One of the perks of being retired and living in Europe was having the time and easy, cheap access to some pretty amazing places.
“How about Spain?” I asked Jessica one morning as we savored our cappuccino under the warming Pugliese sun. “We could leave on the 28th and travel around for a couple of weeks.”
“Spain sounds great,” she said, “but we can’t go then. “You have to present yourself to the immigration office in Bari on the 30th for your permesso di soggiorno renewal so we can keep living in Italy. And we have a cookout planned with Henrik and Sharon before they go home to London and don’t forget that Cher is coming to stay with us for a few days that week.”
“Right. I forgot.” I said and then immediately forgot again and booked our flight to Barcelona for the 28th.
Jessica had spent a month in Spain as a high school exchange student but it was a country in which I had never set foot. Our two-week itinerary would begin and end in Barcelona with stops in Madrid, Sevilla and Bilbao and a few side trips thrown in.
Vueling Airlines deposited us unceremoniously, but without incident, at the Barcelona airport and we took the airport shuttle into the center of the city. It was then that I made my first mistake. Armed with an inadequately detailed map the deficiencies of which were enhanced by a lack of street signs, we set off on foot from the shuttle stop to the hotel in precisely the wrong direction. Normally pretty adept at navigating, I found myself completely perplexed as I spun around looking in vain for some location identifier. It was not the last time on this trip that I would become spatially confused.
At the outset, the large backpack strapped over my shoulders didn’t seem so heavy but it contained two week’s worth of clothing for the both of us and, after an hour or so of wandering about the streets of Barcelona in 100+ degrees, I was becoming cranky. Fortunately, a kind, English-speaking soul approached us and offered to help us find our way. The young man was in Spain on an internship in furtherance of his degree from Carlow University, a school in, of all places, Pittsburgh, our home town in the US. It’s a small world after all.
We spent the next day strolling the streets of Barcelona (or is it Barthelona?), staying out of the direct sun whenever possible as the temperatures again breached triple digits. The heat begged for a large pitcher of sangria and we obliged, sitting at a large square just off The Ramblas, Barcelona’s pedestrian-only boulevard lined with shops, restaurants, hotels and markets. Jessica’s lunch started with a gazpacho that was herb-laced and just spicy enough to bring out the richness of the thick soup. After a full and completely satisfying lunch in a very touristy area for which we paid only €30, we went back to our street walking. Had I known what awaited us the next day, I may have chosen to spend less time on my feet that first day.
The alarm was set for 5:30 am so that we could catch the three subway trains that would get us to the train from Barcelona to Figueres, site of the Salvador Dali Museum. Before visiting the museum that Dali himself designed, however, we would be taking a bus from Figueres to the seaside town of Cadaques. From here, we planned to take a leisurely walk to Portlligat where Salvador Dali and his muse/wife, Gala, lived for most of 50 years. The walk was necessary because, despite the major tourist draw of the Dali residence, no train, bus or taxi serves the Portlligat Bay. Rick Steves, our travel guru in all things Europe, advised us to take the walking route across the peninsula, a 20-minute stroll. Unfortunately, doing so required that we find the beginning of the path, something that we were never quite able to do.
We had given ourselves a full hour to make the trek to Portlligat, a luxurious amount of time we thought, so it should be no problem to get to the artist’s house in time for our 12:10 tour reservation. Having taken note of the warning that failure to report for tourist duty 30 minutes ahead of our appointed time could result in forfeiture of our tickets, we gave ourselves some extra time but it soon became evident, even to us, that following the “Casa di Dali” signs in Cadaques was ill-advised. Our leisurely stroll became a 4-mile mad dash in triple-digit temperatures up well-endowed hills, along crowded, verge-free highways, through forests and fields. From time to time, I would spot a building off in the distance.
“That must be it,” I would say.
“No,” said Jessica who had actually done some research on the place and seen photos. “It isn’t.”
Our power walk, interrupted by a few stints of jogging, lasted about ninety minutes. By the time we finally arrived at the house-now-museum, breathless and drenched with sweat, we had used all of our grace time so we rushed panting and soaked to the ticket window, fully prepared to beg forgiveness and mercy for having appeared just moments before our tour was scheduled to begin. The woman at the window looked at our tickets, told us to wait for our tour guide at the bottom of a set of steps, and smiled pleasantly as if to say, “Go away now.” We obliged her.
The mature gentleman who guided our tour of the artist’s home spoke little but gave us the allotted 10 minutes in each of the rooms of the house. Dali’s studio, complete with an easel that held a room-sized canvas, was my favorite stop on the tour. His actual paint brushes and other tools of his trade were placed about the room, as were sundry objects of inspiration that included a stuffed polar bear wearing necklaces and holding a lamp. Seeing this, I began to understand Dali’s work.
The artist’s bedroom bore the mark of consistency with Dali’s persona: Gaudy, eclectic and garish. I thought I noticed a tongue hanging on the wall but convinced myself that it was not, for my own sake. Gala’s boudoir, on the other hand, looked more like an homage to her husband. I concluded that Dali had decorated both of these rooms himself.
The interior of the home was incredibly interesting but no more so than the grounds. Pieces of the artist’s work were scattered about the property and we wandered around for as long as our tight schedule would allow.
Having gotten directions to the “shortcut” back to Cadaques, we headed off and soon became lost again, a state which is normally not a problem for us but we had a bus to catch back to Figueres, a museum to check out and a train back to Barcelona booked. Back into power walk mode, we made our circuitous way back to the bus station just in time for our bus.
The Salvador Dali Museum was designed by the artist himself, a fact that is abundantly clear the instant one enters this mind-bending fantasy world. While the museum contained less of the iconic Dali works that I had hoped for, it was, nonetheless, a fitting tribute from Dali to himself.
A quick cab ride to the train station got us there in time to have a relaxing glass of wine which turned in three glasses of wine since the train turned out to be an hour late in leaving. No harm, no foul.