Tuesday, December 22, 2009

We had ourselves a merry little Christmas

I found Advent Sunday so magical when I was a little girl. Mom always took me shopping for a Christmas dress for that service. We usually settled on something involving red velvet or green taffeta with puffed sleeves. Mom rolled my wet hair in pink sponge rollers Saturday night so I’d look like Shirley Temple in the morning.

At the beginning of the service a child would light the advent candles. After what seemed like years of waiting and watching all my friends get their spotlight, my turn finally came. I was so nervous that I wouldn’t get the wicks to light. I shuddered imagining I’d drop my candle and burn down the church. So I spent the weekend practicing marching in rhythm while cupping my hand to guard the flame of a little white candle poked through a cardboard halo. 

Thursday, December 17, 2009

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

December 25 is eight days away. I'm sipping my Christmas tea from a china teacup stamped with a Christmas tree right now. Every corner of the main floor of our house is festive, decorated with sprinkled snow and porcelain angels or red candles and stuffed snowmen. Mom and I spent a good hour draping the tree (in quite the sophisticated diagonal swirl, I might add) with new burgundy and gold garland we bought at the craft store. Our doorbell rings several times a day. A few seconds after the chime we hear the engine of the UPS truck revving away, announcing a new slew of Christmas packages. Evita is delighted about her playground in the den, a maze of boxes, wrapping paper, and ribbons. You can find her hiding in a cardboard box or chasing a spool of garland.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Barcelona: Ya me despide de ti

I flip to the map of Barcelona in my worn Time Out guidebook. I run my finger down the wide streets I walked so many times – Passeig de Gracia, Portal del Angel, Avenida Diagonal. I think about all the people I passed on those streets, from Korean fashionistas to prostrate gypsies. I want to get lost again down one of the medieval alleys dripping with wet laundry off Carrer Princesa. Or to be looking up at the undulating rainbow roof on the Mercat de Santa Caterina. I sigh at the familiar metro purple symbols of my Reina Elisenda line. The green patches on my map are parks, and the red squares are cathedrals, museums, and palaces with memories attached.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Epiphany in Barcelona

I passed a googly-eyed teenage couple lying beside each other on a blanket in the Ciutadella Park. But I wasn’t grimacing at her Ronald McDonald dye job or his over-gelled, bleached curls. I didn’t even gag at their sloppy kisses. Later a beautiful blond woman and a dark and handsome man, both wearing pressed designer jeans and toting leather bags, exchanged whispered secrets and giggles in the seat in front of me on the metro. But I didn’t roll my eyes.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Destination: Christmas in Barcelona

Last December I bicycled down elegant shopping avenues draped in white lights and wandered through Christmas markets selling hand carved nativities and jamon serrano in cosmopolitan Barcelona. Yuletide festivities in the Catalan metropolis are less commercial than those stateside – no Santas, no sales, and far fewer carols and decorations. And no one’s dreaming of a white Christmas in a city located on the Mediterranean coast with an average December temperature of 54 degrees. During the holiday season it’s too cold to swim at the city’s (somewhat gritty) beaches but still warm enough to go exploring on the public bicycle sharing system Bicing or sip cava outside on a terraza

High fashion storefronts such as Caroline Herrera, Hermés, and Valentino along with chic cafes and tapas bars line posh Passeig de Gracia, the Champs-Élysées of Barcelona. Around Christmas the street turns positively magical at night, bustling with shoppers and decked out in colorful blinking snowflakes and swooped strands of lights. La Pedrera and Casa Batlló, two of renowned modernisme genius Gaudi’s whimsical mansions, have addresses on the grand avenue. 

I’d opt to walk the 30 minutes down this gorgeous street instead of taking the metro to the city center. The window-shopping is second only to the people watching -- Weekend afternoons are best. That’s when the beautiful residents go out for a stroll dressed to impress. The next street over, Rambla de Catalunya, was my second favorite evening stroll option for its inviting holiday window displays. 

Passeig de Gracia ends at Plaça Catalunya, where Barri Gotic, the gothic quarter, begins. Outside the La Seu cathedral is the Fira de Santa Llúcia Christmas market, which dates back to 1786. Vendors set up stalls for their artisanal nativities and ornaments as well as Christmas trees, mistletoe, poinsettias, and candies. Close by in the Plaça Sant Jaume children play around a life size nativity scene with palm trees. On the weekends I’d let myself get lost in the maze of this medieval neighborhood. When a street violinist plays “Oh Come all ye Faithful” under the gargoyles the setting turns ethereal.

Nearby off the infamous Las Ramblas is La Boqueria, Europe’s largest open-air food market, worth a visit any time of year. I’d occasionally stop in for a snack or just take lots of pictures of the artfully arranged heaps of nuts, vegetables, and fruits. I found the (slimy, sometimes shark-toothed, and often still wiggling) seafood selection in the back particularly exotic. 

Outside La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece and Europe’s most fascinating building, is another Christmas market. And the adjacent Avenida de Gaudi is another atmospheric walk.

For more drama I’d head to Montjuic for the glamorous Font Magica fountain light show accompanied by Christmas music outside the Palau Nacional on Fridays and Saturdays from 7-9 p.m. Before or after the show I’d make time for a visit to the CaixaForum, the impressive cultural center in a converted modernista factory space. It hosts temporary exhibitions, serves sandwiches and desserts at a sleek rooftop café, and offers some of the city’s most generous visiting hours, staying open until 10 p.m. on Saturdays and 8 p.m. on Sundays.

On rainy or nippy weekends I’d take refuge in the Museu Picasso in a gothic palace deep in El Born district. The soft, warm lighting makes the medieval space downright cozy. When I was alone I’d put in my iPod earphones for a soundtrack to the hundreds of works illustrating Picasso’s lifetime of artistic development. I’d usually go on the first Sunday of the month when admission is free. Sometimes I’d stick around in the neighborhood to check out the trendy boutiques, bars, and restaurants or visit the Santa Maria del Mar cathedral.  

Other neighborhoods for holiday shopping and nightlife are Gracia and Raval. Above Avenida de Diagonal, Gracia has both a small town and bohemian feel, with butcher shops, bookstores, and bars. Even in December it’s often warm enough to opt for outdoor seating on the many terrazas. Down in the center is Raval, the gritty, arty, ethnic neighborhood with lots of vintage stores and two modern art museums. (Be on your guard at night.) 
Further uptown is Gaudi’s Park Güell, a fairytale architectural garden like no other with panoramic city-sea views. Even further up on a hill overlooking the city is Tibidabo, site of a landmark church and a theme park that’s much less crowded in the winter. The cable car and art deco funicular train ride up are worth it for  the ultimate the views of Barcelona and the surrounding mountains and ocean. 

Back in the city, the government hosts a New Year’s concert series in December and January. I saw the Parisian/Argentine electronic tango group GoTan Project in the stunning Palau de Musica concert hall. Visit www.barcelona.cat for current event listings and news. 

Last year I complained that Barcelona couldn’t compete with the constant soundtrack of carols, giant trees, and cheesy movies we have in the United States. Far away from home I couldn’t appreciate the city’s sophisticated, understated approach to the holidays. But now I realize a December visit to Barcelona offers breathing room from the masses of summer tourists along with a dash of Christmas spirit.