Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

My first visit to Barcelona had been much too short. With only a few days remaining before I was due in Paris, I hopped aboard a double-decker bus for an orientation tour, hoping it would help me choose from among the many interesting sites around the city. From my upper-level seat on the open-airbus I looked down into the labyrinthine streets of the Gothic Quarter, making a mental note to explore this area on foot, but it was not to be on that visit. There was so much to see and do in Barcelona that I didn’t even have time to walk the entire length of La Rambla, the famous pedestrian street that connects Plaça Catalunya with the seafront.

After six weeks of wandering around France I returned to Barcelona, anxious to see more. Early the first morning I stuffed my pockets with snacks purchased at the Boqueria Market and headed into the Gothic Quarter. Within minutes I was deliciously lost in a maze of cobblestone streets where sinister gargoyles peered down from rooftop perches and narrow lanes emerged into broad plazas. Though awed by the beautiful architecture, I was also frustrated; I had absolutely no idea what I was looking at. I decided to call in an expert.

Bogueris Market, just off La Rambla in the Raval District of Barcelona Spain

Bogueris Market, just off La Rambla in the Raval District of Barcelona

The following morning I met Nancy Daum Daily for a half-day “Undiscovered Corners of the Barrio Gotico Tour” with GetYourGuide. Nancy knew all the hidden courtyards and secret gardens within the quarter and was intimately familiar with its history and architecture. Surprisingly, much of what we think of as Gothic architecture in the quarter was anything but. The Gothic Quarter (Barrio Gótico in Spanish, or Barri Gòtic in Catalan) was originally settled in the 3rd or 2nd century BC, though other than surviving coinage from that era, we know little about its first inhabitants. Read More

The smiling faces behind the front desk at St Christopher’s Inns hostel in Barcelona, Spain were a welcome sight after my bad experience with Equity Point Hostels the previous week. Their warm greeting was quickly followed up with an efficient check-in process and instructions for finding my females-only dorm room. My first big surprise was the attention that had been paid to security. I had to scan my key before the elevator would move, use it a second time to access the hallway leading to my dorm room, and yet  third time to enter my room. Inside my room, the pleasant surprises continued. Double bunks were securely attached to the wall and each had dark gray privacy curtains, an individual light and an outlet. Below the beds were large metal lockers on wheels that were easily pulled out for secure luggage storage, using a padlock that I carry with me. My 22″ rolling suitcase and my mid-size backpack both easily fit into the locker. Best of all, with three wifi routers on each floor, there was free rocket-fast Internet available in all rooms.

Front desk at St Christopher's Inns hostel in Barcelona, Spain

Smiling faces behind the front desk at St Christopher’s Inns hostel in Barcelona, Spain

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I must have been 11 or 12 years old when my art teacher showed us a photo of one of Salvador Dalí’s best known works, The Persistence of Memory. I didn’t quite know what to make of its melting stopwatches and the walrus-like rotting head but I knew the disturbing images were a riddle waiting to be unraveled. I was a sucker for a mystery; no one could possibly have read more Nancy Drew novels than I had. Just like that, I was hooked.

For many years I knew only about the artist’s surrealist and cubist works, but when I moved to Florida briefly in 2006 I visited the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg. This largest collection of Dalí works outside of Spain includes a series of floor-to-ceiling canvases that contain optical illusions or double images that can be interpreted in different ways. I wrote about this technique in an earlier story that illustrated this technique in Dali’s painting, Halucinogenic Toreador (view it here). Some of the phantom images, such as Venus de Milo morphing into a bullfighter, are immediately apparent, however many of the illusions are harder to see. Look closely and you can pick out a dying bull with a pool of blood becoming a lagoon and a Dalmation dog, among others.

1938 painting, "The Image Disappears," by Salvador Dali, is an example of paranoid critical method

Do you see a woman reading a piece of paper or the profile of an old man with a long beard? This 1938 painting by Salvador Dalí, “The Image Disappears,” is an example of the artist’s paranoid critical method.

Dalí called this his “paranoic-critical method,” with which he exploited the mind’s ability to perceive links between things which are not rationally linked. Humans do this constantly. We see images in cloud formations or a sinister hulking figure in the shadow cast by a pile of trash in a dark alley. Dalí carried this to extreme, stimulating paranoia in order to destabilize his world and document the results in his art. Read More

There’s a book in my future. More precisely, there’s a book in my past that I need to get back to writing if I ever expect to finish it. The problem is, it’s hard to write a book when I’m traveling around the world, switching countries every few weeks. Rumbling around in the back of my head was the idea that I might just stop for a while, if I found a place that I liked well enough. I’d often thought that Spain might be that place, so I was pleased last fall when I learned that a travel blogging conference would be scheduled in Girona, the capital of the Catalonian region in the far northeast part of the country.

Unfortunately, three back-to-back press trips booked immediately after the conference left me little time to explore Catalonia before I was scheduled to leave for Paris. But the idea of Spain as a temporary base just wouldn’t go away, so at the end of my French experience I returned to Girona for a longer stay. This time, because I wanted to connect with the locals as much as possible, I arranged to rent a room from a young couple who had an apartment near the city center. In theory it was a good idea but sometimes things just go awry. Rather than being born and bred Spaniards, my hosts both turned out to be struggling immigrants, one from South America and the other from Palestine, who had only just moved in together. To save money they kept the heat turned off, even when temperatures began to dip, relying instead on one small electric space heater that was alternated between bedrooms. It was a relief when they informed me that family was unexpectedly arriving and I would have to find someplace else to stay.

Stunning 12th century Romanesque stone bridge in Besalú Spain

Stunning 12th century Romanesque stone bridge in Besalú, one of the most charming villages in Catalonia, Spain

A few days later I moved to the Equity Point Hostel, just a couple of blocks away. I should have suspected that something wasn’t quite right when I was required to sign a form stating that I understood refunds were not possible for any reason, but the front lobby looked fine so I didn’t question it. Five minutes later I walked into the hostel hallway and was assaulted by the rank odor of sewage welling up from the floor grates. Read More

Slim-hipped Oscar de los Reyes emerged from the shadows and took his mark within the circle of light on the small wooden stage. Clad entirely in black, he stood ramrod straight, arms held rigidly at his sides. His black eyes glittered, reflecting sparks from the single spotlight as he stared straight ahead, oblivious to the expectant audience. The world renowned Flamenco dancer’s body was a mere ten feet away but his essence was galaxies away, drawing power and inspiration from some higher power.

A cantaora abruptly pierced the stillness with an anguished wail that wandered up and down the scales, drawing the audience into the power of her song. De los Reyes responded with lightning-fast footwork, his nail-studded boots a blur as he tapped out complex steps. I watched with rapt attention as his arms reached outward in a plea, up in jubilation, inward for a self-protective embrace. His long black curls spewed droplets of sweat with every twirl until, saturated, they plastered permanently to his forehead. For the next 30 minutes his passions, his heartbreaks, his joys were laid bare. It was the most electrifying, sensual performance I had ever witnessed.

Real Alcazar, the palace where Spanish monarchs stay when visiting Seville Spain

Real Alcazar, the palace where Spanish monarchs stay when visiting Seville

I left the performance on a natural high, my feet barely touching the pavement. This was the kind of energy I had expected to encounter in this popular Spanish city, but over the past few days I’d found it difficult to connect with Seville. Read More

Marseille wasn’t on my original itinerary. After touring chateau of the Loire Valley and exploring Bordeaux I planned to visit Toulouse and St. Girons in the French Pyrenees, but there was a problem. Bad weather had been following me around France. I’d had one lovely sunny day in Mont Saint Michel and another one in Tours, but the rest of the time it either was gray and chilly or it rained. The foul weather had been bearable in October, but by November the temps had dropped and rain that had been an inconvenience turned bone-chilling.

The beauty of traveling nomadically is that I have no fixed schedule and can change my plans on a whim. I whipped out the laptop and Googled a map of France, looking for warmer destinations. Far south, in the heart of the French Riviera, Marseille stood out like a beacon. Wikipedia told me that the average high temperature in November was 59.2 degrees, and the more I read about Marseille, the more intrigued I became. I hopped over to the website for SNCF, the French National Railway Company, and discovered that high-speed TGV trains ran directly between Bordeaux and Marseille. Now I only had to find a place to stay. A final web search turned up Vertigo Vieux-Port Hostel, centrally located in the old port area, within walking distance of restaurants, the central market, marina, and the famous Notre Dame de la Gare church. The reviews looked fantastic and the price was right at $31 per night for a four-bed female dorm with ensuite bathroom. The planets had aligned; I was Marseille bound. A couple of quick telephone calls later I had train ticket and a reservation for the next two nights.

North side of Vieux Port, looking back toward Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica, which keeps a protective eye on Marseille France

North side of Vieux Port, looking back toward Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica, which keeps a protective eye on Marseille

I fell in love with Marseille immediately. My hostel was located a short stroll from the Vieux Port (Old Port), once an international hub where goods arrived from and were exported around the world. By the late 19th century, ocean-going ships had grown so large that the 20 foot depth of the harbor was no longer sufficient. A new commercial port with deeper docks, La Joliette, was constructed to the north and the Vieux Port gradually evolved into a city marina. Read More