Thursday, February 25, 2016

Ruta del Cister - Part 1

Diana and I travel. A lot.

If you know me and/or have looked at more than just this story, you'd probably already know that. Many of our trips involve flying to this place or that. Getting stamps in passports. Passing through customs. You know, basically what you think of when you hear the word travel.

This time I wanted it to be different. I wanted to do some nights away from Barcelona that would be, well, easy. You know, maybe like people who go to the beach or something. Wake up late. Eat a leisurely breakfast. Maybe read a book. Take a nap. You get the idea. So I asked Diana to come up with some plans where we could rent a car, drive not too far, and just be able to hang out and relax. Maybe stay at farm house or something with no distractions. Easy.

We rented a tiny car and headed out on our road trip. About an hour and a half after leaving the city, we arrived at our airbnb in Cabra del Camp not too far from the Roman city of Tarragona.

Farm house? Check! Complete with three horses! And that's our host, Joan, showing Diana around the back 40. The house and the surrounding property has been in his family for literally hundreds of years. It was a living museum complete with family artifacts from each of the last four centuries.

Oh, and the last major house renovation was right around when Jefferson and Madison where in Philadelphia writing the United States Bill of Rights back in the 1790s!

Joan's family has been making wine for well over 100 years and there's still various wine-making methods and equipment in the house including this old vat below:

Crazy amazing. We had stumbled into the home of one of Catalunya's lesser-known but highly respected wine-making families. Joan even shared a couple bottles of his homemade creations with us!

Diana planned some area day trips, our first of which was at the nearby walled city of Montblanc.

People have lived in the region for thousands of years but the town itself dates (only) from the 12th century. As with countless other medieval European towns, this one's been nicely restored and is it's fun to wander around the tiny streets and shops. More importantly, this town is the setting for the story of Sant Jordi versus the dragon!

Diana looking for flying dragons from the former site of the town's castle, which was disassembled over the years to build some of the housing stock.

And here she is checking out yet another church. Hello, is anyone home?

Random Montblanc street scene (I like this shot):

If you're not aware, I'm a sucker for a good bakery and Montblanc's Pastisseria I Confitería Viñas didn't disappoint.

As the sun set on Montblanc, Diana and I left to explore the town of Reus best known for its favorite son, Antoni Gaudi. We didn't run into any of the Gaudi family but we did wander around its winding streets and even caught part of an outdoor concert in the town's main plaza.

It's funny but, even with all its amazing buildings and nice scenery, it was this shop's wine and cava display I loved. We stopped to buy some groceries to take back to share with Joan when the guy in the photo below told me that he had worked in the shop for something like 40 years and the display had always been there. He laughed as he said that he couldn't remember anyone ever taking notice before. It's so simple and would be easy to do. Maybe my sister can pin it on Pinterest...

That night we went back to hang out with Joan some more. He's not only a farmer and winemaker but also a multi-book Catalan author. We couldn't get enough of his and his family's stories. Oh, and his handmade wine, made with grapes he crushed with his own feet (!!!), was an incredible bonus. My friend Dave would have been jealous...

Now it's time to explain the story's title. La Ruta del Cister translates to the Cistercian Route, which is a series of Cistercian monasteries not far from Taragona. The route provided the theme for our trip and the first monastery up on the docket was the scenic Santes Creus:

The Cistercians are a religious order of monks and nuns that was one of the main ways technology spread throughout Europe during the middle ages. They believed in doing manual labor and (still to this day) living an austere monastic life. Each monastery normally had some type of factory and/or main industry like metalworking, and the monks were prolific farmers, which fortunately for us, includes growing wine grapes! Woohoo!

The Santes Creus monastery is from the late 1100s and is similar to the other monasteries we visited during the trip. It's not to say they're not amazing and beautiful and impressive, they are, but rather that their consistency in design and scale is what's impressive. The scale, demonstrated by the giant dormitory room below, must have been awe-inspiring back when it was built as, even today, it's kinda' wow.

The Santes Creus cloister:

Remember back to the start of this story where I said I wanted to have a nice weekend where we could sleep late, relax, and maybe read a book? Yeah, well, we're just about 30 hours into this trip and it's been fairly busy so far. So what would a normal person do in this situation? Head back to the house and put their feet up? Hmm...not us!

Zoom zoom! Let's go. Off to the town of Valls, famous for the onion-like calçot, for lunch!

One of the things that Diana and I discussed before going on the trip was the possibility of stopping by Valls to get calçots, which I've written about before.

We drove into the center of town, parked, and started wandering around looking for a place to eat. It was already getting kind of late, even by Spain standards, so we were trying to find something fast. There was a couple about our age loading up a car so Diana asked them where we should go. They looked at each other for a moment or two and both said at the same time that there was really nothing nearby they could think of and that most of the places to eat calçots are outside the center of town closer to the surrounding farms.

They recommended a place called Bobila but they thought it might not be open on that particular day. No matter, we jumped back in the car and drove above 15 minutes to the restaurant, which is located in an old brick-making facility with some of the dining areas actually in the old kilns. It was around 3:30 pm so we knew there was a chance we wouldn't be able to eat. We pulled at the door and it opened! Score!

But wait, just inside and the hostess said that they were closed but that, because there was a special party in the other room and because "we had come all the way from Barcelona", she'd check with the kitchen to see if there was enough food left.

And...yes! We would soon be eating calçots!

The calçots were delicious and lunch was great! As always, the amount of food they give you at a calçotada is enough that you end up in a food coma for sure.

Diana digging into the third course "meat plate":

We finished up lunch at about 5:00 pm after a nice private restaurant tour. From there, it was back into the car to go to the next stop in our plan-to-do-nothing, relaxing long-weekend trip...

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Andorra - The Pre-Internet Amazon

If you're old like me, you might remember back to a time when you'd run all over town comparing prices on something you wanted to buy. Maybe you were interested in a VCR. You'd get in the car and go to the mall, Circuit City, maybe Best Buy, or even Crazy Eddie's (was that only a Philadelphia thing?) to look at every model and try to figure out what the best deal was. It's funny, now that we have the internet, you'd never do something like that.

Okay, now imagine an entire country where you'd go to buy something because you knew you'd always find the cheapest price. That place exists, or at least used to. It's called Andorra and it's a tiny speck of a country that sits in the Pyrenees between the borders of France and Spain. (And, yes, there should be snow everywhere. It's been like spring all winter.)

Back in the dark ages (before the internet), people from all over Europe would go to Andorra to buy anything and everything because it was way cheaper than they could find at home. Well, other than select items like alcohol and tobacco, the internet's changed all that and it's no longer the must-do shopping destination it once was. Today's visitors are more likely to be there to enjoy another Andorra must-do activity:

Yep, winter sports, baby! A group of twelve of us went to play in the snow for a few days. Inside the gondola at Val Nord in Andorra:

Since moving to Europe about six years ago (!!!), I've only been snowboarding once, if you can believe it. Back in California, there were years where I'd go almost every weekend during the winter. In other words, it was good to be out again especially with a big group of friends.

We did two full days on the snow and it was great. For someone like me who spent most of their lives at smallish east coast and southern California mountains, the resorts in the Pyrenees are ginormous...and the one we were at isn't even considered particularly big.

Mountain-top selfie showing just a small part of the resort:

Diana had a great time too. Even though she spent most of the time taking the beginner's area conveyor-belt-in-a-tube...

I did manage to get her to take one trip on the "adult" lift for what turned out being the longest-distance run of her life.

There's even video proof!

She did great, didn't she?

Oh, and don't think we didn't check out the shopping. It's definitely no but the center of town is basically a giant shopping mall with prices that are at least as good as the best I've seen in Barcelona. For folks from northern Europe, it's probably still worth the trip moreso if combined with skiing and/or snowboarding. I picked up a new Icebreaker shirt (I love me some merino wool!) and a bottle of brandy for the cabinet back home. Both good finds at nice prices!

I didn't mention it yet but Andorra is a Catalan-speaking country that seems to exist today as a banking center. A bit more Switzerland and a bit less Crazy Eddie, I guess.

We spent part of the day exploring town, which is filled with nice plazas, family-style shops and cafes, and some interesting art like this one I'm "floating" in:

On our way home, while our friends were filling up the tank with cheap gas (the other item that makes the trip worthwhile), Diana and I went to price check La Casa Del Formatge (The House Of Cheese), which, unfortunately, was closed for lunch. Damn southern-Europe closed-for-lunch schedule!

Thanks to our friends who made the trip fun. Let's do it again soon so I can get some cheese to go with my brandy!