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Tilting at Ice-Cream Cones – Four travel essays

May 18, 2011
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A voyage to the land of flamenco, paella, sangria, Gaudi and ‘Guernica’

Antoni Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

For 17 days my partner Leola and I visited the fine architectural monuments of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, were awed by Pablo Picasso’s stunning mural “Guernica” in Madrid, applauded as young flamenco dancers strutted across the small stage at the capital city’s Villa Rosa taberna, and gobbled up as many plates of paella as possible all of them washed down with copious quantities of sangria.

We didn’t really ‘tilt’ at any windmills, as Cervantes’ famous character Don Quixote did in that wonderful classic of Spanish and world literature. But we did tilt our tongues into more than a few delicious ice-cream (helado) cones while tramping around some of Spain’s wonderful land- and cityscapes in early May 2011.

We were fortunate to have friends living in the little seaside resort town of Sitges, a 30-minute train ride south of Barcelona, and they kindly allowed us to use their “atico” suite in a low-rise building that just happened to overlook the Mediterranean Sea. Yes, life is tough sometimes but we managed to get up each morning, make strong cups of Cuban coffee and watch the fishing boats bob in the surf below us. Living the dream if only for a few moments.

All in all it was a fabulous visit and an educational one. I was particularly interested in researching the role of the 1,700 Canadians – most of them in the famed Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion – who fought in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). The quest took us to the little town of Brunete about 30 km west of Madrid.

The four travel essays below offer some impressions of what we saw, the people we met and the things we learned as we travelled through parts of the Iberian Peninsula, with the help of a cranky bus driver, an Argentinean B&B host, an octgenarian and an obnoxious conductor on an overnight train.

At the Villa Rosa – The passionate flamenco is free at this tiny Madrid taverna

Young flamenco dancer struts and sweats at the Villa Rosa.

Flamenco might tangle with tango for the world prize as most passionate dance but in Spain flamenco is king and at the Villa Rosa tavern in downtown Madrid the dancers strut across the tiny stage like unique members of the royal family of dance. But there would be no official royalty in the Villa Rosa crowd the night we visited or on any other night. It was just us tourists mixing with ordinary Madrilenos who’d rather see flamenco’s passion at street level where the people live than in the fancy nightclubs of high society Madrid or Barcelona.

Flamenco at the Villa Rosa

The Battle of Brunete – Memories run deep in this town destroyed by Civil War

Brunete mayor showing me battle scenes.

Our bed and breakfast host looked puzzled when I asked for instructions on how to get from Madrid to Brunete, one of the Spanish towns that had been hit early and hard during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. The plan was to search for evidence of the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, a group of about 1,700 volunteers that had joined the leftist Republican forces to fight fascism. “Brunete?” The good-natured Argentinean transplant questioned us scratching his greying head. “Never heard of it.”

Battle of Brunete

Gaudified in Barcelona – Modernista architect seeps through nooks and crannies of Catalan capital

Gaudi's La Pedrera with Sagrada in distance.

In the downtown heart of Barcelona, Spain, a strange looking multi-tentacled organic presence emerges from the earth like some fantastical monster from a James Cameron movie. Indeed, it is a sight befitting a scene from Alien or Avatar. But wait. It isn’t a monster, it’s a building. I’m referring to Barcelona’s most unforgettable landmark, the forever incomplete Sagrada Familia (literally church of the sacred family).

Gaudified in Barcelona

Midnight train out of Madrid – Travelling where Canadians shed blood to fight fascism

Quixote, Panza and a little girl

We were startled awake by someone throwing open the door of our six-seat compartment. He wrenched back the curtains letting in the dim light from the hallway. “Make room,” the conductor seemed to say. “Another passenger is getting on here. Needs a seat,” he must have added. We had no clue where we were except that it was somewhere between Madrid and Barcelona on a nine-hour overnight journey through once contested territory.

Midnight train out of Madrid

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