A Spanish feast for the senses

  • Luisita Lopez Torregrosa
  • The New York Times
6:00 a.m. Friday, Jan. 26, 2018 Travel

Along the jagged Mediterranean coast of Spain, from Barcelona south to Málaga, along bone-white barren hills and lush olive groves, from the shimmery gardens of Andalusia and the grandeur of the Alhambra, I made my way to the homeland of my ancestors for the first time. 

It took much of my life to get to Spain. But I’ve known it — the Spain of blood and sand, flamenco, theater and poetry — since I was a child in Puerto Rico. Madrid evoked marvel and dreams for us, and my mother longed for the crimson geraniums of Seville and the dirges of Granada, reciting García Lorca’s lines, “Verde, que te quiero verde. Verde viento. Verde ramas.”  

My mother, whose ancestors came from Catalonia and Madrid in the late 1700s and early 1800s, wasn’t the only source of my dreams of Spain. Few places have been romanced as passionately as the 1,500-year-old city of Barcelona, capital of the autonomous region of Catalonia. Catalan poet Joan Maragall called it la gran encisera, the great enchantress. Devastated in the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War and immortalized in George Orwell’s classic “Homage to Catalonia,” Barcelona houses celebrated museums and architecture and was home to the great artists Joan Miró, Antoni Gaudi, Salvador Dalí and the young Pablo Picasso.  

So that is where I chose to go. I ambled down Las Ramblas in Barcelona last summer, through the throng of tourists who, at a fast-rising clip of more than 18 million a year, overrun this Catalan metropolis of 5.5 million people.  

Las Ramblas, flanked by narrow car lanes and lined by cafes, galleries and souvenir stands, is packed tight night and day, a convivial rendezvous for foreigners and locals alike. The boulevard, which follows the course of a stream that was eventually diverted, was home to convents and monasteries before the anti-clerical riots of 1835 destroyed many of them. The promenade, whose name comes from the Arabic word ramla, was rebuilt in the late 19th century and is lined with historic sights: the Teatre Poliorama, where Orwell hid for three days during the Spanish Civil War, and the Mercat de la Boqueria, where the seafood, ham and sausage counters draw hungry denizens. And then there are buskers and backpackers, hawkers and mimes, live human statues in glittering silver makeup, Gypsy troubadours, and, on a second-floor balcony, a Marilyn Monroe look-alike, in a white pleated skirt wafting up to her bare thighs, a takeoff of the steam-vent shot in “The Seven-Year Itch.”  

The evening was heavy with human heat and humidity, reminiscent of the Caribbean. But I pushed on. To the sea.  

Finally I reached the Mirador de Colom, an austere 1888 monument to Columbus that looks out toward the Mediterranean. Merchant ships, tourist cruisers, yachts, sailboats and fishing boats jammed the marinas. I slowed down to study gallery posters and sculptures along the 2.7-mile-long boardwalk. I turned toward a row of open-air fisheries set along the pebbled waterfront, in sight of the crisscrossing steel beams and blue glass of the 44-story Hotel Ars Barcelona soaring over Barceloneta beach.  

Now, at last, the Mediterranean. It conjures images of the voyage my ancestors took on the way to America.  

Framed by hills and sea, Barcelona used to be walled off from the Mediterranean by old textile factories and a grimy industrial port. The beaches were filthy with factory waste, railroad tracks and garbage dumps. But after the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco in 1975 and the birth of constitutional democracy in Spain, which lifted Barcelona as much as the rest of Spain, artists, engineers and architects set about to remake the city, restoring the century-old street grid and redesigning hotels, discos, bars and even food in time for the 1992 Summer Olympics. The games introduced this design-obsessed city to a global television audience. From then on, Barcelona has reigned as a dazzling object of tourism. 

Now Barcelona is Spain’s most powerful economic engine, a bastion of manufacturing, trade, winemaking, fashion and the arts. With 18 million international visitors in 2016, it is Spain’s premier tourist destination. (The Spanish islands of Majorca and Ibiza and the Canary Islands off northwest Africa rank second and third, Andalusia is fourth and Madrid sixth.)  

Today Spain itself is a top international travel destination, with 75.6 million tourists in 2016, far more than the nation’s population of 46.5 million. Its popularity in Western Europe is nothing short of phenomenal. It ranks third among the most popular travel spots in the world, preceded by France and the United States, according to the United Nations World Travel Organization. Britain, France and Germany provide Spain with nearly 50 percent of its total tourism numbers. U.S. visitors totaled 2 million in 2016. (So far, the rising Catalonia-Madrid political tensions and the Aug. 17 terrorist attack in Barcelona seem to have made little impact on tourism.)  

Tired and weary of the avalanche of visitors, major destinations are clamping down on mass tourism, issuing proclamations and petitions and holding street protests. Hundreds of thousands of vacationers carpet the strip of beaches along the 99-mile-long Costa del Sol. In landlocked Granada, group tours command vans, taxis and autobuses, pushing to the side pedestrians like myself hiking the cobblestone streets of the old Muslim quarter of Albayzin.  

Through every major city in Spain, foreigners engulf monuments and parks, meandering up and down castles, fortresses, museums and cathedrals, and, at the Alhambra in Granada, napping in the shade of foliage in the manicured gardens. 

More than 2.8 million people a year visit Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished cathedral in Barcelona, the most popular monument in all of Spain. On the steamy afternoon that I visited it, I felt that all 2.8 million were there with me, the crowd was that large, unmanageable and distracting.  

Misdirected from one side to another, I walked outside the monument looking for my guide. I finally found the right group, and we shuffled up the steps to the entrance and were held up by other groups. Our guide, wearing the red jacket that identifies Sagrada Familia doyennes, could barely be heard above the cacophony of voices and scuffling feet. I couldn’t take in the immensity of the church, its iconoclastic design, the inscriptions etched on walls and wooden doors, the towers built like dripping candles, the sweeps of curving walls and statues of odd shapes and faces. On the outdoor steps, tourists plopped down, worn out, sweating, but still dazzled, their eyes raised to the spirals that have become the stuff of souvenirs, fridge magnets and postcards. 

Pressed by complaints, Spain’s Consulate for Tourism Affairs is moving to redefine international tourism, which made up 11.2 percent of Spain’s 2016 revenue. No one wants the tacky beach-and-booze crowd or the debauchery of the 1980s-2000s when narco traffickers and drug cartels controlled the flow of money, cocaine and hash along the Costa del Sol.  

“We want tourists who are interested in culture, gastronomy, cosmopolitan travelers,” says the tourism affairs consul in New York, Elisa Sainz Ruiz.  

The Costa del Sol’s richest towns are shedding their rogue reputation. On a day trip, I traveled past Marbella’s private clubs and around a Saudi palace compound, and had lunch with a Marbella expert, Natalia Lopez Epin, at a bustling seafront restaurant. Founded by a pair of German princes and Spanish aristocrats, Marbella became a splashy and scandal-rich playground for royals, multimillionaires and celebrities in the 1980s, the golden era of Arab tourism.  

Málaga, too, has cleaned up and revived its fortunes with Michelin-ranked gastronomy, a modern port and maritime walk, and the Museo Picasso, where 204 of his works hang in a restored mansion in the casco antiguo, the old quarter where I got lost more than once. Passenger cruise ships and emerald-green palm fronds at the Paseo del Parque along the bay evoked for me a tropical idyll, and so did evenings around the buzzing streets and paths around the Marques de Lario entrance to the casco antiguo. 

It was in Málaga, and in Moorish Granada, where I noticed the ubiquitous presence of Arab culture. I wondered if some of my ancestors had come from that culture, but nothing I found in my family’s history suggested that. But Islamic civilization left a deep mark in Andalusia during seven centuries of domination that ended when Christian forces expelled the Moors with the fall of Granada in 1492. The Moorish legacy is evident, in the tearooms called teterias and back-street markets, in Arab names, the baths called hammams and food. 

While the teterias I visited in Granada and Málaga had few customers, Arab-influenced cuisine is found everywhere. In Cordoba, a 36-year-old chef, Paco Morales, has opened Noor, an expensive restaurant reinventing Al-Andalus dishes ($83 to $155 per person). But he is neither Muslim nor Arab; he’s Spanish. Some food critics have balked at his quixotic ambition to re-create Al-Andalus kitchen traditions, but he is unfazed, telling me: “People are fascinated with the splendor of the cuisine and the architecture and design of the space.”  

More than half a million Muslims, mainly from Morocco, which is only 8 miles from Spain at the nearest point, have settled in Catalonia, the largest Muslim concentration in Spain. Altogether, 1.9 million Muslims live in Spain, a smaller number than in France, Germany and Britain.  

Until recently, relations between Muslims and Spaniards were relatively cordial, quietly strained or nonexistent. Islamic terrorists killed 192 people in train bomb explosions in 2004, but there had been no attacks in 13 years, unlike the mass killings in the past few years in Paris, Nice, Brussels and London. But in August in Barcelona, a young, homegrown Muslim terrorist drove a van on Las Ramblas, crushing pedestrians, killing 14 and wounding more than 80.  

The attack revived fears of a Muslim resurgence in Spain and stirred the debate on the role of Muslims in the country’s culture today.  

Reflecting the complexity of the Muslim issue, some academicians and Arab scholars insist that Muslims are gaining recognition in mainstream culture, but Catalans and Spaniards with whom I spoke dismissed their importance.  

“Muslims have no influence in the cultural world of this country, and none in our political world,” said Rosa Surinach, an executive with United Nations-Habitat in Barcelona, while emphasizing that there’s no friction between most Muslims and Catalans. Over at the Fundacion de Tres Culturas in Seville, which promotes Muslim and Arab culture, Olga Cuadrado, the institution’s librarian, blamed prejudice for keeping Muslims outside the mainstream. “We need to break stereotypes,” she said. Days later, at Casa Arabe in Madrid, Nuria Medina, an Arab scholar, defended Muslim influence, saying, “That it isn’t in the mainstream doesn’t mean it doesn’t have importance.”  

Nadia Hotait, a 34-year-old Lebanese multimedia artist and filmmaker who lives in Spain, said that being Muslim was not a problem for her, telling me that she “faced the same obstacles as any young woman artist in Spain, which is to say that there are still more hurdles in just being a woman than there are from my nationality.” She added, “Much of my work and study has been supported by Spanish institutions and awards, even if the topic I was dealing with was Arabic.”  

But Madrid writer Muhsin Al-Ramli saw it differently. “The biggest obstacles and difficulties are due to lack of state support, lack of courage and daring on the part of Spain’s publishing houses, the nepotism in the cultural media and favoritism in the culture in general.” 

One way or another, rich or poor, artist or farmhand, Muslims are a growing factor in Spain. The poor settle in the job-rich cities, remote towns and agricultural fields along the Mediterranean. The rich own homes in Marbella and park their yachts in Puerto Banus.  

The village of Torregrossa lies flat in the farm country of Catalonia, a nine-century-old town of about 2,300 people. For some time, I had assumed that a branch of my family originated there, given the similarity in the town name and my family name. One day, shortly after my arrival in Barcelona, I traveled the 90 minutes to Torregrossa to find out. An acquaintance in Barcelona had arranged for me to meet Josep M. Puig Vall, the amiable 50-ish town mayor.  

We met in his office in the Ajuntament, which, like most of Torregrossa, was ancient, with shuttered windows, dark stairs and stone walls. He offered coffee and spoke quickly and proudly about his town, where he’d lived all his life. Then, somewhat apologetically, he said that there had never been a Torregrosa in Torregrossa. He could confirm that Torregrosa, my mother’s paternal name, is Catalan but found in many parts of Spain.  

Perhaps it was my mother’s passion for carnations, flamenco and jamon Iberico. I imagined her maternal bloodlines came from southern Spain, from Seville, or Cordoba, or maybe Madrid and bordering provinces.  

I arrived in Seville late one night on the train from Málaga. I had been traveling by ferry, autobus and train for over 18 hours after a short overnight visit to Tangier, Morocco, onetime international center of espionage and cinematic setting of forbidden sex and Dionysian poetry. The international jet set, fashion designers, royals, movie stars and writers made their appearances in Tangier. But it has fallen on hard times. The spotlight has turned off.  

After that trip, Seville seemed miraculous. I checked in at my hotel shortly before midnight, walked down the boulevard Reyes Catolicos, past open restaurants and bars, turned on a side street and spotted a small neighborhood tapas bar called La Azotea, clearly a place that tourists don’t find by chance. I took up a stool at the bar, ordered a glass of dry red and asked for whatever the kitchen wanted to make me. I looked around the room, an everyday tapas bar on Zaragoza Street with a blackboard listing wines and patrons laughing and sharing plates. Shortly a small bowl was placed in front of me. A delicate piece of delicious grilled or sautéed cod rested on a bed of mashed or puréed potato-like vegetable. The wine was excellent. When I finished, I asked to meet the owner-chef but didn’t have the presence of mind to ask for the recipe. I wrote down the name of the place and paid my bill: 8 euros ($9.50).  

Instantly, from the first hour, Seville for me was all like that, a feast of the senses, the simplicity of daily life. Walking one morning in the Parque de Maria Luisa, I thought of my mother, who loved it, who had its name. Another day, I found the romantic art deco bar in the opulent Alfonso XIII hotel and chatted with new acquaintances while sipping a perfect Negroni.  

Spain has been a haven for writers and dreamers and wanderers, expats from colder lands. Unlike Mexico, where expatriate Americans tend to concentrate in San Miguel Allende, Mexico City and the Riviera Maya, Americans in Spain are scattered through the peninsula. Sarah Gemba, a Bostonian who fell in love with a Spaniard, moved to Seville years ago and started a travel agency. A fellow New Englander, Lauren Aloise, transplanted herself to Madrid and established food tours. My mother had wanted to move to Madrid and lived with that dream for years but never managed to do it. As a child, I didn’t understand her passion for Spain, why she felt so at home there. But now I know. 

That came to me again while seated at the outdoor restaurant Mariatrifulca, off the Triana Bridge over the Guadalquivir River in Seville. I noticed a face at a nearby table. It was the image of my grandmother, my mother’s mother, her aquiline nose, large deep-set dark eyes, thin lips, high cheekbones, dark hair pulled back in a bun. It was startling, but over the days I spent in Seville, I picked out other familiar faces, and I wondered if way back we had been related.  

One evening after dinner at Duo Tapas, an outdoor spot on a busy plaza, a couple of acquaintances and I walked around the Barrio Santa Cruz, the gem of Seville’s intricate casco antiguo, a nest of elegant two-story homes of pale colors and decorative grillwork butting cobblestone streets. It was near midnight, not late by Spanish standards. Strollers lolled under the soft lights of street lamps, bars spilled over with patrons. Minutes later we were climbing the three flights of stairs to the rooftop bar of the EME hotel. It was packed. Taped music blared from speakers. I found myself bouncing to an old hit whose name escaped me. More friends of friends joined in. There were drinks, introductions, stories.  

Beams of pinkish light bathed the majestic 16th-century Catedral de Santa Maria de la Sede, the world’s largest Gothic church, built on the site of the 12th-century Almohad mosque with its minaret, La Giralda, towering beside it, symbol of the interlocked cultures of Spain.  

Days later I was on the fast train to Madrid, and as we rolled past olive groves and barren hills, the land getting dryer, the hills more stark, the landscape harder, I was thinking about the whitewashed towns of Andalusia. For a long time I had wanted to live in a place where the sun was broiling and the sea came limpid and soft to the shore. I wanted that blanched earth, those bleached buildings, and the geraniums blooming crimson in the sun.  

Next, Atocha train station, Madrid, pedazo de la tierra en que naci. Home. 

Luisita Lopez Torregrosa is a professor at Fordham University and a former editor at The New York Times. 

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IF YOU GO 

 A guide to restaurants, hotels and sites in Barcelona, Seville, Granada and Malaga.  

— Where to Stay  

(Daily rates, shown in euros and dollars, may change seasonally. At the current exchange rate $1 equals .90 euros.)  

Barcelona  

Hotel Casa Fuster, one of Barcelona’s classiest hotels, is housed in a 1908-11 modernista mansion. Check out the romantic Café Vienese and the rooftop terrace and pool with spectacular views. Rooms from 262 euros. Passeig de Gracia 132; hotelcasafuster.com.  

Casa Gracia, a high-design hostel with a cool atmosphere, has a DJ-driven bar and quirky common spaces. Rooms from 103 euros. Passeig de Gracia 116; casagraciabcn.com.  

Granada  

Hotel Hospes Palacio de Los Patos is widely regarded as the best hotel in Granada. Housed in a classic UNESCO-protected manor that features a grand staircase, an Arabian garden and the Roman Emperor spa. Rooms from 200 euros. Solarillo de Gracia 1; hospes.com.  

Hotel Zaguan del Darro, in the historic Muslim quarter Albayzin, is a 16th-century house with 13 different rooms, some looking out over the Rio Darro, close to the Alhambra. Rooms from 55 euros. Carrera del Darro 23; hotelzaguan.com.  

Malaga

Gran Hotel Miramar, a palatial estate looking over the Mediterranean, evokes Nazarid Moorish architecture with ornate and delicate designs. Rooms from 310 euros. Paseo de Reding 22; granhotelmiramarmalaga.com/en  

Molino Lario, at the entrance to the hyperkinetic casco antiguo (old city), has comfortable contemporary rooms, soothing décor and a terrific staff. Small shuttered balconies look out to the bay and to the grand Cathedral. Rooms from 130 euros. Calle Molina Lario 20-22; hotelmolinalario.com.  

Seville  

Hotel Alfonso XIII, created in 1928 and renovated in 2012, is among the most luxurious hotels in Europe. It features classic Moorish Andalusian architecture with a glassed-in courtyard restaurant, glazed tiles and terra-cotta brick. Enjoy a cocktail at the jazzy Bar Americano. Rooms from 312 euros. Calle San Fernando 2; hotel-alfonsoxiii-seville.com.  

Hotel Casa 1800, an idyllic inn in the heart of the Casco Viejo’s Barrio Santa Cruz, offers great service, a warm atmosphere and elegant suites. Rooms from 195 euros. Calle Rodrigo Caro 6; hotelcasa1800sevilla.com.  

— Where to Eat and Drink  

Barcelona  

Tickets, one of the most sought-after reservations in the restaurant world, is the new culinary success of Ferran Adrià, who built a gastronomic revolution with his El Bulli. In a quirky space with circus and theater décor, Tickets serves a parade of exceptional dishes that defy description. Dessert is served in a separate room evoking Alice in Wonderland. Book only online two months in advance. Dinner for one (17 tapas plates, dessert tastings and a drink) cost 124.85 euros. Avinguda Parallel 179. elbarriadna.com.  

Catalana Cerveseria draws a sophisticated morning-to-late-night crowd to its wide selection of hot tapas, salads and sausages, excellent beer and wine. It has a bustling and entertaining atmosphere smack in the middle of the splendid L’Eixample neighborhood. Two tapas and a mug of beer, 12.50 euros. Carrer de Mallorca 236; phone 93 216 03 68.  

Granada  

Carmela Restaurante specializes in Mediterranean cuisine with Andalusian traditions in a small dining room overlooking a popular corner of the old city. A dinner of bacalao (cod) mozarabe, a pionono dessert (bananas) and one glass of wine, 31.70 euros. Calle Colcha 13; restaurantecarmela.com.  

Bodegas Castaneda, popular with tourists and locals, the bustling Castaneda is the tapas bar to end all tapas bars. Longtime waiters call out orders, slide through the crowd, and manage to serve hundreds of people quickly and nicely. Go early and expect to wait for a table. No reservations accepted. A dinner of fabulous berenjenas rellenas (stuffed eggplant), a slice of quiche, and one beer, 7 euros. Calle Almineceros, off famous Calle Elvira. No phone.  

Malaga  

El Refectorium, enclosed in glass windows in a contemporary setting, is far from the familiar tapas bars of the casco antiguo. It’s informal but serves an elegant dinner in a restful dining room. A terrific sirloin cooked perfectly to order and a glass of exquisite Ribera come to 30.80 euros. Postigo de los Abades 4; phone 952 60 23 89.  

El Piyayo, famous for its pescaitos fritos (fried fish), serves up typical tapas fare including manchego cheese to go with robust red wine. Dinner for one, 10 euros. Calle Granada 36; entreplatos.es.  

Seville  

La Azotea, a popular neighborhood tapas bar, offers a welcoming ambience, artfully presented plates and excellent wines. Dinner for one with wine, around 10 euros. Azotea has four branches in Seville. My favorite is on Calle Zaragoza 5; phone 955 11 67 48.  

Mariatrifulca, a historic gastrobar with a view of the Guadalquivir River at the end of the Triana bridge, offers a rich menu of seafood, beef, salads. Their croquettes, lobster salad and arroz negro (black rice) are memorable. Dinner for three with wine, 90 euros. Puente de Triana, Plaza del Altozano n1; mariatrifulca.com  

Zelai stands out among the countless tapas bars and cerveserias in the Casco Viejo with fabulous cod over black linguine. Dinner for one, around 10 euros. Calle Albareda 22; phone 954 229 992.  

— What to See  

In Spain, everything.  

Dozens of travel guides provide maps and details about Spain’s monuments, castles, fortresses, cathedrals and museums. Lonely Planet publishes reliable and current guides with detailed maps, lists of everything, rates and costs, and sections on history, culture and the arts.  

You should purchase sightseeing tickets in advance online. Group tour tickets to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona start at $25. Private tours cost more. For example, private tours to the Mezquita, in Cordoba, will run $200. The Alhambra offers similar rates and a variety of tours.