Travel Diary - Day Eighteen - Trains to Seville

Recently I flew home from a 24-day solo trip to Lisbon, Porto, Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Seville, and Lisbon again. If you like, you can start from the beginning here.

Day Eighteen - Train from Bilbao to Madrid; Train from Madrid to Seville

Again, the scenery. The scenery astounds. We rumbled along the side of a mountain: rock on one side and a basin of cloud on the other. The hills just drop away and we see the next of clouds so low, as if still asleep, gathered there. I've noticed that on this trip and from the bus to Bilbao that the terrain is much more green here in the north. The autoroute even seemed to take us through forests. Or was that the train to San Sebastian? Oy. The days blur.

But here are mountains of rock, mostly treed with what looks like a type of pine or fir. And deep, deep, green. I don't know why I've been so surprised to see fog here in the mornings. It seems to have burned off by now (by 10) but in the early a.m. it's thick, grey.

(Train to Seville)

I am in the party car! I am sitting beside a well-dressed older gentleman who is, thankfully, not a part of the party. But the rest of the car seems to be a group of well-off, very well made-up and clothed men and women between the ages of 35 - 55 and they all know each other. The sound of their many overlapping conversations is a fugue punctuated by grace notes of women's laughter, and since they're all speaking much too quickly for me to understand it's a little nice...a wash of language - impenetrable, or at least difficult to parse into individual speakers except for the odd, louder Ola! or Que tal?! that jumps out, up and over.

(A very small pint of beer = una canita)

Another thing that adds to the hubbub is that my car, car number 5, is right next to the bar car, car number 4. There was, as soon as the train started rolling, an unimaginable and unending stream of voyagers headed there for a little canita. I can't really see the size of the bar car from where I'm sitting, but it's starting to remind me of the ol' how many clowns can you fit into a volkswagen bit. NOT that these lovely Spanish folk resemble clowns in any way. Far too many of them are in heels.

The land got flat this morning around the 3rd hour of travel and flat it stays. We're in serious farm country now, and the soil is more exposed. You can see its terra cotta colour - some patches striped with crops, some patches just bare.

Have I mentioned that turtles live inside the Madrid Atocha train station? They were so still that at first I just thought they were statues. And then one of them moved its little flipper. The funny thing is that they perch themselves on top of other turtles, some perfectly centred - a little turtle podium - and others half-on, half-under others, some bigger, some very small, like a messy cheerleading pyramid. And every once in a while one would fall off a log. That killed a good 20 minutes of my 2-hour wait for the train.

(In Seville)

I don't know why this is, but I always, always turn the wrong way at the very first. I had an extremely hard time navigating my way to the hostel. But the best part was, after finally finding the hostel office and paying and getting the keys, they handed me a map and told to go find the pensione. Like, away from here. The very hostel that took me nearly an hour to find. The people at the front desk just waved vaguely to the left, so off to the left I went. Of course, it wasn't just "to the left" and the map they gave me was illegible (if you're going to print a web map, please check your resolution!) and the handy map I had downloaded to my iPod? The very street I needed to find, I realized later, was mislabeled as FIXME. Amazing!

The buildings in Seville are very ornate!

Anyway, I did finally find the room - lovely tilework, dimensions of a minumum-security prison cell - and went out into the night to eat Sevillian tapas. I was lucky to stumble across this fantastic little restaurant called Bar Europa. I figured that if a place has award-winning tapas, you should probably try them, and the Iberian ham croquettes, deer stew with apples, and hake with champagne sauce did not disappoint! Hello Seville!

Amazing tapas at Bar Europa

Travel Diary - Days Sixteen and Seventeen: Bilbao

Recently I flew home from a 24-day solo trip to Lisbon, Porto, Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Seville, and Lisbon again. If you like, you can start from the beginning here.

Days Sixteen & Seventeen: Bilbao

After a quick and dirty bus trip through the rain & countryside, I got myself to Bilbao. It's not a beautiful city in the typical sense, and it's interesting how there's quite a mix of modern buildings in amongst the old. My hotel is also in an area that doesn't inspire me with confidence: A walk down the street took me through groups of young guys just standing around next to groups of policemen just standing around. Hm.

The old part of the city, however, is great, and I've actually had more interesting tapas here than in San Sebastian. Now, maybe I just didn't know where to go back there, but here at Berton, Cafe Bar Bilbao, and most of the places in Plaza Nueva have been interesting mixes of flavours, and very, very delicious.

Plaza Nueva

(Next Day)

I made it to the Guggenheim today, and it's actually smaller than I had imagined. The facade is just as amazing as I had hoped; the architecture in and out is fascinating. They have three good floors of exhibits that are far-reaching: a special exhibit of Dutch painting from the 1600s, contemporary photography, and selections from the Guggenheim collection which include paintings from the 50s and 60s (Rothko, Rauschenberg, Warhol, etc.). Just enough to see without feeling overtired, or bored, but just enough to justify the entry price.

The Guggie

But oh! The Guggenheim restaurant amazed me. I was lucky to get one of the last seats for their lunch bistro set menu, and it was by far the best 19 Euros I've spent: eggplant like I've never tasted eggplant, cod balls (descriptive, not anatomical) in some tomato or red pepper sauce, and orange creme caramel with some kind of orange foam. And I love the practice of opening the bottle of wine and just leaving it on the table. I'm trying not to abuse that privilege.

So, after floating out of that restaurant I moseyed over to the Museo des Belles Artes (free!) and saw some really fantastic Spanish painting from the 17th c. and later. Also an exhibit of Rouault - whom I had never heard of - but his colours, his fascination with pierrots and his Miserere series were all really eye-catching.


After the art galleries I headed back into the old part of town, and to my complete surprise I got good at ordering pintxos! It all started to make sense. My transactional Spanish didn't make the servers cringe or look at me sideways and blink. Although it might have been healthier for me when I was inept, as I wolfed down more pintxos than I should have, and went to bed dreaming of things only an over-full stomach can conjure.

I joined Monday Artday!

My interpretation of Automat by Edward Hopper

Not that I need more excuses to doodle and play around, but I recently joined the blog Monday Artday. It's similar in a way to Illustration Friday - you are given a challenge each week - but you here you have two weeks to complete it. And, unlike Illustration Friday, the challenges aren't always words. This week's challenge, for instance, was to remake a famous piece of art.

I've liked Edward Hopper for a long time - is it the melancholy? the existential big-city-ism? the colours? - so it was a lot of fun to recreate something in his style. And although I don't own anything quite like that beautiful cloche, I can sort of see myself in this one.

Travel Diary - Days Fourteen and Fifteen - San Sebastian

Recently I flew home from a 24-day solo trip to Lisbon, Porto, Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Seville, and Lisbon again. If you like, you can start from the beginning here.

San Sebastian

I can't see much of the countryside this morning; at seven am the fog has not yet lifted. There was a short period at the beginning of the trip where we were zipping through mountain tunnels and POP - we'd emerge and there'd be this small cluster of houses perched on the side of the hill like so many mountain goats and then POP - we'd be back in the blackness of the tunnelpass. This happened two or three times in quick succession, and it reminded me of changing slides on a Viewmaster: click, mountain, click, black. I suppose that's dating myself.

My room in Plaza de la Constitucion

There's no better word for it: San Sebastian is lovely. It's on water, it's small (130,000), it has buildings that would be at home on any street in Paris, but you can walk across the city in an hour. I spent what I call the 'dead hours' - between 4 - 8pm, when I'm too tired to keep walking but it's much too early to eat (the restaurants are in fact closed) - in my bright little room overlooking Plaza de la Constitucion. The helpful historical plaque tells me that bullfights were once held in the square, and the balconies that ring it would be sold as prime viewing places. Their numbers are still there, though probably touched up regularly for the tourists. Mine is 116. I opened my shutters and sat barefoot on the tile, face upturned to recharge in the sun.


Napping was a terrible idea. I dragged myself out of bed at 9pm and very unwillingly got dressed for dinner. But my mood was brightened considerably by the delicious pintxos I picked, and the txacoli too, a sort of citrus-y light sparkling wine that they pour, holding the bottle at head height and let fall through the air into the glass.

(Next day)

Jellyfish at the Aquarium

This morning I stuck my feet into the Bay of Biscay (oh, cold!). I also saw the aquarium and loved that scuba-men and -women were busy vacuuming the tanks. Scuba men have chores, too, apparently. Then I clambered up Monte Urgell to the castle and the
giant statue of Christ at the top. Being so close to the ocean is truly marvelous and I often feel like I could just stare at the waves for hours. I could see myself coming here for a length of time to draw and paint. Places like Barcelona or Paris have almost too many distractions, but here I don't think there would be. Just the water, sand, and endless amounts of finger food. (Perfect!)

View from the castle on Monte Urgell

(That night)
Well I had a bit of a magical evening.
At first, far away, I heard loud, rhythmic booms echoing around the stones, and so of course I started walking towards the noise.
The men of the town (and a very small number of women) were out in the nooks and crannies of the town, practicing their drumming for the Festival of San Sebastian. A man holding a curved sword stood in the centre of the ring and conducted the drummers with specific cues: downward thrust = BOOM, sword held sideways = rat-a-tat-tat. The next group I found was inside the gates of a church, and these folks had the brass and woodwind band with them. Middle-aged men as well as boys no older than eight were keeping perfect time. I was sad to know that I was missing the festival itself, but this was an unexpected and delightful behind-the-scenes peek.

Oh, then - deciding I had had enough pintxos for one day - I walked into an empty restaurant and had a truly wonderful meal. I have no idea why this restaurant wasn't packed - the goat cheese, honey & pine nut salad plus the tenderest lamb and these bread squares soaked in sweet milk and caramelized...oh, oh, oh, Yes.

Tonight - stuffed and happy. Tomorrow - off to Bilbao!

Playa de la Concha at night

Travel Diary - Day Thirteen

Recently I flew home from a 24-day solo trip to Lisbon, Porto, Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Seville, and Lisbon again. If you like, you can start from the beginning here.

Day Thirteen - Final Day in Barcelona

It will be a bit sad saying goodbye to the comfortable apartment in Barcelona, but I'm also ready to move on. I would have liked to try more restaurants and bars, but I'm starting to get a bit money-conscious and it's not a heck of a lot of fun drinking at a bar by myself. There have been a few moments where I've thought how, with nothing to do, a life of leisure might just drain you. With every opportunity open to you - money the only object - how quickly you might get bored. Is that crazy?

Before I left on the trip, I was given the name of a restaurant in Barcelona - La Crema Canela - that I absolutely had to try, and I've saved it for my final lunch here. And it was definitely, definitely worth it. Inside, the restaurant is small, cozy, and a bit of a white-and-glass accented oasis. I luxuriated in their tomato & fresh mozzarella salad, grilled tuna, and a rich dessert of two small cakes.

I now just have a few small errands to run before my five-hour train trip north tomorrow towards more food, more sea (er, ocean I guess, technically) and more adventure!

Magazine Cover Illustration

I was so thrilled to receive copies of the January 2011 issue Her Nashville Magazine - with my illustration on the cover! It was a very exciting project, and I had a great time working with the magazine's art director on the concept.

Illustration Friday: Layer

My take on this week's topic. I imagined a complex, multi-layered piece of music and went from there...

Travel Diary - Day Twelve

Recently I flew home from a 24-day solo trip to Lisbon, Porto, Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Seville, and Lisbon again. If you like, you can start from the beginning here.

Day Twelve - Barcelona - Half-way Point

(Baguette with chorizo and cheese)

I'm waiting for Ricardo to come home and show me how to use the laundry - I may zip out for a cafe con leche if he doesn't come soon - and I'm trying to decide how to spend my last two days here. I'm at that delicious / precarious point with the city where I don't feel pressure to go and see The Big Sights (cause I seen 'em) so I could just laze around eating bonbons, but precarious because the last thing I want to have happen is for me to get bored in this beautiful city.
(Herzog & De Meuron Forum Building)

Things that have made me smile today: the sun on my face as I sat down by the sea and drew people having their morning espressos. The big, big, big triangular building in the midst of an empty plaza. The man next to me on the metro who blew up a balloon and gave it to a fussy child. And then, anticipating its popping in the near future, gave the child's caregiver another balloon as emergency backup.
The two guys popping and locking in the CCCB plaza, watching their reflections in the building's glass. Realizing that the squeaking installation hanging over the same courtyard was in fact a maze in the sky.

(Courtyard of the CCCB)


Tonight's search for dinner led me half-way up a mountain and back down, both emotionally and physically. Ricardo gave me the name of his favourite tapas place in the city, but when I finally got there (I turned the wrong way three times) the gentleman behind the bar didn't speak English and my Spanish was not good enough. I tried to ask for a beer; he tried to ask for my reservation. He pointed at the room of empty tables (oh, the Spanish eat so late!) and said they were full. And so I left.

(Montjuic at night - Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya and its "Magic Fountain")

Two hours later (up and down the escalators of Montjuic and back to the Gothic quarter) I settled on a place that catered more to the English tourist, and the salty, oily tapas only partially satisfied.

Even octopus Galacian-style and sauteed mushrooms didn't really assuage my feeling of personal failure. The cinnamon milk fritters I had for dessert, however - delicate milk custard oh-so-lightly battered, deep-fried, and dusted with salt and cinnamon - were quite a bit more successful...

Travel Diary - Day Eleven and Twelve

Recently I flew home from a 24-day solo trip to Lisbon, Porto, Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Seville, and Lisbon again. If you like, you can start from the beginning here.

Day Eleven and Twelve - Barcelona

This morning I started a little later and slower in pace than usual, wandering in and out of stores and markets in the La Ribera neighbourhood of Barcelona. Finally made it to MACBA, but while the permanent collection was great (a few John Cages! a few Duchamp illustrations!) the temporary exhibits didn't float my boat. There was one by a prolific artist whose name I have forgotten already (darn my leaky memory) that suffered the same fate as the Miro yesterday. He had inked on paper some truly marvelous little people-things, hundreds and hundreds of them scattered across the plane like so many ants dancing. And not just paper, but giant sheets of corrugated cardboard and canvas. But he did so many. How can the impact remain when you're seeing his 50th, his 70th drawing in a row? Perhaps it was in fact the cumulative effect the curators were going for.

Front Atrium in the MACBA

I ended my day with a trip to the aquarium (my brother texts his approval with the linguistically correct "I like aquaria too") and fantastic movator trip through their shark tunnel. Then home for an early supper and bed. I'm really taking it easy now. But I dreamed that for some unknown reason I cut my trip short and went home, and right in the middle of feeling supremely disappointed and sad, saying I don't know why I went home early, I woke up. A complicated but very effective way of making me appreciate how much time I still have here.

Shark tunnel movator!

Day Twelve began with another unwisely epic walk. Started up at the Hospital de Sant Pau, which is a beautiful complex of modernist buildings which are - surprise, surprise - under renovations and subsequently closed to the public. Then, meandered down back around La Sagrada Familia. "I'll look at the park that I missed" I thought. No, under construction, barrier-ed off. But eventually went along Diagonal and found a few more Gaudi houses and slipped into the Fondacio Antoni Tapies. I fell in love with this Spanish painter and his organic, earth-coloured canvases every time I saw his work in the larger galleries, and so a whole museum devoted to his art was such a treat.

I realized that on this trip I will have an opportunity to stick my feet into the waters on all 3 sides of the Iberian peninsula, so after FIVE pieces of tapas (whoops!) and a cafe con leche at the beautiful but run-down Placa Reial I went back down to the beach near me and stood in the surf. Fantastic.

Then, Ricardo gave me the name of a good seafood place called La Paradeta, behind the (closed) Mercat del Born and oh my goodness am I ever thankful. (In fact, I just remembered that I thanked him in a dream, too). I would never have gone in if I hadn't known about it, it's so unassuming from the streets, but you walk in and are immediately confronted with all. this. seafood.

You tell the guy what you want, and how much of it you want, and how you'd like it cooked. Then you pay, you get your number, bread, and wine, and you wait for the kitchen to call you up. And because different seafood obviously cooks at different rates, you might get called up a few times. I had an oyster (fresh), shrimp (grilled), what I can only describe as a small lobster (steamed) and, uh, sea snails? (?) I only know that when I saw them in their bowl at the front, I had no idea what they were. And so, I thought, "I'll have those."
I came home smelling of garlic and butter. And so, so happy.