now way below today's street level, being the original Roman city. The nearby buildings of the old castle were bombed by Franco, killing dozens of people — his own people — taking refuge in the basements.


On the following day, we went to the best chocolate museum we've ever been to (also the largest). It was very informative, good historical details about how chocolate spread. For drinking chocolate, the Spanish tradition is to have a thick chocolate — I call it warm chocolate pudding — so you can dip churros into it. In France, the tradition is to have drinking chocolate. I definitely prefer the French, and it's the best chocolate in the world, overall, in my experience. To get that in the Bay Area, you need to go to XOX in San Francisco. The owner is from France, and if you hear a heavy French accent from behind the counter, that's him.


We saw a museum with Franco's victory parade to "re-Christianize" Catalonya. There were bishops and a catholic procession with Ku-Klux-Klan-like outfits — the same outfits we saw on an old painting from medieval times dealing with the Inquisition. [The location of this museum is one floor above the chocolate museum, which is in the guidebooks.]


We went to see two interesting parks. The first had such a fragrance of flowers I really enjoyed walking there. The second was Gauidi's buildings and walkways. [Instead of describing these, see photos.]


In the International Herald Tribune there are often articles about the Vatican, like the one about a priest associated with the Vatican Bank who was arrested in Italy for illegal money laundering. In addition, we saw articles on the Vatican's priestly pedophilia coverups. Richard likes to quote a bishop from Rome who, referring to the pedophilia cover-ups of the Church, stated, "Silence is golden." [Source: International Herald Tribune, on our prior trip to Rome.]


More great food: We ate at all three of the top restaurants (including Alkimia and Tickets) in Barcelona, according to the Lonely Planet guidebook. The 3rd top-rated restaurant, Alkima, turned out to be best! Incredible. [See fotos.] They gave us a tour of the kitchen. We decided to eat there on our last full day in Barcelona. Wonderful again!


Gaudí's Sacrada Familia:

In cathedrals and basilicas there are side chapels, each with a statue or painting of either a saint, a virgin from more than 100 that are officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, or Jesus — usually in various forms of suffering. The Sacrada Familia basilica, in a side chapel, has a brand new idol of the Roman Catholic Church: Ratzinger himself, as Pope. This brings to mind the "Cult of the Emperor" in which Roman emperors, after they were dead, were venerated in temples of this cult. Interestingly, the book I was reading warns of exactly this phenomenon: pope worship and adoration that has been taking place in the Roman Catholic Church during the prior two Popes — John Paul II and Ratzinger.


I didn't see the Sacrada Familia on this trip. I saw it 20 years ago and enjoyed it. I wrote the above from Richard's description. Here are Richard's observations:

[The Sagrada Familia Temple was much more effective before they tarted it up, which is what they did with the Winchester Mystery House to make it more "family friendly."  As of 2013, the Sagrada Familia is for people who get a kick out of standing in long lines, like at Disneyland, but that's not my idea of a good time.  The two video tributes to Pope Rat's Ass, the sort of ex-pope Benedict, are genuinely offensive and I am hard to shock.  Pope's Rat's Ass is a criminal facilitator of child rape — see Pope's War by Matthew Fox for details. For him to be honored twice in one of the most intrinsically beautiful churches in the world is just sick.]

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To home


On Friday [July 5] at dawn, we took a high-speed train to Madrid in 2.5 hours, and flew home. We could not fly via Chicago — thus missed out eating again at Frontera Restaurant — due to tight connection time, and had to fly from Madrid via Boston and Dallas. The airport food was mediocre at these airports, and at Madrid airport.


Despite all the gluttonous eating, I actually lost a little weight!  This, I attribute to lots of exercise — the walking we did as do most locals wherever we went. Lunch was our main meal of the day, the local custom. For dinner, we'd usually just eat a light snack, sometimes nothing if we weren't hungry due to a big lunch.


General observations: Beards


We have never seen so many beards on young men as in Spain on this trip, probably not even in the hippie era. Most men in their 20s to mid 30s are bearded. These beards are in the style of a "modern gay" beard: short. The hair is also worn short, in typical gay style. However, few are actually gay. The neck is optionally shaved by about half of these men. Those that don't have quite a dark colored front neck since the hair is usually black on Spaniards. Almost all male models on ads (e.g., a mobile phone ad at a bus stop shelter) are also bearded. All posters of models in clothing stores are bearded. This is great!


Another style is a muslim beard, which is usually long and scruffy but shaves the mustache area. In Barcelona, there were many Pakistanis, often having little businesses such as a locutorio (long distance telephone calling and internet) or a food store. In Toledo, the locutorios were run by Arabs.


Did the Caesars have beards? At the Roman Antiquities museum in Mérida, there are a row of head sculptures of the caesars in chronological order. Hadrian, who ruled from 76 to 138 AD, was the first of the bearded caesars.  All the Caesars after him had beards. Hadrian was also gay and had a lover. I admire him for proclaiming that the empire would not wage war to conquer other countries — as his predecessors did. He also had great taste in beautiful architecture, as shown by his summer villa, a day trip from Rome. (That's described in one of our prior trip emails.).



My observations that are verified on the internet:


Bearded caesars: From Wikipedia (topic, "Hadrian"): "Another of Hadrian's contributions to "popular" culture was the beard. ... Most of the emperors after Hadrian would be portrayed with beards."

Here is a list of Roman Emperors with their photo (of a statue or bust):


The title, "Pontifex Maximus": Wikipedia states: [this title] appears on buildings, monuments and coins of popes of the Renaissance and modern times." This title was "held by the Emperors" until AD 376. Here is the link:


Virgins of the Roman Catholic Church: I was trying to find out how many official Virgins there are. I never did find the answer. Here is a list containing over a hundred Virgins:

There are many more. A Virgin that did not make this list is one I saw myself: When I was in Oaxaca, México, there was a large church to a Virgin that I had never heard of. The inscription in stone at the church entrance stated that anyone who comes on a certain day of the year and says a certain prayer, will receive a plenary indulgence. Wow! That means, if I'd done that, I won't spend time in Purgatory for all my prior sins — too bad I missed it.

Note that "Virgin" of many languages gets officially "translated" into English as "Our Lady". Here is a Virgin translation table:


Not just pedophilia, not just cover-ups, but worse: Ratzinger took action to ensure that the pedophilia will continue to occur — by preventing bishops from removing pedophile priests from children!

          See the New York Times article: Vatican [Ratzinger] Declined to Defrock U.S. Priest Who Abused Boys:

Note: This article is a new case involving at least 200 deaf children who were sexually assaulted. It is in addition to the many cases described in the book, Pope's War, which did not mention this case among its many examples of such cases.


Grammar details for "hot" (Americanese) or "sting" (translated from Mexican or Magyar):


In México (also, Spain) and in Magyarország, the word that describes that phenomenon is correctly translated into Americanese as "sting" (verb root), "to sting" (infinitive) or "sting-y" (adjective). In Mexican, the word is "pica" (verb root), "picar" (infinitive) or "picado" (adjective) or "picante" (the noun form of the the verb). In Magyar, it is "csíp" (verb root), "csípni" (infinitive) "csípös" (adjective) or csipöség (nown form of verb). If you get stung by an insect, it's the same word in Mexican or Magyar, after translation, as this phenomenon. My suggestion: Use "picante" rather than "hot". The reason is that many Americans already know some Spanglish, and "picante" is unambiguous — "picar" has other definitions also, including "slightly drunk".


Things to see and do on next trip:

    Streetcar line in Sóller, Majorca island (from 1913?). Also, train line crossing the island from Sóller to La Palma. More info: To get to Majorca, can take ship from Barcelona or Valencia.

    In Olvera, ride the rail-trail the other way, and explore dirt-road going thru tunnel(s). See aerial map among photos.

    Most scenic train ride, says Lonely Planet, is between Ronda (just south of Olvera) and Algeciras (across bay from Gibralter). 3 trains per day. This line continues north then east, and Setenil station is even closer to Olvera.

    The above train line continues thru interesting mountains, east of Olvera. Recommend taking it to/from Granada (well worth a visit — we stayed there on our 2009 trip).

    In Lisboa, Portugal: the streetcar/tram system. Many streetcars are american-built, by Brill Co., from 1912. It's fascinating the way each car has a conductor to collect tickets — that's 3 employees per tram-trailer combination, the way things used to be in Hungary and probably other countries. Also, the manual signaling for signal track sections — not signal lights, but a man sitting on a chair with a wooden "signal" he holds up that was painted red on one side and green on the other. At least, that is the way it was when I was there in 1983!