Izabel and I just came back from a 3-week trip to Spain. It was our first time there, despite having been to Portugal and France a few times. Here are a few of my impressions and curious facts I learned there.
But first, the full itinerary on this Google Maps (click to open map):
Quite a long journey, no?
Okay, so what was the purpose of this trip? Fun, pure and simple. Ah, and yes, learn more about the history of this fascinating country. My hidden agenda, of course was to discover new grapes -- new wines, new wineries and to try new food.
First, six days in wonderful Barcelona. Here I re-discovered how weak my knowledge of history was. I always assumed that all these dead painters (PIcasso, Dali, da Vinci, Van Gough, etc) were all contemporary. Well, not exactly. I never assumed they lived in the same period of time or place. But my brain never made much distinction as to how far back they lived. I always assumed a somewhat binary distribution: "a long time ago" and "somewhat recently". And the thing is, I assumed Picasso and Dali (as well as important architects like Gaudi) lived "a heck of a long time ago".
I was dead wrong!
Turns out Picasso died in 1970! Wow. My dad could have been friends with him. When we put things in this kind of context, things changed in my head tremendously. Gaudi died in 1926. My grandfather could've been best friends with him! And, of course, to complete the illumination of my ignorance of art history, Salvador Dali died in 1989! *I* could have known him!
Don't mock me for being such an ignorant. I had no real reason to ever know these facts. And even if I had been told in school about this (I probably was told about it at some point), what difference would it have made? None until I got to experience their art first hand. And I did, and I'm glad I did. Now history is not so binary anymore! Phew, what a relief. My brain just decompressed a large part of art history that was buried there somewhere. :-)
Picasso is an awesome painter
In terms of appreciation of art, I never really enjoyed Picasso's famous latest paintings much (all cubist in form). I always assumed (again, my ignorant assumptions at play here) that he was just some crazy dude who decided that cubes and triangles were art simply because he couldn't paint any better. Well, turns out I was wrong about that too. While I don't find cubism per se very attractive as art, I now respect it a lot more after discovering it's not an easy thing to draw and it wasn't like he started with that. He evolved into it. From marvelous paintings, like this early one, called Ciencia y Caridad (Science and Charity), 1897.
Also, in Barcelona, it's worth visiting all of Gaudi's famous buildings, such as Casa Batllo and La Sagrada Familia, among others.
And, of course, if you're like me, you need to stop at the Borsa to check how your shares of Telefonica are doing (answer: not so well).
Figueres and Salvador Dali
Next stop was Figueres, home of the Dali museum. The city doesn't have much special, but turns out that Dali was much more than a painter: he was an sculptor and builder of art in general. I was truly impressed by his versatility and creativity. I'd like to think that if I were an artist I would be more like Dali than like Raphael. Well, with my interest in science I'd like to think I'd be more like da Vinci really, who was a scientist/inventor/artist. But Dali was just really impressive and I highly recommend a visit to the Museum in Figueres.
I don't have a lot of good pictures to share here, but let me just share a few, like this space where he built a sort of stage with a car that rains inside.
The whole museum is interactive and an attraction in an of itself, like the reproduction of this image in a big room with human-scale objects.
Driving, Traffic and Safety
Traffic in Spain is a lot better than what I had anticipated. Being a latin culture, I was expecting the usual hot-blooded drivers on the road with a penchant for disobeying the rules here and there. Instead, I found it quite the opposite. Pretty much every driver respects what you'd expect they should: red lights, stop signs and crosswalks. Nice surprise.
I was also impressed that on the highways in Spain left lane means passing -- as it should. Having been driving in California for a while, we are forced to forget that not all lanes are equal. Left is for fast traffic and passing only. But in California at least, that's nothing more than a suggestion. And a weak one at most. Here everyone drives at the speed they want on any lane they want and pass on whatever side they prefer. Not so in Spain. I was so impressed when a car on a three-lane highway moved from the very right to the very left to pass a car that was driving slower in the center lane. The driver simply refused to pass someone on their right side. After passing, he proceeded to move back to the far right, since there were no more cars to pass. The driver going on the center lane noticed his mistake and moved to the right as he should. Bravo!
I was also positively impressed with how little enforcing there was. In 2 weeks of driving almost daily on highways, I saw one police vehicle only. Everyone respects the speed limit to some extent -- typically, most drivers will go 10-15% above the limit, but not much more. I'm not sure if Spaniards are seriously law-abiding people or if they're afraid of the radars. I saw signs for the latter, but didn't notice any speed cameras and so far I haven't received any tickets. And it's certainly not a problem with their roads or their cars. Everything I saw was in pristine conditions -- roads are well maintained and I hardly ever saw old clunkers driving around.
As for personal safety on the streets, I didn't notice anything. Lots of people warned me that some areas in Barcelona wouldn't be safe at night or that I should watch where I leave my belongings. I had zero problems with anyone trying to take anything from me. Of course, having been schooled in Brazil I know how to not be a patsy. But still, concerns for personal safety in cities like Barcelona, Madrid and Seville are overblown. And as with roads, police was hardly ever seen on the streets.
Overall, Spain gets lots of points for not overusing police force to achieve civilized behavior, both on the streets and on the roads.
Time to talk about one of my favorite activities. Spain had a lot of good choices here. But first, a few definitions. Curiously, I now know the difference between tapa and pintxo (or pincho). The former means any kind of small-sized, appetizer-style kind of food, while the latter is almost the same, except it's for stuff that comes on a stick (such as small nuggets of chicken on a stick). And a montadito is a particular type of tapa that comes on top of a slice of bread -- hence the name "montadito", which means "mounted". And, of course, there's the Jamon Iberico, which is a kind of ham similar to a Prosciutto (experts might say they are totally different things and they might be right, but most people wouldn't know the difference if they tasted both blindly). In all towns we visited, all these foods were available almost everywhere.
Spanish people are so fond of jamon they even have their very own Jamon-flavored Pringles.
All of the new food we tried was pretty good. We sampled everything new we could find. Surprisingly, we were a bit disappointed with the paella in Barcelona. But that was our own fault, since we stopped at a tourist trap at Las Ramblas. The same was true in Madrid: in spots where lots of tourists hang out, the quality goes down and prices go up. So, it's worthwhile to walk more and look up recommendations online before heading out to the most obvious places.
Interestingly, Spain, like Brazil, can be a hard place for a vegetarian to find suitable food. That wasn't a problem for us, but sometimes I meant to go meatless for a day (or even a meal) and found it very difficult. I don't have a photo to illustrate this, sadly, but in one restaurant I couldn't stop laughing when I saw that the only three options for salad were: ham, chicken and veal. No kidding, options were literally "ensalada de jamon", "ensalada de pollo", etc.
I also find it tricky to avoid gluten in Spain (I've been on a mostly gluten free diet for almost two years now -- only occasionally eating gluten once a week if I feel I must). Most tapas in Spain contain bread or something that is breaded and deep fried. Moreover, bread comes to the table default, without asking. And is usually charged, which I find a little bit unethical. That's also the case in Brazil. My rant with this is the following: if you bring to the table without my asking, don't charge for it. In some places they would charge even if we didn't eat it, which I found even more disturbing. But, anyway, I also learned quickly to say "... y no queremos pan, por favor".
Still talking about bread, one disappointing absence when bread is brought to the table is their delicious olive oil. Why would a country produce such amazing olive oils but most restaurants don't bring the default bread with some of it? Who wants to eat a dry bread by itself? Maybe the bread is meant to wipe the plate clean after eating your meal. But then why bring the bread right as I sit down, even before I order my dish? Just bring the olive oil too!
Fish is really popular in Spain, which is great. Sardines, anchovies and of course, bacalao (cod fish) are common staples. Cod fish is particularly common and there are lots of interesting dishes made with it. I was looking forward to trying their bonuelo de bacalao, which is a type of a deep fried batter made with cod fish. An appetizer. Very common in Portugal and also in Brazil. We tried maybe 4 or 5 different restaurants in different towns and they were good, but typically didn't match our high expectations. The portuguese and brazilian ones are much better, in my opinion (in Portugal they're called pasteis de bacalhau while in Brazil the same thing is called bolinho de bacalhau).
A great restaurant not to be missed in Madrid is Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world. It was founded some 300 years ago and is still in operation in the same place. After so many centuries in operation, you can bet they know a thing or two about cooking. The interesting thing is that their physical location is really old and it has been expanded a bit and so one of their dining rooms is adjacent to the kitchen. In order to dine in it you have to walk through the kitchen. Very exciting to see all the action going on while they prepared a great cordero asado.
I think the most remarkable meal we had during this entire trip was at a most unexpected place: Toledo. Unexpected because that's a very touristic town one hour south of Madrid. So we were expecting the usual cookie-cutter menu tailored to tourists (and priced likewise). Luckily for us, we got an unexpected recommendation at a winery we stopped on the way to Toledo. They told us about this little place that is mostly hidden from tourists and has a very small seating space (maybe 7 or 8 tables only). It's a place called Locum. The service there was amazing. In fact, they even got the bread part right: brought to the table with olive oil and they didn't charge for it. They also had a small appetizer after the salad part, a digestive pre-dessert type of thing and a post-dessert dessert. But none of that would have mattered if the food wasn't amazing. And it was. Fish eggs appetizer, ox tail with cauliflower sauce, bacalao, lava cake and hot-filled mazapan cake and a post-dessert made with peaches (melocoton).
Too bad that day I only had a glass of the house wine instead of choosing a nice bottle.
Speaking of wine, time to switch gears and talk about the amazing Spanish wines. But let's start with the sangria.
Sangria in Spain (its original birthplace) is slightly different than the ones I've seen before. I contains fewer fruits (if at all anything but lemon) and is mostly mixed with lemon juice. That's right, not a fruit salad, but mostly a lemony taste with maybe a few pieces of fruit floating around. I found it quite refreshing.
Now, regarding wine, I had some pretty good bottles. But out of everything I tried, I was mostly impressed with a little winery we discovered via online recommendations called Capafons-Osso. It's so good I talked about it on Google+ a while back. It's a family-owned vineyard in the heard of the Priorat region. It's located in a town called Falset. The current owner is Francisco (who goes by Francis). He hosted us in his cellar and had a few glasses with us. Everything was phenomenal. I even became an instant fan of their whites, which is not something that interests me that much usually. They grow vines in the Priorat region as well as in Montsant, which is the region around Priorat that almost completely engulfs it (Priorat is thus a more specific part of the Montsant region).
The priorat region has rocky soil and steep mountains, which makes harvesting grapes complicated. The rocky soil combined with the arid climate makes it very difficult for the grapes to grow, thus the low yields that are common in the area. However, the vines that do thrive are of excellent quality.
We even discovered some new grapes. Turns out besides the traditional Garnacha (Grenache) there's also a white one (Garnacha Blanca) and a funny other one call Garnacha Peluda (Hairy Grenache). Its skin is thick and, as the name says, hairy. It is a very tannic grapeand thus an excellent source of an extra kick to blend to the wine.
Extreme Heat: Cordoba, Seville, Madrid
Who would've thought that Spain is hotter than Brazil? It can be. We discovered it the hard way. No wonder Madrid was empty. We were told all locals move out in August and escape the scorching heat. Madrid wasn't even thaaat hot. Cordoba and Seville were by far the hottest, with Cordoba winning by a small margin. It hit 47 degrees Celsius at 7:47pm. Yep, that hot. And the air felt like an oven radiating from the sidewalk and up and sometimes from above when the wind was blowing. Very very hot and dry in most areas.
Barber of Seville
So, maybe I'm being a little infantile in being excited about this, but I had to visit the barber of Seville. No, it's not that I'm a big fan of the opera by the same name. But I simply used to love the Woody Woodpecker episode about it when I was little. The little red-haired fella goes into the barber shop and wrecks havoc in his usual style. So, I had to check out the barber in Seville too.
Turns out, I was expecting that there would be more mention of it, being such a classic. But other than one shop called "El Barbero de Sevilla", I found no other references to the famous opera in Seville. Anyway, I had a full beard at that point (it had grown by then) and the temperature was approaching that of the surface of the sun, so I had better remove some facial (and head!) hair. And so I did.
Viva el barbero de Sevilla!
Flip-Flops and Five Fingers
I was impressed at how popular the multi-decade-old brazilian flip-flops have become. The Havaianas, until maybe 10 or 15 years ago, used to be the cheapest flip-flops one could buy. And possibly the ugliest too. Now they're everywhere and they're pricey. I noticed them on very many tourists and even found stores selling them. Wow.
But perhaps one of my greatest surprises regarding footware was how unknown Vibram Five Fingers were. In the US they're pretty normal these days. I see them everywhere. And I wear them everywhere too! But in Spain, neither the Spaniards nor the tourists seemed familiar with them. I got many puzzled looks and even questions about it. At the Alhambra, in Granada, I had some fun watching tourists as they looked at my feet and told their friends secretly (unsuccessfully) to look at my feet too. In one occasion I noticed a woman looking at my feet and then she turned her back at me, right in front of me, and whispered something to her husband. Then, I see him looking at everyone's feet in search of something. When he found my feet, I could see the "a-ha" look on his face, followed by a "wtf?" look.
Then, just a few seconds later, another such occasion: a mother tells her little son, in Russian, something and he kid immediately looks at me. Hehehe. I never thought I'd be an attraction, especially when the competition is the almighty Alhambra! Or maybe it was my silly hat that had them puzzled.
Oh well, why conclude? This is just a brain dump of some of the amazing things we did, tried, saw, experimented, learned, drank or ate in Spain. It was quite an adventure. And I have to thank my wonderful wife for organizing this amazing trip. Even though she got tired of hearing me complain about all the walking, driving and the heat, I'm thankful we got to do and experience all of this. Thanks Izabel, I love you.
In the end, it really is true that what matters are the experiences and the friendships, not the things you buy. Besides photos and memories, we brought back only 5 bottles of wine and a small Christmas tree decoration. But the experiences and lessons learned will out live the purchases for sure. Anyone up for some Priorat? :-)
I recently took an interest in mobile app development. I've been "interested" for a while actually, but I've finally put the intention to practice and started building apps. First, at work, and now for fun.
I have a long list of ideas for tiny to small apps and maybe a half dozen ideas for medium-sized ones. Tiny and small apps I consider those that don't depend on a server at all. They just do something with the resources on the phone and don't require you to sign up anywhere, create accounts or upload data. The difference between tiny and small is their sizes in number of screens or functionality. Medium to large size ones are those that do rely on a service to work and may require user accounts and typically do more with this extra information.
With that in mind, I wrote my first tiny app: Social Limit. It's a simple one-screen app that warns you when your usage of social networks on your phone has exceeded some amount of time. You configure, say, no more than 30 minutes of social networking per day and the app will stay in the background and let you know how much total time you spend on these sites. It's a very light weight, non-intrusive app.
Right now, Social Limit supports Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus. It does not lock access to these, but just reminds you to log-off.
I have a lot of interest in these "reminder" apps. But I'm mostly interested in those that can help me change my behavior over time. Ideally I'd want to trigger the reminder based on some external event other than time or location. I want to be able to monitor body vitals such as heart rate, skin temperature, movement, etc and set alarms for certain situations. Imagine your phone could let you know when you're stressed out and should take a break or relax. Or, getting a reminder to standup if you've been sitting for too long or sit down if you've been standing for long (or walking). For a while I used an app to remind me to drink water hourly, when I was recovering from kidney stones. Now I drink water hourly anyway.
All these are very interesting. And they're not new ideas. I've seen some apps doing these things I mentioned and sensors that plug in to phones. But I haven't yet found the ideal app. They don't have a combination of features I'm looking for. Maybe someone should write it. Maybe I should write it...
Anyway, just a brief note to talk about my renewed interest in mobile apps and wearable devices.
If you're interested in keeping your social netting in check, you can get Social Limit from the Android Play store, here.
I'm an entrepreneur and independent thinker with a passion for science, healthy living and eating, investing, wine, business and management. This is a collection of random thoughts, ideas, and ramblings about some of this stuff, but not limited to them. Read more.