In Part 3, Churches were once Mosques and Synagogues, Novelists pay homage to Spain’s bullfighters and castles, Tapas tantalizes and Flamenco fiery passions ignite.

Spain rolls out the welcome mat

Madrid was the last stop of our guided Odyssey Tour. For five of the 10 couples, our next stop was Barcelona, a three-day tour extension. Odyssey arranged our transportation to the airport from Madrid to Barcelona and had a local guide waiting to escort us to our final hotel. Transportation was also arranged to take us to the airport for our journey home.

Downtown Spain, where many buildings have sculptures decorating the skylines.

Where we stayed: Wellington Hotel, an old-world property near some of Spain’s luxury shopping. Many of the stores were brands popular in the United States, such as Tiffany or Benetton.
What we saw: Plaza Mayor, located in the heart of the city, and Palacio Real, a 2,800 room residence that was home to Bourbon kings from Charles III to Alfonso XIII. The palace today

Palacio Real, built for Charles III and where King Philip VI was married.

is used for state ceremonial occasions, such as the marriage 12 years ago of Philip VI, the current King. He took the throne after his father, Juan Carlos, abdicated. Some of what we saw, which are considered key elements of its grandeur, were the two-ton crystal chandelier, grand throne room and 140-seat banquet hall. The chandeliers are French style and all the tapestries in the Columns Room are sketches by Raphael. Charles IV collected pendulum clocks, which are situated throughout the palace. Large paintings by Goya mounted on one wall are of Charles IV and Ma Luisa of Parma, his wife.
Elena Gonzalez, our Odyssey Tour Director, led us to Rincon De La Cava, a restaurant rarely frequented by tourists. We entered into one of the most charming, old world-styled restaurants possible, with cubby-hole sized stone-walled rooms, vintage Spanish décor, and a winding narrow staircase that led to the bathrooms. When asked about the layout, we were told it had once been a jail

Rincon De La Cava restaurant, once held the dungeons.

and the winding staircase led to the dungeons. The tapas came family style. First time I’d ever had stir-fried baby green peppers, which were sweet and delicious. We feasted on traditional Spanish omelet and other delights. Just when we thought the meal must be over and our stomachs groaned, more wonderfully seasoned dishes appeared.
The world-acclaimed Prado Museum contains collections of Spanish, Flemish and Italian masters. Russ and others ventured on to two other nearby museums: the Reina Sofia, where Picasso’s famous painting “Guernica” hangs, and the Thysses-Borneisza museum. I was too exhausted to walk one more step and grabbed an easy-to-get taxi for an inexpensive ride back to the hotel. Had to rest up for our next big meal!

The Prado Museum

What we learned: like much of Europe and South America, people tend to eat dinner quite late. Siestas are around 4 pm. Stores and restaurants may be closed until roughly 7 pm, though many places don’t really offer dinner before 8 pm.
No matter where you are in Spain, sangria is the house special. Even if told it’s homemade, it may not be. Look for the amount of chopped fresh fruit floating in the top of the glass. Sometimes you can’t tell until you take that first sip. Once you have had rich, full flavored sangria or spot a lone orange slice laid on top, you will know when it’s a prepared mix.
No matter how fancy the hotel is, every breakfast buffet has runny scrambled eggs, partially-cooked bacon, varieties of breads, hams, cured sausages and cheeses. This is not to say breakfasts aren’t wonderful; just that the offerings are prolific so you can afford to be selective.
Unlike the trend in the U.S, I never saw Gluten Free symbols on menu items.
We also dined twice, because it was so fabulous, at Les Nostres Tapes, across the street and down a block from our hotel. The wine was spectacular. Glasses of robust, flavorful wine was under three euros for a hefty portion.
Barcelona is like a country unto itself. In fact, there is a movement to secede from Spain. Residents identify with being Catalan, not Spanish. They proudly speak Catalan and that is the language taught in schools. The European-styled city immediately feels and appears different from any other Spanish city we had thus far visited. For one thing, nowhere are there stone tiled streets and sidewalks. For another, Barcelona is home to the architectural eccentric genius of Antoni Gaudi’s four masterpieces: Sagrada Familia Church, Casa Milà (La Pedrera), Park Güell and Casa Gaudí Batlló. Barcelona is also the home of The Ramblas, one of the must-stroll-and visit areas, if for no more than to people-watch or pop into small shops and restaurants lining the streets that surround the miles-long walkable plaza.

La Pedrera, the last private residence designed by Gaudi.

Where we stayed: Hotel Avenida Palace, a 151-room luxury hotel in the midst of attractions, shops and amazing restaurants. This is a walkable city, though some of the Gaudi attractions will require a taxi ride.
What we saw: The Casa Milà, popularly known as La Pedrera or “open quarry”, references the unusual shape of the exterior. The Casa Milà was the last private residence Gaudi built. A 10-minute walk from our hotel.

Walking the rooftop of La Pedrera.

We booked a day tour, from 8:30 to 4 pm. After that you continued to explore on your own. Our proud Catalan guide took us walking through the city and on a provided bus to each of the Gaudi architectural icons. As this was peak season and these are prominent places-to-visit, a tour company simplified tickets and access.

Gaudi’s Casa Batillo attracts photographers and tourists.

Casa Batlló was also a walkable distance. Though a show-stopper for tourists, we were fortunate to return later in the day with the tour group. The building looks like it came out of a fairy tale, something a mad king may have built. Most of the façade is decorated with a colorful broken ceramic tiles in hues of blues. pinks and creams. The arched roof has been likened as the back of a dragon or dinosaur, but I thought it looked like a giant scaly fish trying to escape being hooked.

Soaring fantasy architecture inside the Sagrada Familia Church.

I could write a small book just on the Sagrada Familia Church. It looks like someone’s idea of an other-world futuristic palace. Multiple spires stretch skyward. On the exterior, religious figures are carved into the wall, including a few that became the inspiration for the storm troopers in “Star Wars” films. Inside, colored lights play like a disco dance across various sides of the wide cathedral. I can tell you it’s a phenomenon to behold, but you need to see it to believe that this was initially designed in 1882, redesigned in 1883 and worked on under Gaudi’s direction until his death in 1926. Even then, it was only a quarter-finished. The work continues today, following his designs.

Exterior sculptures at Sagrada Familia Church became the inspiration for the storm troopers in Star Wars films.

Natural light pours through stained glass windows at Sagrada Familia Church.

The legendary spires of the Sagrada Familia Church.

Park Güell is considered Gaudí’s outdoor modernist masterpiece. He designed it with Count Eusebi Güell, It was meant to become a luxury, serene subdivision for the elite to safely enjoy beauty, art, and a peaceful environmentally-welcoming area. Unfortunately, even while buildings were erected and a mosaic-tiled seating that winds around one plaza was built, Gaudi and Güell’s restrictions and pricing scared off potential residents. Güell’s family and Gaudi lived there, but no one else did.
The Ramblas is like being in the middle of the Coney Island Boardwalk on a hot day. There are sights, sounds and aromas that overload the senses. As an entertainer for corporate parties, I have seen many Living Statues, people who are usually painted all white or gray and remain still until they surprise you by moving. I’ve seen more elaborate ones, such as the Living Garden, a Greek Goddess-inspired figure who spritzes water from her fingertips as she moves gracefully. The living statues, who in this case are buskers posing for pictures and to collect tips, are far more detailed characters. A burnished copper Galileo sat on a stool next to his star-gazing telescope. Movie monsters perched on carved stone platforms, ready to scarily leap open-mouthed at camera-bearing teens.

Original multicolored mosaic tile remains on the curved seating wall of the plaza overlooking Park Güell

Don’t bother looking for public restrooms while strolling The Ramblas. We had just eaten at the point it was necessary for me to seek one and didn’t want to purchase food or drink we didn’t want or to wait in a long line to order. After much frustration of seeking a restroom, we ended up returning to our hotel.
Barcelona is considered the pickpocket capital of the world. We heard that repeatedly. My husband Russ had us well prepared, both for being observant and for not having any money or IDs anywhere they could be snatched. That is not to say several attempts weren’t made.
We learned on our trip to Patagonia (organized by Odyssey) to always have extra tissues or small, flattened rolls of toilet paper handy in a pocket. Handy wipes are great too. We found many situations in Patagonia and on this trip where neither toilet paper or soap was readily available. Hotels only provide (unless asked) one bar of soap. We were told that is because soap is only used for washing hands and shower gel is used for bathing.
Don’t trust street maps to be correct. Think of them as “ish.”
Many homeless people sleep on the streets or in a doorway, usually on a blanket. They always had a dog beside them, sometimes two.

Galileo living statue on The Ramblas.

When on The Ramblas, there are many unlicensed vendors whose wares are laid out on the walkable plaza floor. If you are spotted buying from them by a policeman, you are the one who will be in trouble.
Street corners are truncated. This gives the street a wider approach for turning buses, creates gathering places for people, and creates a nicer appearance than sharp angled corners.
We ate at two highly-recommended restaurants. What we didn’t realize are that both are owned by the same company. Ciudad Condal Rambla de Catalunya, was literally around the corner from our hotel. The tapas was wonderful enough that we returned. We also went to Cerveceria Catalana. After waiting nearly an hour to be seated, we ate well and left at 9:30 pm. The queue was down the block.

Russ and I at Park Guell

All photos are by Russell Wagner.
Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries.  She is an active member of ILEA and MPI and is now serving on the 2016 – 2017 MPI Global Advisory Board for The Meeting Professional Magazine for the second consecutive year. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. Karen writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, she has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events.;; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.

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