ChAlli in Lisbon

Mid-Term Break in Barcelona

February 20, 2024 Cody Said/She Said

stamms in barcelona

The best of Catalunya -- from Gaudí to Dalí to time with the Reisses.

SebAlli Said:

One of the great things about half-term breaks (which are new to us) is the ability to travel without waiting for spring, winter, or summer breaks. For Sebastian’s February break, we chose Barcelona as our destination. He had the choice between Pompeii or Barcelona and chose Barcelona because “it would involve less learning on a break where the purpose is NOT to learn.” An added bonus was seeing friends also enjoying a year abroad in Spain, the Reiss family.

We wanted to bring The Reiss family a piece of Portugal (Pastel de Nata). So, we got a six-pack for them to enjoy before leaving Lisbon. But… I (Seb) blew it by leaving them on the plane. Once I realized I had left them, we ran back to the gate to get them, but it was too late. They were murdered by the cleaning crew! R.I.P.

Jared picked us up and we got our first views of Barcelona. We (Challi) have been to Barcelona (back in 2006), but this was a first for me (Seb). My first impression was that it was definitely a bigger city than Lisbon. And we all know that a bigger city means more cigarette smoke, drunken people, pee smell, dog poop, honking horns, dogs barking, car exhaust… I think you get my point. We also experienced a much greater difficulty than we expected switching off our Portuguese language brains and turning on our Spanish brains. Especially me (Alli), who knows more Spanish than Portuguese but kept screwing up and speaking Portanol. And the Spanish we know is not Catalan, so we failed miserably.

Speaking of Catalan culture, did you know that a popular but strange Christmas tradition is when kids find a big log and decorate it with a face and clothes? Then, during Christmas time, they will feed it and then beat it with other sticks (who knows, maybe they’re friends!) and it will poop out presents. In my (Seb’s) opinion, this is like eating a big plate of bacon in front of a pig! While we’re on the subject, another unique Catalan Christmas tradition we learned about was a figurine called the Caganer. This is pretty much a figure of a person taking a dump. For those wondering, here is the explanation of the tradition:

The name "El Caganer" literally means "the pooper". Traditionally, the figurine is depicted as a peasant, wearing the traditional Catalan red cap (the barretina) and with his trousers down, showing a bare backside, and defecating. It is believed that the excrements of the Catalan caganer fertilize the land, becoming a symbol of prosperity and wealth, but also of good luck and happiness. But it could also be interpreted as a way to bring the mighty down.

But, we digress. Back to Barcelona.

The first day, we explored the Reiss’ neighborhood and then headed down to Las Ramblas. It reminded me (Seb) a lot of Pearl Street in Boulder. We had our first meal of tapas and enjoyed the familiar street performers that seem to pop up everywhere in Europe. And, as is necessary in most European cities, we stopped at and climbed up to the Cathedral of Barcelona rooftop, where we were rewarded with beautiful, panoramic views of the city. I think Seb was most fascinated with the sea gull standing on one leg that was posing for photos. We enjoyed a home-cooked meal with the Reiss crew that night and compared expat stories with the whole family. It was a lot of fun and really great to see them.

The next day was a SebAlli day, as Chad spent most of the day with Jared hanging out with his group of expat friends. Despite Chad’s best efforts, we were without a phone or internet (which means no maps or translation). We had no choice but to roll old school, so we went to the TI (tourist info) booth, got a paper map, and I (Seb) had the great idea of taking a photo of the subway map. We successfully found our way back to Las Ramblas and walked in the other direction from the previous Ramblas walk all the way to Barcelona Beach. It was a gorgeous day, and we enjoyed another meal of tapas overlooking the water and enjoyed our surroundings. Incidentally, we came across a temporary Harry Potter Exhibition. When we found out the cable car wasn’t running to Montjuic, we pivoted and took the Potter adventure instead.

It wasn’t exactly as I (Seb) thought it would be, but it was interactive and pretty cool to see some of the actual movie props and pretend we were in some movie scenes. Next, we headed back towards the Ramblas, ran into an old friend named Forrest Gump, and then headed to La Boqueria to meet Chad. That’s all I have to say about that 😊 (get it?).

We (SebAlli) decided that since February is five months until Chad turns 50, we would begin his path to 50 with new surprises and experiences each month until July. So, for February, I (Alli) booked a market tour and paella cooking class (including a make-your-own Sangria and tapas portion) while in Barcelona. The class started at La Boqueria Market, a popular open-air market located off Las Ramblas. Our chef showed us around this huge market and taught us how to pick the freshest seafood we would be using to make the paella. We then walked back to the “kitchen” and after making sangria from scratch (virgin for me, Seb) and eating a few tapas appetizers, the paella lesson began. Seb had many firsts during this class. I (Seb) de-spined calamari, de-veined and de-pooped gambas, and took the kishkas out of a mussel. I learned how to knock the clams and mussels on the table to make sure they were alive before killing and eating them, of course. For those who don’t know me, that’s all crazy outside of my comfort zone! We learned how to cook it so the rice gets crunchy and thoroughly enjoyed eating the final product once completed.

The next day was a Gaudi marathon. Sagrada Familia was easily the winner of the day. We (Challi) could not believe the changes and additions since last seen 18 years ago! This is one of the most beautiful cathedrals we’ve ever seen, and we all decided we wanted to come back once it’s done. Casa Batllo always reminds me (Alli) of Dr. Seuss with its skull and bone-looking exterior and whimsical interior. Park Guell never gets old for us (Challi), but for me (Seb), I was getting tired from all the walking. But it was a beautiful day, and the unique trees and gorgeous mosaic colors made for a really nice stop. I (Alli) especially love the mosaic lizard that greets you (as do most of those who pose with this guy during their visit). Though I think it’s actually a dragon, I still call it a lizard. We then stopped for even more delicious tapas. If you’re in Barcelona, you need to try the Bikini Sandwich; I (Seb) would have eaten so many more if we were there longer that they wouldn't have any left! Our 4th and final Gaudi stop of the day was La Pedrera. We toured yet another Gaudi building and then made our way to the rooftop, where we enjoyed an awesome light show themed around nature. So, guys, it was all really cool to see, but I (Seb) now need like a five-year break from anything Gaudi! We enjoyed a little more time hanging with the Reiss fam, and I (Alli) went for a beautiful run with Kristin. Though we had to drive up a mountain to get to the trail, I was happy to have a reprieve from the hills of Lisbon as the trail was flat once we got to the top!

We then hopped in a rental car and headed up the coast of Spain to a few towns none of us had been to. First stop, Girona. What a great surprise this little medieval town proved to be. With colorful buildings, a small bridge built by Eiffel, and, of course, a beautiful cathedral with a long set of steps out front where a scene from Game of Thrones was actually filmed! I (Alli) was tempted to act it out, but it was too crowded. We had lunch (Chadastian had more bikini sammies) and then walked around the town. We didn’t have time to make it to all the sites as we had plans in another town an hour away. I (Alli) really wanted to walk the perimeter of the old city walls. Reasons to come back, it seems.

Next stop, Cadaques! This small, quiet coastal village in Costa Brava is located on a small peninsula on the eastern coast of Spain. It’s also the place Salvador Dali called home. We had early dinner reservations atop Cap de Creus at a restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean. I (Alli) wanted to book it early to enjoy the views before dark and maybe even eat outside. However, the weather did not cooperate; it was freezing, and the wind was enough to knock us off our feet!

Side note on the winds: Cadaqués endures the wrath of the Tramontana wind that blows off the Pyrenees and gives the Spanish coast its name, Costa Brava or Wild Coast. This is especially true in the winter.

So, we enjoyed our Catalan meal inside and still enjoyed the views through the window! We checked into our hotel after dinner, and while I (Alli) knew it had a Dali flare when I booked it, it far exceeded a flare. The lobby/rooms are completely themed around Dali's life and works, with paintings and books all around the building. And while the rooms weren’t anything great, the hotel was really fun, centrally located, and super close to the beach. We explored the town the next day and toured Dali’s summer house built in the 1930s. It was really cool to see where and how he lived, as much of the house museum remains untouched since his death. I (Seb) was so inspired I got a Dali sketchbook and sketched the little harbor near where he lived.

Upon leaving Cadaques we decided to round off our coastal tour with one more Dali stop, the town of Figueres. This museum is dedicated to Dali as this was his hometown, where he lived from 1984-1989, and he is buried in a crypt below the stage. Lots of cool things to see in this museum, but we may have been a little ambitious and started to see the “another Dali?” look on Seb’s face (similar to Gaudi day), so we decided to head out.

We headed back to Barcelona for yet one more night of tapas and Ramblas before leaving early the next morning. 

Chad Said:

When I walked into Sagrada Família 18 years ago, it was a construction zone. To be fair, it's been a construction zone for more than a century and still is, with estimates of its completion just announced for 2026. Nearly 150 years after Antoni Gaudí began his masterpiece, it will finally be finished.

If my memories from 2006 are correct, I remember scaffolding throughout the interior of the cathedral as the stained glass windows were being installed. While impressive, experiencing the full effect was impossible then. They've come a long way since I was last in the building, and this time, I think I experienced what Gaudí probably intended when he laid out his original plans.

In 2024, walking into the Sagrada Família is a transcendent experience. It's divine. There's no other way to say it. To echo Jared's sentiments about the cathedral, it is the most beautiful structure man has ever created, or at least the most beautiful I've ever seen. And the entire experience was moving in ways I didn't think walking into a building could be. Entering through the Navity portal and into the massive forest of stone and light was emotional. The hairs rose on my neck. Tears welled in my eyes. Certainly, no building has ever provoked those sensations in me before. It made me feel awed, inspired, grateful, humble, small, and driven to use the power of creativity in my own life. Was it a religious experience? By nature of the original intent of the building, maybe it was. Then again, maybe it wasn't. Does it really matter? Personally, I don't think so, but the idea is worth exploring.

There's a human tendency to be fascinated with religious or sacred places. In many cases, people become emotional or are moved because of what those structures represent. For example, I know people who would easily weep when walking through the chamber where Jesus is said to have eaten the Last Supper. I know others who shed tears when visiting the Western Wall -- two different religions, the same type of emotional experience.

Now, let's go a little further. As someone who has been to both the site of the Last Supper and the Western Wall, my opinion is that neither place is inherently beautiful unless you're a mason and love square stones (Western Wall) or are a fan of cavernous, gothic-looking stone rooms (The Cenacle on Mount Zion). The emotion people encounter in these two places comes from what they represent, not necessarily from their physical beauty. This is likely why I was never overridden with emotion when visiting them, even though I was certainly fascinated to witness them.

The other side of that coin, then, is what I experienced in Sagrada Família. It had nothing to do with Jesus Christ or Christianity or the Bible stories told on the façades of the building. It was an emotion rooted in beauty and wonder, and there's no single structure I've ever seen that's more beautiful, that inspired more wonder, than Sagrada Família. Rather than receiving emotion from an image of Jesus on the cross, those sensations came from the brilliance of refracted light and delicate stone. Rather than inspiration from the pages of the Bible, I was inspired by the dedication of the workers, generations of craftsmen and craftswomen who will never see this beautiful structure in its completion, and that goes for Gaudí himself. No, the religious intent had no bearing for me on what many would describe as a religious experience.

But maybe that's the point. When you strip away a lot of the bullshit, maybe it's possible to arrive at the pure intentions. From what I know of Jesus Christ, he was a promoter of transcendent experiences, not all the political causes and personal identities associated with him today. Did he not seek to inspire wonder and humility in the individual rather than funnel everyone's spirituality through power-hungry gatekeepers? Was the essence of his teachings not to love and respect rather than join the cultish congregations built in his name today that tell us what nations we should wage wars against, who we should love, or what we should do with our bodies? Was his message not that everyone could speak to God rather than funnel our communications through those claiming to be the only ones with access? What would Jesus Christ think about someone hawking $60 Bibles to pay for sexual assault fines?

I don't mean to pick on Christianity here because the reality is this crap happens in all religions. But when we have those moments when the human elements are removed, when an individual experience marginalizes the gatekeepers, the result is similar to what I experienced in the Sagrada Família. It was a moment of personal humility, not of dehumanizing others. It was a moment of smallness, not narcissism. Wonder, not belittlement. Joy and hope, not a self-righteous claim to know what everyone else should believe.

Sagrada Família is just a building, but maybe that's the thing. Architecture doesn't need to be interpreted by a preacher. We don't need a rabbi to experience it. We don't have to take an imam's word for it. You can enter the Sagrada Família and feel the awe it inspires on your own. And for me, that beauty is enough.

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