Thursday, October 20, 2016

Tarragona: End Of The Trip, Sorta

The couple seated across from me on the train from Valencia had a couple of English-language local papers for the Costa del Something on the table. There are enclaves of coastal Spain that cater to retired Brits and are called Costa Brava, Costa Blanca, and the like, although the names probably preceded the expats. There are the same kind of sea-facing boring apartment blocks that de Gaulle built on the Languedoc coast, and they're largely peopled by right-wing British folks. I even recognized the papers: they were just like one published in France, whose name I forget, which deals exclusively with problems British people face in an environment where they don't speak the language, don't talk to the locals, don't understand the customs, rarely eat the food, and still feel privilege. They're there for the sunshine (which, admittedly, is a scarce commodity where they're from), inexpensive high-proof wine, and, in Spain, untaxed cigarettes, not necessarily in that order. They don't much like the locals (who return the favor), and they positively despise Americans, as I was reminded when the train stopped to let on some passengers and a guy and a woman, obvious tourists making their way through Europe, came into our car. They were both stocky, and I noticed the woman, in particular, because she was East Asian and had impressive muscles, hardly a delicate lotus blossom of a stereotype. They hoisted their bulging backpacks up onto the luggage rack, and my neighbor remarked to his wife "He didn't even offer to help her with her pack. You know why that is?" She said no. "Because he's American," he hissed. He picked up the paper and showed her an article headlined "The perils of Brexit," and said "I'm tired of seeing rubbish like this. They never talk about the good bits." Which, as I understand it, will make it more difficult for him to live in Spain.

The train was a slow one, taking two hours along the Mediterranean coast to my last unknown stop, Tarragona. It sounded interesting: Roman settlement, big seaport, Visigothic Christian presence, and, for the gastronome, home of the fabled romesco sauce, which is made out of olive oil, crushed almonds, and a particular dried red chile that isn't hot: recreating it in the US involved chile ancho. I'd had it once in Barcelona with a mixed-vegetable tapa, and again in Valencia with that mixed vegetable plate, but it's most often served with seafood, so I was ready for that.

But how much of the town would I get to see? For the first time in my visit, the clouds were dark, and the Mediterranean was choppy, its water varying from slate-colored to black ink. The sere, brown countryside I'd been seeing had made me forget about rain, except for its absence. But this didn't look good for a pedestrian visit to a city. It held off until I reached my hotel, charmingly located above the city's bus terminal. It seemed to have been airlifted in from Czechoslovakia in 1979: sort of modern, with much polished wood and stone, a totally indifferent front-desk staff verging on mildly hostile, and a room that was just a smidgen smaller than would have been comfortable. I checked my watch: it was almost 4:30, so I'd better figure out what was where. But by the time I got to the lobby, it was raining. Still, I intuited that this wouldn't last long, and I was right: a half-hour later it stopped and the clouds looked a bit friendlier. Off I went.

I knew that the traffic circle just outside the hotel was the beginning of a rambla, one of those delightful Spanish streets divided by a strip of park where people walk, and that the rambla ended at the Mediterranean Balcony which looked from a height onto the sea. Turning left from there would take me to the Roman Circus, the remains of a giant chariot-racing arena. There wasn't much to see from the balcony, since the clouds were lurking offshore, and the harbor was full of container ships waiting their turn, so I was off to the Circus.

The moody Med, shot the next day from the Archeological Museum
At the Circus, the guy sold me a combination ticket good for several other attractions -- and good the next day, which was good because everything was going to close at 7. He also warned me that, the next day being Sunday, everything would close at 3 in the afternoon. Thus, I figured, I'd have to do all my inside activities early, and walk the streets afterwards.

The Circus didn't particularly thrill me: it's only partially excavated, since most of it lies under enough dirt to support the buildings of the nearby neighborhood, and, as I've said, I'm not thrilled by Roman art or architecture. Next to it is a Roman tower, to which the Spaniards added a story in the 14th century for the king to stay in when he was in town. Pretty dull. The Archeological Museum would have to wait for Sunday, so I just wandered aimlessly. Pretty soon I found myself at the Cathedral, and a quick look at its sign confirmed what I figured: closed to visitors on Sunday. Better take a peek.

Swarming with tourists on Sunday, of course. But again, no steeple.
It's not the grandest cathedral on the outise, although all those saints are pretty charming, each one holding a scroll with his name on it.

Hi! My name is St. ______!
I hustled inside, and was awed. Not so much by the architecture or the art in the chapels, but because an organist was playing early Baroque Spanish organ music, which is some of my favorite music in the world: I used to own about 15 LPs of it, and have quite a bit in digital form. The organ itself was set up especially for this music, too. Off to one side, there was a glass door leading to the Diocesian Museum, a magnificent collection of Spanish Romanesque art that the bishop's people had saved from crumbling churches in the state of Tarragona. I rushed through it, wishing I didn't want to be back in the main sanctuary listening to the organist. Then there was the cloister, again, gorgeous. I whizzed around it. Back inside. But the Cathedral was going to close in about 15 minutes, so I reluctantly decided to leave. Fortunately for me, I got lost trying to find the exit. There was, as there always is, a gift shop that I found, with exactly zero recordings of this organ. Crazy. I finally found the exit and pushed the door and walked out, the spell broken. I will very likely return -- Tarragona's only an hour's train ride away from Barcelona, after all -- but I'll make sure to do it during the damn organist's lunch break!

I wandered down the steps in front of the Cathedral (dedicated to St. Tecla, the town's patron, and surely one of the more obscure saints out there) and found myself in a square into which gigantes were gathering. I'd seen these outsize figures before, this spring in Girona, but not in this quantity.

I have no idea what was going on, because they are supposed to show up (as are the famous castells, the human towers for which the city is renowned) for the festival of St. Tecla in mid-September. In any event, they were gone by that night.

I made it back to the hotel after some wandering, and finding a big square lined with restaurants that would be a good place to find dinner. And, later, I ascended the hill again and chose a restaurant that had fish with romesco sauce. At last! The waiter didn't speak any English, but we communicated and I placed my order. He came out again with the menu. No romesco. Grrr: I ordered langoustines in garlic sauce and then hake with what the menu called "burned garlic." I'd been notably garlic-deficient on this trip, so it was time to make up for that. It was just okay, and instead of a wonderful Spanish draft beer, they had Amstel. The Dutch are gradually taking their revenge for the years the Spanish colonized them (yes, they did: how do you think the Prado got all those Bosches?), I guess.

It was damp and chilly the next day, so I headed to the Archeological Museum first thing. To my disappointment (but not surprise) it was 100% Roman, but at least it was dry.

The plaza outside the Archeological Museum. Notice umbrellas.
One thing I liked in it was a few mosaics that had been found in town, including this wonderful depiction of the fishes of the Mediterranean:

The menu for a Roman seafood restaurant? No, it was originally on the floor, and the Romans didn't have restaurants.
A lot of the museum is given over to Roman inscriptions, which I think is one of the most boring of the subsets of Roman archaeology, since they're mostly gravestones or celebrations of military victories. I read a little Latin, but the Romans didn't put spaces between their words and, worse, often left some vowels out. But there was a temporary exhibit about a remarkable structure some ways out of town, Centcelles. It has Roman mosaics, Arab baths, and Christian features, and was in ruins until a German team started digging in the '50s. They're still at it, and the wild thing is, despite all the artifacts and art that's been uncovered, nobody knows what it was. A rich farmer's house that the Arabs added the baths to? They're crowd-sourcing guesses, and you have until January 8th to add yours at the museum.

The Archeological Museum wasn't included in the ticket I'd bought at the Circus (although its ticket also gets you into other sites it administers, I found out too late and with no time). I wandered around, and discovered the only bit of Jewish presence I saw in Tarragona (although apparently an arch near the Archeological Museum was the gateway to its judería). It was an inscription on a stone supported by two Roman tombstones around the corner from the Cathedral.

Thanks to a couple of medieval Jews I keep on retainer for just such emergencies, I found that this reads "This is the gravestone of Rabbi Chaim bar Yitzchak," and a date nobody can make out.

It was lunch time, and it was sprinkling again, so I went into one of the few places that was open for lunch. I just wanted a couple of tapas and a beer, and the waiter urged calamari with onions on me, so I also ordered some blood sausage with "chopped eggs." The calamari were standard fried calamari (but good: I suspect any restaurant in Spain that produces calamari with the texture of pencil erasers doesn't last a week) with a few crisp-fried onions on top. The blood sausage sat atop a bed of fried, cubed potatoes with some padron peppers. I asked the waiter if "huevos" was a local term for "patatas," and all he said was "my mistake." Since the potatoes a) weren't very good, and were probably frozen, another cardinal sin in this country and b) bad for my diabetes, I concentrated on the sausage (excellent, and redolent of cumin) and the padrons. Now, you know that the Spanish say that every sixth padron is hot? I'd had several dishes of them on this trip, with zero heat, which is disappointing because the sport is part of the deal. These? Every one made me fear I'd leak earwax, they were so hot. Dang.

Padrons, but harmless Madrid padrons
The rain let up again, I wandered, and came upon the city walls box office, which was on my Circus ticket, so I went in and absorbed far more than I wanted to know about the Roman walls and how they were added to by the Spanish in the 18th century. I wandered some more, and decided I'd had it with Tarragona. As with the Reina Sofia in Madrid, I wasn't in the mood. Despite my being perfectly aware of the fact that I couldn't do anything in Austin until I got back on Tuesday, and that I had a nice day ahead of me in Barcelona, something in my mind was tugging my attention away from what was in front of my nose. I walked down the hill, then back up later for a really bad meal in a Basque restaurant on the square, one of the few open on Sunday, then back down to the hotel. The staff refused to help me get a ticket off of my Spain Pass ("Why don't you buy one out of a machine like everybody else?"), so I woke up the next day and did just that. Bonus: the train stopped at the Paseig de Gracia station a couple of blocks from my hotel. Non-bonus: the hotel gave me the first sub-standard room I've ever had there.

I proclaimed the vacation OVER.

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