Mixing things up one afternoon, we drive out to the Penedes area not far outside of Barcelona as we heard it’s Catalonia’s wine region. In particular, this region is famous for producing cava, Spain’s famous sparkling wine. We learn that 95% of all cava is actually produced here.
We aren’t too sure what to expect, and when we arrive we find a beautiful, sleepy, unassuming little town with a giant chocolate factory (we obviously spend some time here) and a bunch of wineries. The wineries in town look small but established – when walking around, we find that the wine tasting culture of northern California is very different from that in Penedes. There are only a couple other couples we run into also doing some touring and tasting; otherwise, it’s a very quiet afternoon.
There are two highlights of our visit: 1) we find a winery, Vilarnau, outside of town on a hill that we aren’t sure is even open, but once we walk in and start chatting with one of the workers, he keeps encouraging us to taste different wines and even gives us a tour of their wine cave. And 2) we take a tour of one of the wineries in town called Recaredo. We quickly learn that there are multiple levels of caves underground full of wine bottles of different vintages and in different stages of the fermentation process. When we come back out of the cave we find ourselves in an entirely different block of the town. A true a-ha moment comes when we put together that cava means “cave”.
One specific Christmas tradition leaves us a little
confused, intrigued, and tickled all at once.
Apparently, there exists in Catalan mythology a character named Tio
Nadal. Tio for short is a log with a
face on it often propped up by sticks like the picture below, which we
photographed in a tapas bar.
Starting on December 8th with the Feast of the
Immaculate Conception, kids feed the tio a little bit every night. Some even cover him with a blanket so he
doesn’t get cold. Then, in the days preceding
Christmas, kids must take better and better care of the log to make sure that
it will poop, yes defecate, many presents on Christmas. Even stranger, to make it poop when the day
comes, kids often beat the tio with sticks singing all sorts of hilarious songs. It’s their version of Santa.
We’re off on another day trip in our rental car. First stop: Girona. We heard good things, but we had no real idea of its history. First, there were the Romans, then the Visigoths, then the Moors, and then finally a Catalonian county starting in the 8th century. One part of the old city that was particularly interesting to us was the old Jewish Quarter. It may be the best-preserved Jewish quarter in all of Europe. A Jewish community had lived there until late 1400’s when the Catholic Monarchs gave Jews the choice to convert or leave. The other highlight of Girona for us is the churro guy – freshly deep-fried churros sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar makes for a wonderfully warm snack on a chilly morning.
Not far from Girona, we continue on to Figueres, birthplace and now resting place of Salvador Dali. There, Dali built a very eccentric museum to house much of his art. In his words: “I want my museum to be a single block, a labyrinth, a great surrealist object. It will be a totally theatrical museum. The people who come to see it will leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream.” We may have experienced that sensation, but we definitely left feeling that Dali was a weird, eccentric, egotistical artist. Quote from Lindsey: “this guy’s nuts!”
On a different day, but related because he’s another famous artist who spent some time in Catalonia, we visit the famous Picasso Museum in Barcelona. Along with enjoying one of the most extensive collections of his art anywhere in the world, we also enjoy learning a little more about him through listening to the fictional novel Cooking for Picasso in the car as we drive around Catalonia. The book really paints a picture (pun intended) of how the artist had many mistresses in addition to his wives. He was married twice and had four children by three women, or at least officially. The book may suggest otherwise :).
When the New Year arrives, the tradition is to eat twelve grapes synchronized exactly with the twelve dongs of the church bells. Turns out it’s a lot harder than it sounds and is very funny to take part in! They say you’ll be blessed with good luck the following year.
Taking a step back, we begin the night by exploring the equivalent of Barcelona’s time square where they have a midnight-dropping ball and all. We then venture to a festive tapas place called Paco Meralgo, where they turn the atmosphere into a bit of party come midnight handing out 12 grapes along with a goody bag of silly toys.
As part of our stay in Barcelona, we rent a car to explore some of the nearby sites. The first one on the list, Montserrat, surprises us in many ways. The first is weather – we’re completely submerged in a cloud until about 100m away from the Benedictine Abbey near the top of the mountain when we actually find ourselves above those clouds. We finally find parking, step outside our car, and realize we probably should’ve packed another layer. Luckily, we both had sweaters and warm jackets, but even that was barely enough as the temperatures were below freezing.
The second surprise was how much Catalonia history was packed into this small abbey. Serrat is in fact a Catalan word meaning “serrated”, which refers to the outline of the mountain we’ve climbed. And it is Catalonia’s most important religious location, first built in the 11th century and then again in the 20th. It is still functioning today.
The third surprise is when we learn of the artists featured in the connected museum, we hadn’t expected to find works by Caravaggio, Picasso, Dali, Monet, Degas, and many other greats!
Onwards to Barcelona. We start our time in Barcelona by learning about its history through architecture. At the time of the Industrial Revolution, Barcelona really takes off, and as part of the expansion created by the rush of people to cities, Modernist architects such as Antoni Gaudi get their chance to shine. Our guided tour throughout the city helps us appreciate these unique and beautiful buildings.
One building in particular, the Sagrada Familia, was very impressive not only in its grandeur, sculpture, stained-glass windows, attention to detail, but also for the fact that it began in the late 1800s and is still being built today. During these 150 years, there was one major hiccup in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War when Gaudi’s original plans, drawings and models were all destroyed. Although Gaudi had already passed away, many of the other architects and builders were able to at least piece most of his original vision back together. But many believe that Gaudi would have also fully approved of the building evolving over time as long as the original intent and vision remains intact.
I had the chance to visit this basilica back in 2010 and it was incredible to see the progress that has been made since. In the pictures below, I’ve included the old next to the new to appreciate how much grander the site has become. And now, our guide was saying that the Sagrada is predicted to be completed by 2026 to mark the 100 year anniversary of Gaudi’s death. Although there’s still about 25% of the work remaining, because of new technologies plus an influx in funding from all of the ticket sales of visitors coming to witness the site, it may only be another 6 years.
After Mdina, a tiny town of 300 people that completely empties every night around 5pm, Valletta feels like a true metropolis (kinda). There are restaurants and bars, shops that stay open late, theaters, and seemingly hordes of people.
Stomachs still full a couple days later from our Christmas dinner, early breakfast, regular breakfast and lunch, we find a small wine bar named Trabuxu serving snacks for tonight’s dinner. The wine is great, the local cheese peppery, and the service accommodating enough for Lindsey to find things to eat that are neither alcoholic nor unpasteurized. We sit outside on a little stoop people watching as we enjoy our light-ish meal.
Our first full day in Valletta is definitely full. We start with a hotel breakfast followed by a wonderfully orienting tour of the old city. The guide helps us continue to piece together many parts of Malta’s history through the different kingdoms that once ruled. But two of the highlights extended beyond just listening to the stories but actually touching and witnessing them.
What better way to touch history than turn the pages of a 400 year book! Lindsey and I both look at each other a couple times before building up the courage to turn one of these ancient pages. One of the books we flip through contains the history of Malta, another was handwritten and has interspersed little drawings. The Valetta Library holds works dating as far back as 1100, but don’t worry, that one was well protected and far out of our hands.
We next get to witness a bit of history as we enter a 5th-generation gilder’s studio. The pride he takes in his work has likely only grown through the generations. He is in the process of making a Maltese clock for his daughter’s recent wedding gift and he explains the process of how the gold is gilded onto the frame. Each smaller-than-one-millimeter thick square of gold is several Euros, and the clock he’s in the middle of building could reach up to 10,000 Euros. He uses all traditional methods including natural glues made from animals. The only new technology that he’s incorporated into his practice is that of air conditioning – this allows him to work year around even during the humid months.
We round out our day of touring by going to an ornate theater in the middle of town where they’re currently performing a very silly rendition of the Little Mermaid. These satirical plays, full of their British humor, are an end-of-year tradition. Otherwise, the theater typically is home to a bit more serious material. That said, it’s wonderful to see all of the locals performing and their families in the audience cheering them on. When surrounded by so many tourists around town, it was wonderful to see this strong local community as well.
Although Valletta does not charm us as much as Mdina did, it did give us an even greater appreciation for the history of the island. Every site we visit from Fort St. Angelo to St. John’s Cathedral which houses the largest Caravaggio to the Barrakka Gardens all reinforce that so much has happened on such a small piece of land.
Leading up to and throughout our visit, I’ve been enjoying The Sword and the Scimitar, a book by David Ball that captures through a tale of historical fiction the period when the Order of the Knights of St. John ruled on the island. Many of the names that appear in the book are also said aloud by our tour guide and in many of the museums we walk through. Although at times a little violent, the book was a very entertaining way to learn a piece of history of this special island. And what better way to enjoy some of this book than with a cup of joe from our favorite coffee shop Lot Sixty One Coffee Roasters, which I think we averaged two visits per day.
For our first couple days on the island, we rent a small car to hop around to all of the scattered sites. Driving a manual car on the wrong side of the road made for a fun challenge for both Lindsey and me. I wouldn’t say I’m great at driving with a stick-shift on the right side of the road; however, learning to shift gears with my left hand was a small fraction of what felt so weird. In addition to using manual transmission, driving from the wrong side of the car, winding down narrow cobble-stone streets, taking wide right turns and small left ones, driving on and off of packed ferries, and there being no real highways given the island is so small all added to the adventure.
Enough about the driving; where did we drive to? Mostly we put on our figurative archeologists’ green, pocket-fill vests and round hats and go explore the many megalithic temples. Luckily, we don’t have to pronounce the names here, but among the temples we visit include Hagar Qin, Mnadra, Ggantija, Tarxien, Ta’Hagrat, and Skorba. These temples (not sure they were actually temples vs. homes) were first erected in the 4th and 3rd millennium BC. As a couple helpful references, the pyramids are from the 3rd millennium BC and Stonehenge was closer to the 2nd millennium BC.
One unfortunate thing we learn is that many of these ruins were uncovered at a time when archeology was more of a hobby than a profession. And as a result, the meticulous records of how things were found are often not included as well as the method of uncovering treasured ruins was likely not as careful. That all said, it is wild to imagine a culture so many years ago so advanced to be building these perfectly cut stone structures that included idols, statues and carvings on walls.
After a 36-hour layover in Barcelona, during which we mainly try to fight our jetlag, our babymoon gets started in the walled city of Mdina, Malta. Mdina is beyond medieval – in fact, it was Malta’s capital city back into Antiquity. Starting with the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, then the Phoenicians as early as the 8th century BC, then eventually being home to the Romans, after which the Byzantine empire took a turn, and more recently (1500’s AD) the Order of Saint John. Finally, after having to put up with the French and the British some, Mdina and Malta are independent today. Everyone wanted a piece of Malta given its ideal position smack in the middle of the Mediterranean (just south of Sicily). And as a result, Mdina, which sits high near the middle of Malta, saw many famous civilizations and empires come through.
We spend our first three nights on the island sleeping within the walls of this fortified city, with its population of about 300 (I’m not missing a “K” on that 300). Once the tourists leave around 5pm, the city clears out and our small hotel, the Xara Palace, is the only hotel within its walls. We wander the curved, quiet streets ducking into churches, cafes and medieval homes. The quiet of the city is both magical and eerie. The only sound is that of the wind and the night time brings with it an incandescent glow. It feels like all roads lead back to St John’s Cathedral so we’re never too worried about getting lost and instead always try to go down the alley that we haven’t already seen. Mdina is clean, quiet, peaceful, and full of history.
In Botswana, the small population is supported by a government that has done well using diamond profits to provide free education and healthcare to all 2.2M citizens. Zambian people have not had the same luck.
Livingstone is known as the tourist town, and is largely supported by the tourism industry. Our hotel in particular, has been created largely to support the local villages. Profits have been used to build a school that grows by a grade level each year. Children age 3-8 walk up to 3k every morning to attend, believing strongly that education is their way out of poverty. In the coming years, the hotel hopes to pay the bill for any student who wants to continue their education into high school or college.
The hotel also supports the local villages by hiring locally. The boat driver at the hotel shows us his home in the village and introduces us to his wife and family. His salary, he tells us, supports 30 members of the village. It had also been enough to pay the lobola (dowry) for his wife – a common practice in Southern Africa where the eldest uncle determines how many cows his niece is worth.
After hearing about the poverty in Zambia and visiting craft markets where people asked to trade goods for our used socks, it felt like one of the few true solutions to a more systemic problem: education and opportunity.