written by Stefan Sharkansky
April 22, 2000. We board our United Airlines flight to London. Plane change will be in Brussels on the way to our final destination, Barcelona. Our itinerary is 5 nights in Barcelona, 1 night in Andorra, 3 nights in Tossa de Mar, 1 more night in Barcelona, and finally 3 nights in Brussels.
We fly in Business Class, having purchased the tickets with Mileage Awards. We’re not used to flying Business Class, so we marvel at the vast real estate for our legs and tushies and at the various ways one can adjust the seats, headrests, armrests, video screens, etc. The in-flight entertainment is so varied, the service so obsequious, and the food so edible, we investigate our options for spending the entire two weeks on the airplane. Why burden ourselves with restaurants, scenery or museums?
I spend most of the flight reading Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. An account of his experiences fighting against Franco on the side of revolutionary Marxists in 1937, it is in turn both hilarious and tragic. His impressions of the political turmoil in Barcelona served also as the inspiration for Animal Farm. Irene is reading Cold Mountain, set in the collapsing South of 1864. Contrary to the Civil War themes in our books, Irene and I are getting along fine.
We arrive in Barcelona mid-afternoon, remarkably refreshed, considering. Our Hotel is the Astoria, in the upscale Eixample district, by the northernmost end of the Rambla pedestrian boulevard. We stroll along the Rambla, the weather is sunny and warm. It is Easter Sunday, though there are no obvious signs of religious observance. I am struck by the number of booksellers who have set up stalls along the mall, moving a good volume of books, mostly Catalan. The Catalan speakers, I read on the Internet, publish more titles per native speaker than even the Norwegians or the Israelis.
April 23. Food will be a special challenge. I need to lose some weight and Europe is the worst imaginable place to launch a diet. Our first Catalan meal is at El Mussol (The Owl). Expecting tapas as elsewhere in Spain, we order appetizers of spinach, potatoes, artichokes, mushrooms, bread with sausage. We discover to our horror that these are not tapas-sized portions, but industrial shovelfuls of food, with every vegetable swimming in a pond of olive oil. As Orwell wrote "… always the same rich, greasy cookery, with everything sodden with olive oil." Olive oil. Every piece of toast brushed with it, every green vegetable drizzled with it, every fish marinated in it, every chicken and meat grilled with it, every potato and bean sauteed in it. But the Spanish may be on to something. Preserved in oil like peppers in a bottle of antipasto, their life expectancy is actually longer than that of Americans. Some of the restaurants cut back on the oil and we had many memorable dishes – red beans and clams Navarre style at El Trobador, fava beans and duck carpaccio Basque style at Beltxenea, John Dory with grilled eggplant, bell pepper and onion at Can Simon in Tossa de Mar.
The next most important staple is ham. The Spanish jamon bears no resemblance of any kind to the pink, mawkish Oscar Meyer variety. Like an Italian prosciutto, but normally served in thicker slices, jamon is bright crimson, with a pungent sour, salty aroma, and thick veins of creamy, chewy fat. The Spaniards must like to be reminded where ham comes from – every tavern and delicatessen is festooned with whole hindlegs of pig, complete with bone, skin, knee, hoof and fur.
Our most elaborate dinner was at Reno, just across the Diagonal from our hotel. We arrive at 9pm, early by local custom. An army of efficient tuxedoed waiters attend to us. We start with glasses of cava, the local champagne. I order the prix fixe "tasting" menu, which escalates from foie gras to cheesy mashed potatoes topped with morels and truffle oil, to cuttlefish with risotto to turbot with barley and mussels. Irene has white asparagus in cream sauce and smoked pork tenderloin. The latter served with a thick slab of fatty bacon and a thin slice of dry jamon. My main course is piglet, which is a square of bones and flesh cut right out of the young pig’s rib cage. I surgically carve off the thick layer of crispy fatty skin, and eat everything other than the bones and skin, which is to say a tiny membrane of meat. After the waiters take away the dishes, I see them point into my plate and chuckle. Silly Americano, he didn’t eat the bones or the skin.
Then they bring out the first of the three dessert courses, an enormous board of cheeses, four each of goat, sheep, cow and blue. The waitress gestures at one of the latter, a shriveled wedge of blue, decorated with tiny bits of cheese. "Muy fuerte" she says. I choose one each of the mild goat, sheep and cow. The best is the sheep, a crunchy, nutty, salty pecorino. The second dessert is a syrupy ice, listed on the menu as "sorbet to the bitter cacao". The third dessert is a yellow plum stuffed with almond paste. Groaning, we call to the waiter to ask for the check. Instead of the check, he brings to our table and forces us to eat a complimentary platter of chocolates and tiny glasses of chilled pineapple-mint soup. We eventually trick him into bringing us the check before he has a chance to deliver any more free food. We roll back to the hotel around midnite. From this point on I keep to my vow to stick with the fish and vegetables.
April 24 – 27. We spend our days wandering the streets of Barcelona, looking for an English-Catalan phrasebook. For all the Catalonian nationalism and linguistic pride, the only readily available books and dictionaries are English-Spanish. We take in the Gothic quarter and the Picasso Museum. We ride the funicular up to Montjuïc, funicular being a word of Latin derivation which means "a small train that costs a great deal of money to ride, and only goes 15 or 20 feet up the hill" While on the mountain, we visit the Miro Museum. Outside, I notice two stray cats playing together and another cat all by itself. I take a picture of the latter so I can have a photo of "A cat alone in Catalonia".
We visit Gaudi’s Casa Mila apartment building and his enormous Sagrada Familia cathedral, which Frommer’s guidebook says is the most important architectural masterpiece in Catalonia and of which Orwell wrote "… one of the most hideous buildings in the world… I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance". The large spires in front resemble cobs of corn, the smaller spires in back look like asparagus spears. The exterior is a fantasia of other-worldly rounded corners, mushroom-like appendages and bas-relief figures of saints and the holy family that resemble Darth Vader. The interior of the cathedral has been under construction since 1882 and will probably never be finished.
I persuade Irene to climb the stairs to the top of the spire, as I earlier cajoled her to climb to the top of the Florence Duomo and to the top of the Eiffel Tower. The climb was not hard, although the narrow spiral stairs have only a minimal knee-high guard rail, which makes it look like it’s easier to slip and fall down through the middle of the spiral than it probably is. The walk down was problematic. The stairs are just about wide enough for a single person of average build to ascend in comfort. But there are no logistics to handle the case where one person ascending coincides with another descending. In our case, we began our descent shortly before a group of Italian tourists was completing their ascent. One by one, nearly half the population of Torino came charging towards us -- men, women, dogs, children playing soccer, war veterans in wheelchairs, sagging-breasted grandmothers riding Vespas. We are too far down to go back up, they are too numerous and have too much Forza Italia! to stop or even slow down to let us figure out what to do. Paralyzed by both claustrophobia and vertigo we suck in our bellies, compress ourselves against the cold, sweaty stone wall. We somehow manage to slither down, stepping one quarter stair at a time, with several minutes between steps. At the bottom, Irene looks at me with the most determination I have seen since our wedding vows and says "I will never, EVER, go up one of these stairs with you again."
April 28. Every good trip has a defining crisis. The last time Irene and I went to Europe together, in 1997, the central crisis was when Irene was informed that she had failed the bar exam. That crisis was resolved after 27 hours of clinical despair when the person who brought the bad news confessed that she had only GUESSED that Irene had failed the exam, having held to her forehead a sealed letter that came in the mail. Only after she bothered to actually OPEN THE ENVELOPE and READ THE LETTER, did she discover that Irene had passed the exam after all.
On this trip, it was my turn to have a crisis. On the morning we were to drive from Barcelona to Andorra, we were at the breakfast table, eating our crusty chewy breadrolls with "Laughing Cow" cheese. Irene says "Oh gross! There’s a hair in my roll". "That’s odd," I report, "there seems to be a rock in mine". Upon inspection, the rock turned out to be the bigger half of my upper left front bicuspid. I felt no pain, only a large gaping rough spot. The broken-off tooth piece terrified me. It was dark yellow with grey and brown and little bits of black in it. I had been having nagging concerns for quite a while "that I should really make an appointment to have a cleaning sometime." I won’t confess exactly how long it had been since my last checkup, but let’s just say that the number of mañanas > 210. Many horrifying questions came into my head. Had my teeth grown so diseased from neglect that they now simply rot and crumble away? Will I need to wear dentures? Has late middle age already caught up with me? I am only 37! Which pieces of my body will fall off next? Will the treatment be painful? I have lived in constant fear of oral surgery since my "Bloody Towel" emergency after a dental procedure in 1976. Do the dentists in Barcelona wash their hands or use Novacaine? Orwell’s descriptions of the filthy and poorly staffed Spanish military hospitals offer little solace. I can’t consult with my home dentist, since it’s 1am in California and he can’t possibly remember who I am, assuming he’s even still alive. Will I have to take the next flight home? How much is all of this going to cost? Will I die here?
To make a long story short, we found a university dental clinic through Frommer’s guidebook. Doctor Cristina and Nurse Rocio saw me right away, and they were exceedingly modern, friendly, painless, clean and efficient. They assured me that my teeth are not severely diseased, that the corpselike color of the broken tooth is perfectly normal, that the remaining body and nerve were still intact and that this was simply a freak occurrence of biting down too hard on precisely the wrong spot at precisely the wrong angle. They gave me a temporary crown, which should hold until I get home and allow my "regular" dentist to perform enough painful procedures and hand me a large enough bill to make up for lost time. Frightened into taking better care of my teeth, I vow to visit my dentist no less than every six months and to brush and floss at least twice during every meal.
Delayed by only a couple of hours, we resume our regularly scheduled vacation, pick up our rental car and head towards Andorra.
Our itinerary is to go north into the Pyrenees, spend the night in Andorra, cross into France then back into Spain and meander down from the mountains to Tossa de Mar, on the coast north of Barcelona. The guidebook promises that the drive to Andorra offers "some of the finest mountain scenery in Europe". The instant we reach the mountains Irene decides that this is the best possible time to take a nap, and she misses the whole thing.
Andorra itself is a nanoscopic mountain paradise that consists of exactly one narrow winding road with a ski slope at one end, a shopping mall at the other end, and a policewoman directing traffic in the middle. In the hotel room we watch the bullfights on Spanish TV. It is a hideous spectacle and I contemplate becoming an animal rights activist.
April 29. The scenery abruptly changes from the snowy mountains of Andorra, still full of skiers, into French farm country. We drive through a succession of little villages of stone buildings and bridges. From the town of Bourg Madame on the Spanish border we are to wind through the Pyrenees on the way to our next stop, the Salvador Dalí Museum in Figueres. We chose this road because it is designated on the map with big green stripes, which I assumed to mean "scenic highway". Scenic, maybe, but the green stripe is actually there to warn you about the color that your face will turn if you happen to look out of the car.
From of the town of Puigcerdà the two-lane road quickly rises to follow the edge of an enormous mountain ridge. The mountains are large and rounded, but steep. A few of the more distant peaks are snow-capped, some of the mountains are forested, others rocky. We are in the outside lane, with only an aluminum-foil guardrail protecting us from a thousand meter drop. In most driving conditions, I am a conquistador, the guy who forces other drivers to move out of his way and also gets a ticket. On this ridge, whose Catalan name means "Death by Tumbling Off The Edge of the Road and Not Being Found for Six Weeks", I stick to a prudent 40kmh, for Irene’s sake, that is.
"Are you scared?"
Irene asks me.
At every switchback up the mountain, the road slopes down to the outside and a large Mercedes, having taken a wrong turn off the Autobahn, comes whipping around the curve, halfway into our lane. This causes me to hit the brakes, which in turn causes the line of cars behind us to honk their horns and to pass us at the next blind curve. Everybody travelling in our direction eventually passes us, including decrepit Citroëns, bicyclists, and peasants with sheep.
Finally, we descend into a green valley and later the road opens out onto the plain near Girona. The road is straight and flat, we can go a comfortable 100 kmh. Every so often, we’re forced to slow down when we get behind a canonical Spanish truck. Such a truck is 60 or 70 years old and has a circle with the number 80 painted on its tail. This number indicates the number of kmh BELOW the speed limit that the driver insists on driving. The vehicle imparts a thick, grey, bitter smoke, and that’s only from the driver’s cigarette. The truck itself releases a dense cloud of vapor that changes color from white to blue to black and back to white again, each color of smoke having its own distinctive flavor and type of cancer. The only time the driver of such a truck takes the initiative to accelerate is when you are alongside him in the opposite lane, attempting to pass, and gunning toward you is a Mercedes who is still angry at you for driving too slowly on the mountain.
"Slow down and let me pass, you bastard," I shout.
"Are you sure all this driving is very relaxing for you, sweetheart?" Irene asks.
In fact, I’m having a blast.
We reach the Dalí Museum in plenty of time. Our favorite exhibits are his painting "Soft Self-Portrait with Piece of Bacon," and the "Mae West Room", with its giant lips, hair and camel.
We spend the next few days at Tossa de Mar, a one-time fishing village, now a resort that is still charming, despite its popularity. A 12th century castle overlooks the water, the rest of the town is mainly whitewashed buildings on narrow alleyways. Our game plan is to do nothing but walk around, eat, read, and play pool in the hotel bar.
May 1. Today is the festival of Santa Cruz, so there is a religious procession through the village. A red-robed priest, swinging a pot of incense, walks through the streets followed by a brass band and townspeople carrying decorated crosses. At midday in the town square is the Sardana, the Catalan national dance. The brass band sits on folding chairs and plays while a dozen or so people in street clothes form a circle and hold hands at ear level. The music sounds like a cross between a German polka and a military march. The most interesting of the musicians holds in his left hand a high-pitched little recorder that looks like the top half of a clarinet, while he has a miniature drum strapped to his left elbow. He plays the recorder with his left hand, while banging the drum with his right hand. The dancers hold hands and slowly shuffle their feet in place. Like the Israeli hora, but without so much chutzpah.
Dinner in Tossa is a No-brainer
We have dinner at the newish and elegantly simple Can Simon. We later learn that this is Michelin’s top pick for the town. Our waiter is a gentle soul with round brown eyes and a half-melancholy, half-goofy manner. Irene wanted for her appetizer the "French beans with bacon and lamb’s brain", but without the lamb’s brain.
"Could I have
the French beans and bacon, but without the brain"? she asks.
Irene is convinced that the waiter is going to try to slip her some brain regardless, so instead she orders the mackerel, which was an excellent choice. The waiter also brings us small portions of nibble food – croutons, fried pork skins and some little frizzy fried strands of something or other. Irene is certain that the frizzy things are brain and refuses to try them. I did notice that the waiter was smiling kind of funny when he brought them out, but I try them anyway. We never did find out what they were. If I go mad in about 10 years, we’ll know who to blame.
"About a hundred dollars"
We drive back to Barcelona the next day. The entire rental car experience cost about a hundred dollars, plus gas.
On Wednesday we fly to Brussels.
May 3. Belgium is many, many times larger than Andorra, which is to say that it’s still really, really little. The entire country is only about 150 miles x 75 miles, which is about the size of the greater San Francisco Bay Area from Santa Rosa to Carmel and from the ocean to Vacaville. Does living in a small country cause the inhabitants to think little thoughts, or does a small-thinking people confine itself to a little corner of the earth? Either way, there are so many examples of peculiarly small things in Brussels that they can’t all be explained by chance.
While New York has the Statue of Liberty, Paris, the Eiffel Tower and London, Big Ben – Brussels’ definitive landmark is the Manneken Pis, a two-foot tall statue of a little boy taking a pee.
The most important local contributions to world cuisine, of course, are chocolate truffles – little candy bars – and Brussels sprouts. Now what kind of city would bet its future on miniature cabbages?
The underground trains are the smallest I have ever seen, only two cars per train and doors so narrow most grown men have to board the trains sideways. On the Chaussee de Waterloo, near the Victor Horta House, we came across a garage whose door is only a few inches taller than Irene.
Most of the streets are narrower than the cars, and every path the width of a bicycle tire is drawn on the map as if it were a boulevard. The blocks, too, are short and every street keeps the same name for only a block or two. Every intersection has seven or eight streets radiating from it, and the only signs with street names are little blue tags with 6-point type on the side of a building in the middle of the block. If you happen to turn your head to sneeze and you miss your cross street, you will never find your hotel again. After wandering aimlessly for a while you will discover that you’re on a street with a name like ‘t Vreeuwklimpenzooijdonkstraat, which you can’t locate on your little map of Brussels, since by now you are in Antwerp.
And if one’s fate is to be small, make smallness a virtue! A row house in the old part of town, only a few inches wider than my outstretched arms, proudly wears the sign: La plus petite maison de Bruxelles. In the hotel restaurant the sign on the basket containing the "Laughing Cow" cheeses says not "foil cheeses", "soft cheeses" or "triangle cheeses" as one sees elsewhere, but "Small Cheeses!"
In our hotel room, we have two little twin beds, a little desk and little night tables. We also have three little wastebaskets. A green one for "organic waste", a red one for "plastic and metal" and a slightly larger grey one for "paper and cardboard". What do we do with a used kleenex? Is it organic waste, or is it paper? After a long debate, we finally rip the tissue in half and put one piece in each receptacle.
At the restaurant L’Auberge des Chapeliers, which, with its dark wooden tables and low ceilings with dark wood beams, has the feel of a medieval tavern, a little staircase with worn wooden steps leads up to the second story. I crack my head half open on the low ceiling as I enter the stairway. The waitstaff have evolved a permanent fold in their necks from ducking as they go up and down the stairs. An even smaller staircase leads up to the third floor. Irene and I watch with guilty amusement as other customers, many of them elderly, crouch and contort themselves sideways, backwards or on hands and knees in order to climb their way down the stairs. At a different restaurant, Irene, as yet unaware of my fascination with Belgian smallness, comes back from the ladies room all excited "You should see the bathroom! It has the smallest sink I’ve ever seen. I could barely wash my hands in it"
In restaurants in general, the tables are small, with the legs so close together I can barely fit my own legs between them. The breadrolls are smaller than elsewhere in Europe, and the water comes in little bottles that you pour into little glasses. While the Czechs and the Germans prefer to drink their lager by the half- or even whole- liter, the Belgians sell their equally fine brews in little quarter-liter bottles and cans. The tips are also little, only 5% to 10% is customary. The service is consistently the slowest we have encountered in any locale. Nothing urgent has happened here in decades. So why should anybody be in a hurry? Perhaps tips were originally 15% as in the States, but generations of visitors said "the service was a bit slow today, honey, so I think I’ll leave only a little tip this time."
For days I am puzzled by the anomaly of the Belgian Waffle (I dare you to ask for Russian Dressing, French Toast or Irish Coffee in their respective countries, but Belgian Waffles are sold here on every streetcorner). These waffles are not little, they are so large, and they have great big holes! Then I sit down to eat one. It is very nice with whipped cream and fresh strawberries. I crack the code. The holes are big, but there’s only a little bit of cake between the holes.
A few more words on Belgian cuisine
Brussels is an even worse place than Barcelona to try to lose weight. Chocolate is king, cheese is queen and even the chicken and fish are slathered in heavy cream sauces. The most important local specialty we didn’t try is mussels. Irene ate a lot of mussels in Spain and one day had an awkward epiphany.
"When you eat
mussels," she asked me, "are you really eating the…"
But it was too late.
George Orwell escaped from Barcelona just in time and went on to write 1984. In Irene’s book, the North won the war. Irene and I are still madly in love and have decided to stay married. My dentist reassured me that my broken tooth was not caused by disease or poor hygiene. ("They’re like diamonds. Sometimes if you hit ‘em in a particular way --- PING! they’ll split right in half") but he also reminded me that "it’s not a good idea to wait that long between visits". Irene is still a member of the California Bar and I lost 5 pounds. We’re already planning our next trip to Europe. Business Class.