Oh What a Plaza! Seville’s Plaza de Espana

In early April in Seville, the heat is already bearing down. My feet are aching, and I feel like a misted hothouse flower. We are walking to the Plaza de Espana, a must-see in Seville. This city was once the seat of immense wealth, so we pass many gorgeous buildings as a testament to its illustrious history and walk down wide avenues lined by stately sycamores. With carriages carrying sweaty tourists trotting past, you can almost squint your eyes and imagine this as a bustling center of trade, a place to funnel wealth from the Spanish colonies hundreds of years ago. 

I see a flutter of green in a tree ahead, and then the bird emerges fully from a hole in the trunk.

“That’s a goddamn parrot!” I said. “A fucking parrot!”  

When things excite me, courteous language is insufficient to express my enthusiasm. Seeing parrots drift from tree to tree or fly ahead of us was, in many ways, the highlight of my day. I assumed the bird was indigenous to the area, but a quick Google search revealed they were an invasive species from the 1970s, released pets imported from South America. These tiny parrots were edging out other birds and causing problems due to their noise and weighty nests.

When we entered the Parque de Maria Luisa, a public expanse of greenery along the Guadalquivir River, it was a welcome relief to get into the shade. A short walk from our entrance was the Plaza de Espana. This vast opening within the park was surrounded by a half-moon of stunning buildings, a broad, shaded walkway hugging everything, and the open arms of it all inviting you to the large fountain in the center. A fake river circled through with people waiting their turn to take a lap in a rowboat. The effect of it all is enchanting.

The architecture is so unique and influenced by many time periods and places that it has been used repeatedly in films from Lawrence of Arabia to Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones.  

Like Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, this beautiful place and the influences it reflects – Baroque, Moorish, etc. – are the result of the city and country wanting to go all flashy for a big fair, the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929. Strolling around the grounds, you hear the distant click-clack of castanets and the strumming of a guitar playing a sad Spanish song. Flamenco dancers regularly perform here, and we stopped briefly to see them dance. Very briefly. 

I looked at their beautiful faces, the languid movements and lack of emotion, and kept walking. 

“These dancers ain’t got shit on the ones we saw in Cadiz,” I said to my husband, quiet enough for no one to overhear. 

We walked around the plaza, viewing the individually tiled benches set back in the walls to represent each region in Spain. The tiles are gorgeous, covering banisters and benches and depicting scenes and products from each region in rich colors with unifying hues of royal blue accented by swirling yellows. We briefly considered waiting for a rowboat but put the thought out of our mind when a child, also wanting a boat, began to wail. We could understand his disappointment because the wait was too long. We decided to walk through the park to the river, stopping briefly for something cool to drink. 

A version of me from when I was a teenager still exists in the way I imagine a place. This version places me, the traveler, in any locale as a partier. Woohoo! Up for drinking and eating anything all day like I did as a 17-year-old scarfing down bratwurst and knocking out chilled shots of vodka by the monkeys in the Berlin Zoo simply because I could. I don’t know why I still see this person in my travel visions. The real, current version of me, on a long hot walk in Seville, does not want to chug sangria; I wanted to chug a Coke Zero with a water chaser.

We walk along the river briefly and cross a bridge. 

I had considered scheduling a kayak while in town, but from where we stand on the bridge, the water looks murky, and the banks are too high to see anything as appealing as you could on foot. Across the river are more places to eat and get a cool drink on a hot day. We walk up toward Triana, a popular area for good tapas (so we read), but the day is getting longer and hotter. I am exhausted and fussy, for lack of a better word, when I don’t know the direction or timeline of our journey. Meandering is usually more appealing to me, but with the added heat and distance, I will discover the extra exhaustion I feel is part of long COVID. My lungs have new scarring that is still healing, even though I had a mild case. On our return home, a CT scan will alarm a pulmonologist enough for a biopsy meaning the cancelation of the rest of our summer trips. I didn’t know this was what was happening with my body at that moment, so I just assumed I was fussy. I felt floppy, like I should be carried on a litter everywhere, but my sore feet and joints had already taken me through miles and miles of Seville streets.

We saw a cluster of stray cats behind a locked gate of someplace that looks like an abandoned school. They regard us sleepily from the shade.  My husband wanted to walk more, but he saw me struggling and said, “Let’s go home and nap.” Home is always wherever I am sleeping at the moment where my toothbrush can be found. We don’t see any more parrots on our walk back. I don’t know if I could muster the same excitement as I could earlier in the day. Still, I kept searching the trees for the remainder of our stay, hoping to catch a glimpse of their bright green feathers.

General Tips:

  • I’ve said this in another post, but unless you love extreme heat, avoid going to Seville in the summer. Even in early April, it was heating up.
  • Watch for the parrots, also known as the Monk Parakeet.  
  • Take the time to take a rowboat. We did not, and now I look at my photos of happy people in the boats with the same dissatisfaction as the child we heard wailing that day.  

I Want to be the Shady Dame of Seville

Hotel Ateneo

Another confession of my ignorance is when visiting a place for the first time, I often know little about it outside of literary, musical, and occasionally historical references. We were in Seville to meet up with my friend Ibby and her family, who were passing through for a few days, and it was a 55-minute flight direct from Porto. Besides urging my husband to see a barber on our visit (such a dad joke), I looked up a few things I wanted to see. My only previous association with the city besides the Barber of Seville was a few lines from Victor, Victoria. In the song, Shady Dame From Seville, Julie Andrews sashayed around the stage in a frilled traditional dress like those worn by flamenco dancers. She brandished a lace fan, accompanied by matador dancers and the rat-a-tat-tat of castanets.

Shady Dame from Seville

La la la la la la la la la la da da
There was once a shady dame from Seville
Used to wander ’round the town dressed to kill
And men, if they dared, stood and stared
When she passed their way
The lady knocked ’em out
But there’s no doubt
‘Cos they’d shout “Olê!”, all day

Surprisingly, a few shops still sell this dress style today, from low-cost tourist options to high-end, tailored affairs worn by local ladies for festivals. The fancier versions were gorgeous. I coveted one, but I knew I could not pull it off. I have the shady part down and bits of the dame, but not all combined where I would knock anyone out. Instead, I opted for a set of replacement castanets for the ones I had left behind, like a rube, under my table at a flamenco show in Cadiz earlier.

Hotel Ateneo dining room.

After the train up from Cadiz, our driver got us as close as possible to a historic traditional manor in central Seville converted to a boutique hotel. We had to drag our luggage across a small square and through unusual crowds, even without knowing the city. At the glossy entry to the Hotel Ateneo, we were let into a lofty atrium with a plush, velvety interior of deep reds, checkerboard marble floors, high ceilings, and natural lighting. This! This was precisely where a Shady Dame From Seville would live and entertain her gentlemen callers.

Our junior suite was, unfortunately, not one of the ones used in the advertisements. While very spacious, it was not in the main house but in an addition past the dining room where something advertised as a pool gurgled intermittently right outside our door, and guests had tables where they could sit and chat beside it. Rather than a pool, it was about an 18-inch deep wading pool with a few dead bugs drifting on the surface. Not even a toddler would have been amused very long by that pool. I discovered that even very high-end hotels in Seville that advertised pools angled the photographs to make them look vast and the lighting to conceal the lack of depth.

Our room was a junior suite, a splurge to extend my birthday celebration, and it was costly. Aside from it being outside the main house and backed by the housekeeping closet, where they regularly rammed carts into the wall behind our heads, it was very spacious. This helped make up a bit for the cart ramming and the general access patio seating directly outside our door. Still, it was off in how invested it was in the style of the rest of the hotel. It lacked the cohesiveness the atrium, or any photos I had seen of their junior suites, possessed.

“I feel like we are in a Spanish-themed TGI Fridays,” I said. “Or a barbershop quartet porn set.”

I blame the striped wallpaper, but the double-sized tub had a portrait of a woman who gazed appraisingly upon us when we bathed like, “Ok…uhhuh..Yeah, I’d hit that.” And I think I need a copy of her to hang outside my shower today. I always left my bath thinking, “This lady gets what I got going on!”

The Hotel Ateneo staff are accommodating and greet you with a glass of chilled water on arrival. After stowing our things, we walked around the area for a bit. Out through the Plaza de San Andres and then back through the many streets to the central drag toward the Seville Cathedral.

My husband successfully argued we walk further away from the crowds as they were intense, not necessarily with tourists, but with Spanish citizens there to celebrate Holy Week for Easter, a detail we had overlooked in our plans.

A few twists and turns away from our hotel, we found a small place to grab some beer and tapas. The bar was worn and cluttered, with a greasy, unrefrigerated bowl of pork cracklings on the counter. The owner told us that was the good stuff, and Chris wanted to try it. The bartender grabbed a few handfuls in his bare hands and heaped it on a plate, and we sat there and admired the walls crammed solid with historical artifacts while we sipped beer.

You will frequently see bull heads on the wall in this part of Spain. Seville has a famous bullring, the Real Maestranza, and the defeated are often décor. Although I eat beef, my family has raised cattle, and I am very familiar with the threat a bull poses, I cannot attend a bullfight. It seems outrageously cruel and torturous. I know it is a tradition, but it is not one I personally ever want to witness. In our bar, two bulls adorned the wall. One had a confused, sad look on his face like, “Hey, man, I thought we were friends?” The other looked like a demon bull from hell that farted fire and knew where you lived.

We walked through the warm streets and admired the crowds. I say admired because I genuinely enjoyed seeing the Spanish families during Holy Week. They seemed so stylish, relaxed, and happy. Even their dogs were more chilled out than dogs in the US. Whenever you go out in the United States now, no matter what event – a farmer’s market, Walmart, a public park – be prepared for slovenly crowds, the sounds of shrieking, dissatisfied children, and snarling dogs. Their children were unfussy, often out late with them at the bars, and equally stylish.

Dogs and babies are out late in Seville.

A few days later, at a gelato place nearby, after negotiating children’s selections, I turned to see a 10-year-old, Spanish boy dressed in a linen suit with all the physical assurance of a grown man, leaning languidly on the counter beside me.

“American?” he said, lifting one eyebrow.
“Yes,” I said.

He nodded and smiled slightly, like, “Of course you are.” The kid would have ashed his cigarette and taken a sip of scotch if he had either. Any hope for passing as a shady dame was lost, but I have learned to come to grips with my lack of flair. Someday soon, I will return to Seville with a bit more style and loads more shadiness.

General Tips:

  • I liked the Hotel Ateneo (great location, breakfast, beautiful, nice staff) and would recommend it. If you choose a suite, emphasize you don’t want the one by the housekeeping closet and wading pool.
  • Check the holy events calendar before making plans. These are huge and take over entire cities with massive crowds.
  • Avoid Seville in the depths of summer. You will melt.

Park Guell – Where People Now Go to See Themselves

Serpentine benches of Park Guell.

Many years ago, I first wandered languidly through the 42 acres that compose Park Guell. It holds acres of forest, flowers, whimsical buildings, and tiled sculptures designed by Antoni Gaudi. Ok, not every building and structure is designed by him, but most are. Within its walls, you can linger for hours, or at least I did when I visited in the past. As I discovered this year, things have changed. Today you probably won’t want to stick around longer than you have to if you go in the summer because, within those 42 acres, you will find thousands upon thousands of tourists. The park is so popular now, and tourism so burdensome that you must reserve a timed entry ticket to see it.  You must also do this days and days in advance if you are there during high season. There are lines of influencers to get the best views for selfies, and you must wait patiently to get your own shot of the city from some of the most famous lookout points. 

People uncertain what to photograph next at the highest point.

There is something I do now that I am not sure how I should feel about myself. Ashamed? Polite? I dart in and quickly take photos and dart out like a hummingbird supping culture instead of flower nectar. I am trying to be polite because so many people are crammed in, waving their selfie sticks and getting every angle that they do not budge, which seems increasingly rude. They practice the same blank smiles from multiple angles, taking dozens of each. At the same time, you politely wait for the opportunity to see what is behind them without viewing a sea of faces staring away from it, oddly back at you, while they record themselves there.

I rarely photograph myself because I do not find my appearance exciting enough to add to the images. My head does not need to emerge from the bottom of the skyline of Barcelona for me to remember I was there or prove it to anyone else; plus, if I’m being honest, I hate how I look right now from most angles. Why spoil a picture of a gorgeous vista with my grinning, chinless, sweaty face? Still, I want that photo of the view, and I feel like I’m being polite by being quick. Then I’m also ashamed I feel like I need a photo at all, but then I do not want my face in it because I’m supposed to love myself no matter what I look like. Etc, etc.  It is complicated, the twisting up of shame, courtesy, and need.

Reminders of rodent control throughout the park.

What isn’t complicated is that the thousands of tourists you will encounter will have no such reservations. They will knock you in the head with those selfie sticks and never say shit about it. They will head for the best view and backdrop and occupy it completely for 20 minutes while they preen, oblivious to anyone else wanting to see it and even oblivious to what they are there to see in the first place. I often guess they are influencers, but many are probably just accountants, dentists, or teachers seeking influencer-worthy photos to share on their social media. For them, this may be a dream trip they have saved for and planned for a long time. If they are American, they must get everything out of their 10 paid vacation days because they must save those other four days for dental work or a family emergency.

This is to say that visiting Park Guell this time made me think about the other visitors crammed inside those 42 acres more than the park itself. We arrived at our designated time and hoped to keep the walking to a minimum due to my mother-in-law’s bad knee. As we climbed the first hill, we gazed over the city, seeing the sea beyond and landmarks like Sagrada Familia in the distance. We stopped briefly at the top of the hill at a clustering of people around the three crosses (Cavalry) with one of the best views of Barcelona, then descended again on the paths. Guards watched various entries so no one could wander in without paying for the privilege. I tried to quickly find the main spots to view before my mother-in-law’s knee gave out, and I stopped to ask a guard where the staircase was.  He told me to keep going the way we were, so I hoped we were on the right path.

As we looped back around, we emerged on the sculpted paths hovering above the park on columns crafted in such a way they looked as if they organically emerged from the mud after heavy rain. The effect is a beautiful blend of natural elements, lumpen and flowing, bursting with greenery, that reflects so much of Gaudi’s unangular style. From there, we walked into the open-air area lined with the famous serpentine, tiled benches where tourists crammed at the edges taking photos of themselves near the best views, like ants on honey if honey were a backdrop of Barcelona. I opted to stand in line for far too long at the toilets.

Then afterward, we walked down underneath to see the fanciful columns supporting the park benches and area above, a ceiling punctuated with circular indentations and mosaics, before descending the densely packed staircase with another jaw-dropping number of people taking their photos with the famous dragon (el drac) of Barcelona. It is a fat, colorfully-tiled salamander. It is cool, but it is also like an elaborate garden feature you might see at an eccentric great aunt’s home so I wouldn’t suggest knocking people down to see it. You will find it represented in every tourist shop in refrigerator magnet form if you have trouble getting close enough to get a good look on your visit to the park.

In the center of this is El Drac.

Once we squeezed past the El Drac admirers, we made it to the exit and looked at each other in exhaustion, like we were a litter birthed from a selfie-stick-lined womb. The consensus was to leave the crowds and heat and return to the hotel. I enjoyed the park much more many years ago. The problem with comparing it to then is that nothing had changed except the price and timing of entry and the intense crowds.  I don’t want to keep looking back and wishing for fewer people, horrified at the masses, and I will have to find a way to get past this habit as I revisit so many popular sites.

General tips:

  • Park Guell is not to be missed when you visit Barcelona but get your tickets for entry far in advance. You do not need a special guide or price. Just go to the main website: https://parkguell.barcelona/en/buy-tickets?q=en/buy-tickets
  • Try and research the best times to visit when you will find it the least crowded.  I have no idea when that would be anywhere anymore, as records are being broken with tourism numbers this year.
  • If you can, find little spots to linger that are more private.  Many people zip through and only see the main photography points and miss the lovely spots to linger that are away from the throngs.  

Escaping Crowds: Sunburned Scrotums and Modern Art in Barcelona

Chris staring at the sea.

At home, I’m a creature of habit. Walking the same paths, touching the same concrete post, or visiting the same river duck soothes me. I know the duck will be there paddling in the green waters of the Douro. I know the feel of the rough concrete as my fingers brush the top of the post before I turn home, the sound of the trains rumbling across the bridge, and the tinny music drifting up from a small café. I am also alone with my breath and thoughts and can take as much time as I like to stare at an odd-looking pigeon, flower, or complicated pile of garbage. I can then return to a shower and lunch and feel satisfied and relaxed.

Garbage pile near my home in Porto.

When I travel, all such habit is cast aside except for one. I stick to one destination a day, a museum or cathedral, with a loose idea of lunch or a glass of wine somewhere. I don’t enjoy a rigid, timed structure to my day and resist excess scheduling or anyone expecting me to be the tour guide because I don’t want the weight of their unearned disappointment. I’d rather just handle my own dissatisfaction than be the recipient of someone else’s because the world isn’t always amusing, and sometimes lunch will suck.

In Barcelona, my in-laws announced they would do whatever we wanted for the day with the dreaded words, “You’re our tour guide!” After the dense crowds of the Gothic Quarter and Sagrada Familia, I suggested a break and stroll to the beach would be nice, followed by a visit to a museum. We wandered past shops and through residential neighborhoods, stopping at one display window where two women made dim sum to tempt future diners. It felt voyeuristic to see them rolling dumplings for our amusement. Still, they smiled at us, and we did return later for dinner, so the human dumpling display worked as an advertisement.

At the beach, we crested a small dune and looked at the beautiful blue-green Mediterranean Sea. Broad paths for cycling and walking stretched for miles in either direction, and cyclists hauled past, almost taking one of my husband’s parents out, who did not note the difference between the sidewalk and the bicycle path. As we climbed the brief, sandy path up the dune, we saw a shuttered restaurant and concrete pier with large, square manmade boulders to fight erosion piled around it. And directly below us, on a shielded stretch of sand, naked, oiled men lay spread-eagle, sunning their balls. “Oh,” I said. This wasn’t part of the tour I had planned for the in-laws. We averted our eyes rather than gawk at their taints and then saw the sign announcing the nude area of the beach. After descending the dune viewing area, conspicuously settled by single men hunkering watching the sunbathers, we walked out on the pier to get a closer view of the water.

The Guardians by Xavier Mascaro, found outside the Cam Framis Museum.

Walking back, we headed for an interesting museum near our hotel. All major tourist cities always possess a remarkable historic art museum, and usually, some more minor, shameless attempts to draw tourist dollars like a museum of erotica, wax figures, or instruments of torture. At various times in the past, I confess I am not so cool or worldly that I have never said, “Let’s go look at old dildos or collections of bizarre things used to rip people apart.” Tourists often neglect The Can Framis Museum though because it is not close to the other significant sites they find appealing and doesn’t have the historical flash or macabre selling points. It features the modern works of Catalan artists in a repurposed textile factory in the Poblenou neighborhood. The old factory is almost guaranteed to be pleasantly uncrowded. The entrance fee is not exorbitant; there will be zero influencers with selfie sticks. Instead, you will find a blissful chilly peace of expansive rooms, natural light, bursts of color, and sculptures.

The spiritual experience that so many of the more modern, crowded museums lack is the opportunity to be alone in a beautiful place with art. I’ve never found anything but stress in dense crowds, which is probably why you won’t see me at a music festival in a mucky cow pasture, either. We strolled through the concrete spaces and viewed the abstracts and sculptures in silence, with no flag-waving tour guides reciting their histories in sight.

Not all art is spiritually transformative, but I’ve always found a good museum far more inspiring than any cathedral. Maybe it is because the cathedrals were constructed on lies and indulgences, corruption and greed, and the world’s great museums may have traces of all these foibles but are more focused on human capability and creativity than mythical creatures and ordinary people telling us how to behave. Some displays in any museum are crap, confusing, culturally significant but dull and on the nose, or simply derivative. Still, there will always be something to marvel at, something that revisits you again and again in memory for years.

S/t, 1963, Joan Claret

After viewing the primary collection, we stopped at a special temporary exhibit called Bad Painting? displaying awkward nudes, a sickly green Jesus with a man going nom, nom, nom on his foot, and sullen cats harassing fish in a bowl. I found the exhibit delightful, and the fact we had it entirely to ourselves was a relief. Whatever habit I can cultivate in a foreign city, whatever peace I can find, it will almost always be in silence and isolation and usually associated with either art (however bad) or natural spaces. There is something so wonderful about escaping crowded venues and finding your own space to breathe.

If you want a break from crowds in Barcelona, visit the Can Framis Museum or wander along the sea near the Poblenou district. Sun your taint if you must at the nudist beach even though doctors advise against UV rays for the delicate skin there. I don’t want to know what years of sun damage can do to a scrotum. I’ve already seen what it did to my decolletage. No matter where you choose to go, adding a quiet day to your experience is always a good idea.

  • Only one general tip, find a way to get away from people and also see a city. It can be done and is so very necessary to have quiet memories to add to your experience.

Finding the Authentic in a Bourdainified World: Barcelona Dining

One thing that has happens repeatedly is that no matter where we go or what city, is we sit down at a restaurant and the owner points proudly to a dusty wall. On that wall is a picture of Anthony Bourdain dining on the local specialty at our exact table. To make certain we fully understand, they will announce, “Anthony Bourdain ate here. Right here,” and tap the table. In some places like this, the food will be delicious! In others, it will be quite ordinary. Just because there is a photo of Anthony Bourdain eating a hot dog at the same restaurant where you just ordered a hotdog does not mean it will be the most fantastic hotdog you have ever had. If you watched his show consistently, you will also have his voiceover lingering as you bite into it. The soothing tone of his voice describing the ingredients, the preparation, and then the uplifting way to tie it in with the history, culture, and his own experience by the end of each episode. The people making and serving the food were always welcoming and remarkably interested in him and his ideas for the cameras. It made for a great show, and it always seemed like he was having such a transcendent time eating that hotdog. You may feel more pressure to have a similar experience or even slight discomfort from Deja Vu sitting at the same table. This will sound sacrilegious to his fans, but try and block Bourdain and that dusty photo on the wall entirely from your thoughts. You deserve your own authentic experience, or why are you even there? It could be great! He may have been right about that hotdog, and you may feel your atoms realign to become more harmonious with the universe after your first bite. Or, it could just be a regular old hotdog served by an indifferent waiter and a hefty bill because of the Bourdain-endorsed stamp that brings more customers in. Sorry to say, when you leave this place, you may simply be full instead of imbued with any distilled goodwill or cultural understanding.

One such place in the Gothic Quarter is La Plata where we dined on small fried fish and tomatoes and washed it all down with wine from barrels. A tiny place with worn marble tables, the kind of wear that gives the marble a silken, skin-like feel I love to stroke lightly while I rearrange my silverware. La Plata offers a sturdy and equally small variety of delicious and simple dishes in their presentation and flavors. And yes, Anthony Bourdain is on the wall. I don’t think many places in the United States can pull off this kind of fish because consistency and freshness are harder to find. A fresh tomato salad is a plate that pairs well with fish consumed head to tail and washed down with wine drawn from the generously sized barrels behind the bar. The wine is forgettable and tastes a bit like something labeled simply Table Wine or referred to as a “drinkable” red. It is worth a try, but I would not suggest drinking buckets. You may find yourself remembering and craving the open-air atmosphere and charm of the bar, though, and I can easily imagine people regularly stopping in here for a plate of fried fish and a bit of cheap wine and conversation.
Because Bourdain is on the wall, prepare yourself for fans of the show to frequent there too.

Another popular bar in the Gothic Quarter is Bodega la Palma. I didn’t see a picture of Bourdain on the wall, but it seemed like it would be his kind of place – an atmospheric bar with walls lined by barrels and worn tables. There is a much more extensive menu, including many delicious small plates. Still, I spent more time staring at the interior than my dishes. It reminded me of the kind of place a hungry artist or writer would come for a cheap supper (100 years ago) and a bottle of wine. The remarkable thing about many of these old, tiny tapas bars is that, even though you are in a tourist-riddled center of a major global attraction, you can still have affordable tapas and wine.

While I loved the food at almost every restaurant we visited, I have to say that my favorite of this trip was Els Tres Porquets – The Three Pigs. This is a bustling restaurant far from the tourist scene across town in the El Clot district. An area of wide avenues and apartments, hotels, and restaurants, with a surprising array of options. We happened upon Els Tres Porquets by accident and were lucky to get a small spot in a corner to dine as the place was packed. A chalkboard listed the daily specials, and we ordered a variety of plates and a bottle of delicious red wine from Tarragona. My favorite was the octopus, a crispy but tender tendril served with paprika oil atop cassava parmentier, and the oxtail grilled cheese. I could have eaten piles of both, but the oxtail grilled cheese had to be the best grilled cheese I have eaten in my entire life. I would be willing to compete for this sandwich. To fight an equally matched opponent for it with sticks or fists.

At the very least, I would stand in line for a maximum of half an hour to eat this sandwich, which says something since few restaurants inspire me enough to linger on a sidewalk for any length of time for the opportunity of a table. If I had a travel and dining show, it would be an entire episode of me eating one after another of those oxtail grilled cheese sandwiches at Els Tres Porquets until the camera fades out to me sitting alone with my empty plate, sick and sad that I could not cram more in my gullet. My voiceover expressing I have learned nothing about the culture, nothing about the chef, nothing but my sudden appreciation for oxtail grilled cheeses that has left a spiritual void in my being because I cannot eat one more.

General Tips:

  • If you are a fan of the show, go ahead and try the restaurants mentioned by Anthony Bourdain. Why not? See if the hype meets the experience.
  • Remember, you are not a world-famous travel and food celebrity, so the warm reception you saw in the show is unlikely to be duplicated. Brace yourself for a tepid, indifferent, or even rude welcome.
  • On the other hand, you can just avoid any place recommended by Bourdain. Sure, they may be great, but all the other tourists who were fans of his show will also frequent there.

Barcelona Gothic Quarter: Tiny Alleys and Big History

Barcelona is exciting for its food, history, architecture, and art. It is also intensely crowded, frequently impersonal, and over-touristed, so as much as I want to love it, it is a less passionate affair than I have with other cities. Looking at you longingly, Cadiz! Maybe complex is another way to put it. The first time I visited Barcelona was 13 years ago. At the time, I was living in Tallahassee, Florida. While there were plenty of places to get cheesy shrimp and grits or a grouper burger, this is where the culinary flare petered out. After years in the Florida panhandle, my first experience with real tapas in Spain made me do a little dance, like a toddler. Witnessing the architecture and wandering the Gothic Quarter felt like visiting another planet or time. Despite someone trying to steal my debit card and rough men muttering gross things and shoving me on La Rambla, I was thrilled to visit the city.

A restaurant at Placa Reial, near the Gothic Quarter.

I have one distinct memory from that first trip years ago that stands out. I had ducked into an almost empty bar on La Rambla, where the bartender sadly poured me a glass of wine and asked me where I was from. I told him and asked where he was from.

“I am from a very small village,” he said. “On a beautiful island.”
“Oh,” I said. “What brought you to Barcelona?”
“Work,” he said.
He bent his head down and blinked back tears.
“I hate it here,” he whispered, returning to wiping down the bar.

Still not officially in the Gothic Quarter, but a beautiful fountain at Placa Reial.

I think of this young man on my second visit to Barcelona this spring. 13 years of increased tourism and the swell and strain of human bodies on the streets means ever-pricier apartments and cost-of-living for the city residents and visitors alike. It is still stunning, with architectural styles spanning the Gothic Quarter to Guadi’s expansive and imaginative designs. One of the first places for most tourists to go is the Gothic Quarter.

The area encompassing the Gothic Quarter contains the remains of Roman walls built to deflect invaders in the 3rd Century, as the Romans initially established the city as a colony.
Here alleys narrow to the width of a small cart and stone walls erected by the Romans still stand. The walls must be shored up and protected, as their stones have a crumbly, porous look after centuries of elemental wear, like teeth that are slowly going bad. Those same walls funnel noise, as I learned on my first visit when I rented an apartment there, so I would not advise staying in this area if you want to get some sleep. Occasionally there is a brief opening before a church, large enough for some café tables. The city still has a few ancient fountains producing drinkable water (now conveyed by brass spigots) with the sour faces of the original spouts visible.

The streets are lined with tattoo parlors, restaurants, bars, and places that sell Barcelona-themed trinkets. Like anywhere central to tourism, the menu prices will reflect tourist pricing, so don’t expect bargains. Today’s narrow alleys are filled with tourists shuffling along, gazing up at the surrounding walls and trying to find the most authentic spot to have lunch or buy a refrigerator magnet. I chose the ubiquitous Gaudi lizard from Park Guell for mine, displaying the name Barcelona along its scaled back so anyone wanting a beer out of my fridge can think about this city each time they open the door.

Puerta del Bisbe, a 20th century addition.

One of the things that many may not realize is that very little of the architecture in the quarter is genuinely Gothic. Through restoration and romantic flourishes, much of it was styled in the 1900s to appeal to those attending the World’s Fair. The neo-Gothic additions were a good choice for crowd appeal, which still draws them today. The quarter feels romantic, like you are walking through a movie set made for a Victorian vampire love affair, and I can see how it would have the same appeal to visitors in 1929 as it does today.

Popping your head into buildings (clearly marked open to the public) can still reveal startling antiquity, such as the ancient Corinthian columns that once supported the Temple of Augustus from the 1st century AD. The temple remnants are displayed for anyone to see in a courtyard designed for this purpose, complements of the Hiking Club of Catalonia, which now owns the building surrounding it.

Genuine antiquity from 1st Century AD.

We peek into more open passages and doorways, and wander past street buskers, some tolerably good musicians, and one exceptional opera singer with hats out for tips. A trio sits with a banjo, guitar, and trumpet, and a man growls out an old-timey swing song about a wayward lady. We stop at a small street café in an opening before the Font de Sant Just. I watch the café-owner shoo away a clean but rumpled old man begging customers for change, and the church bells above us begin ringing as we pour a pitcher of sangria. The streets have a hive-like feel due to their lack of width or clear direction, and it is easy to get lost and find yourself again at the edges of the quarter.

Font de Sant Just.

Ultimately, the over-tourism can only partially detract from this area. The tiny balconies above us hold tumbling plants, music drifts down from open windows, and you can still drink from the ancient fountains. Finding a quiet spot to sit and spend an hour or two is still possible. Even though other cities have a fiercer hold on my imagination, a more intimate experience, I know that I will be returning to the beautiful streets of Barcelona again and again.

General Tips:

  • Any of the top places to visit in the world will be crowded. I am not reminding you of this to poop on your dream of visiting there, just to prepare you so you are not startled when you do.
  • Wander with no clear direction. Stop when it feels right. Rather than checking spots off on a list, you can see more by finding a great place to watch people for an hour or two.
  • The Gothic Quarter is rich in history and architectural wonders. Try reading up on a few before you go, or take a walking tour with a trained guide.

Warsaw Food Tour: Miles to Go Before We Eat

We kept going on to our friends Alex and Jen about how fantastic food tours usually were. “Oh, man! Get ready to eat!” we said. “Get ready to drink! Boy, howdy, we’re gonna have vodka and pierogi and a good time!” We cautioned them not to eat or drink too much beforehand to save space for the experience.

We left the Vistula River and arrived at the meeting place for our food tour. A cluster of a dozen friendly Americans from everywhere from Austin to Seattle and one Polish guide with a clipboard were there. After brief introductions, he started his lecture about the avenue, the lampposts, and the buildings surrounding us, all Stalin-era with statues of the simple farming and industrial folk who would build the empire carved into buildings. The day was hot, and we all nodded attentively, wondering when there would be beer.

Interior of Koszki.

“Ok, now we walk!” our guide said after about 10 minutes of history. “We must walk quickly!” We tried to speed up to his pace, trotting across intersections but could not prevent breaking our gang of food tourists up on larger streets where the crosswalk light was not in our favor. Our first stop was a converted marketplace called Koszki, full of various restaurant stalls.

We stood at long tables while our guide slapped a small selection of sausages, fries, and beers before us to share. You could immediately tell who was hungriest and had the most thirst as we sawed off our allotted portions and glanced ravenously at each other’s excess. I snuck an odd fry or two to my husband. The moment we started to relax a little after scarfing our sausage bites and beer samples, the guide was herding us along. “We have to move quickly!” he said. “Everyone must walk faster!” He seemed disappointed in the walking speed of some of us, as if we were never going to go pro as food tour enthusiasts or even make the team.

We soon realized, trotting behind him, sweating and uncertain where the next stop would be, he intended to cover several more miles of the city in his tour. He took us up one side street and had us peer into the courtyard of a building that survived WWII. There the people of Warsaw erected an altar to worship without being caught and murdered by Nazis after the uprising. It is still maintained, and he told us there are few remaining.

After this, we jogged along to see a distant view of the Palace of Culture and Science and a single line of surviving buildings from WWII, a rarity in Warsaw, once called the Paris of the North. From these buildings, it is evident that the city was once quite beautiful. A single modern skyscraper between them and Stalin’s Rocket, as it is nicknamed, appeared to have a big chunk missing by design. According to the guide, it was not by design but rather due to the successful lawsuit of residents not wishing to have their view ruined.

On to the next stop, Zapiexy, we were served a small portion of what they called Communist pizza and tiny plastic shot glasses of Communist soda pop.

The soda was essentially brightly colored sugar water, and the pizza was a bit of sauce on a halved roll with a sausage slice, a bit more flavorful than what you would be given in an elementary cafeteria. With all the trotting and the heat, some of us bought bottles of water too. The menu board advertised an Amerykanska version featuring bread with bacon, corn, paprika, and onion.

Communist pizza.

“It will probably get better,” we told Alex and Jen. “Maybe.”

We walked quickly through the city and stopped at 5 Corner Square, where a giant blue egg sat. When you place your ear against it, you hear the heartbeat of a fetal thrush.

Joanna Rajkowska’s “Hatchling. Song Thrush” 

Two blocks away, we waited at Cukiernia Palowicz’s street window for Warsaw donuts, a pastry filled with rose- flavored cream, but we were encouraged to save these to eat after our tour was complete. Speedwalking behind our guide again with our greasy sacks of donuts, we made our way to Zapiecik. We had eaten pierogis earlier in the day in this identical chain restaurant. There we were offered a sampling of pierogis and coffee mugs of boiling beet soup so hot that, given the pace of our tour, they had not cooled down enough for us to drink before jumping up again for our next destination.

Our final stop was a traditional Polish restaurant where we were served tartare, shots of vodka, and a slimy, pickled herring that remained untouched after our first taste. For the record, I love all of these things when done well.

The couple from Austin begged for water repeatedly, and the one pitcher that arrived was quickly distributed amongst six people at the other end of the table. “Can we please get some water?” the Texan asked until a second pitcher arrived for our end. We were all dehydrated, tired, some a bit hungry still, and the raw meat and vodka were not helping. As soon as we felt we could be released, we fled the tour and went to the first shop to buy jugs of water. Too tired and distant from our apartment, we ordered a ride back. A group of Polish partiers tried to take our Uber, jumping into it as we walked to the curb. We briefly argued to get them to surrender the vehicle, and the driver shrugged as if it happened often. “Oh, YOU are Chris?” the hairy Uber thief in the front seat said to my husband as if his claiming to be someone else was like accidentally stepping in a puddle.

On the ride back, we grimly assured Alex and Jen that not all food tours were this exhausting or underwhelming. “Ok, that one wasn’t IT.”

Back at the apartment, after a shower and chugging water, I dipped into the grease-stained bag and tried a donut. The first mouthful was flavorless, a dense, barely sweetened bread. On the second bite, I discovered a small reservoir of rose cream/jelly in the center, almost
bitter. “Ok, then,” I said, returning the rest to the bag. “Gonna pass on that.”

The food tour appeared to be the dream of an architect turned guide who wanted to show us as much of the city as possible. Despite the additional miles, the insufficient, sometimes disappointing food and booze, and the lack of water, we did see a great deal of the city on foot. While I won’t be promoting his tour here, I also won’t publicly poop on it by name. Our own dining experiences in Warsaw far exceeded this one. Still, the guide loved architecture and briefly showed us the city as much as he could, nipping at us like a cattle dog, slinging us a few pierogi and sausages to keep us going.

General Tips:

  • Read those reviews thoroughly before booking a food tour.
  • On hot days, even if your tour is supposed to provide it, bring your own water in case they fail to.
  • If possible, avoid a tour as large as ours. The food and drinks can often be limited, carefully portioned to enhance their profits, and therefore insufficient to satisfy. The smaller tours you can learn more, and are naturally tailored to you, allowing a greater enjoyment of the selection and restaurants.
  • I would like to learn more about some of the things I have described here. Feel free to reach out if you have more to add!

Warsaw Chill: Drinks on the Vistula River

We spent Saturday in Warsaw drifting around before our food tour that evening. We walked over to the towering example of Stalin-era architecture, the Palace of Culture and Science. The building is loved and despised, hated for its history and severe façade, and loved as Warsaw’s tallest, most recognizable landmark. It is a communist approximation of the Empire State Building. Many homes and businesses that survived the Nazis were razed for the structure and park before it. The building houses cinemas, theatres, and scientific and educational facilities. It has several derogatory nicknames, including Stalin’s Rocket and the Syringe, and does have a phallic, fuck-yeah-Stalin air to it. We stood in a brief line to access the observation deck and dutifully looked out from all four sides at the city spreading out around us. Beyond the reconstruction of the older quarters, most of the town is modern, steel and glass. From this height, it looks like it could be anywhere.

Walking through the neighboring parks on our way back, we kept seeing the odd-looking bi-color birds, plumed as if dressed for an evening out.

“Look at those things! What IS that?” I said.
My husband discovered it was the hooded crow, a bird that looks like any other crow except for a grey body as if it is wearing a suit coat.

After a brief rest back at the apartment, we sampled pierogi at a Polish chain restaurant called Zapiecik, where we dined on various dumplings to keep our strength up for our food tour that evening. The waitresses were costumed in something that melded cocktails and milkmaids, as if your Polish granny opened a casino on her farm. I’ve never met a dumpling I outright rejected, and they all were delicious. .

Numerous windows on our street near the historic square displayed exquisite amber jewelry. There is also a great deal of ordinary amber jewelry. Still, many designs are unique and gorgeous, showcasing the hardened resin from the Baltic. One-of-a-kind pieces are found with insects encased in them if you fancy wearing a 40 million year old gnat in its final death throes around your throat. I love amber, its golden glow and translucency. It reminds me of browned butter, honey, pancake syrup, and a tiger’s tawny iris. There is something so summery in the color, like it captures far more than an odd bug here and there and has distilled the quality of light at sunset.

However, I found the pricing high despite the quality. I decided to pass on adding anything more than a refrigerator magnet to take home as a memento from Warsaw. Maybe next time? Looking at these photos again fuels my need to have one of these beauties dangling from my fat, dumpling-loving neck.

We wanted to find something engaging to do for a few hours and headed to the Vistula River and The Copernicus Science Centre, an interactive museum containing over 450 exhibits that are supposed to delight both adults and children. It LOOKED interesting from the outside, but we discovered that Saturday is not the day to go if you want an entrance ticket. It was also poor timing for the sold out adjacent planetarium. We could hear and see the happy children inside as we stood outside, ticketless losers in the game of fun.

Another museum was next door, so we popped inside to see what they offered. The entry opened into a welcomingly chilly, high-ceiling bookstore where I discovered the exhibition focus in the dark interior – early feminist films of the 20th century. The cold air was appealing. “It is a series of feminist films from the ’70s,” I said. We silently looked at each other. No one wanted to outright reject feminism as afternoon amusement, as we all identified on some level with the cause. Still, we came for interactive exhibits, essentially adult play painted sloppily as science, and films about women’s rights would ask us to think. The darkness would have put us all to sleep after our long day in the heat. We opted for river drinks.

The first bar had potential, an oversized party barge, but we soon found out why it was empty. With each drink we ordered, the bartender told us what was missing.
“We are out of apple juice, grapefruit juice and ginger ale,” he said when we ordered drinks. More ingredients were missing with each order. We sat down with versions of the original drinks and watched the river.

Kayakers drifted past, and one man on a paddle board with a proud river dog. Across the river, the banks preserve their natural look, bushy and sandy. Upstream, the Swietokrzyski Bridge is striking and provides a beautiful backdrop on the Vistula. The river’s name sounds like something you would have removed by a trained surgeon, and the linguistic origin references something that oozes slowly. Ew.

After one disappointing drink, we moved on to beer at a hopping sand bar a block away. Bezkres grilled sausages and served beer indoors and out, where patrons could sit on swings or lay in beach chairs and wiggle their toes in the sand.

This stretch of riverfront property was industrial, abandoned, and undeveloped just a few years ago, according to our bicycle tour guide earlier in the week. Today it is hopping with restaurants serving everything from pizza to tacos to pho and gelato. Vintage clothing stores and bars share space with chain stores like Urban Outfitters. Splashy museums bring art, film, interactive science, and the planets to the citizens of Warsaw, while newly constructed apartments bring prices in the high six figures. A cycling and walking path along the river is bustling, and people lounge in the sunlight or let their children play in fountains.

We sip our drinks and watch the families, couples, and friends enjoying the sunny weather. Our original plans didn’t happen, but I always welcome the opportunity to relax and people-watch rather than check off a list. We will have to wait until next time to see the museums, but the riverfront was a wonderful place to spend a beautiful afternoon in Warsaw.

General Tips:

  • Plan ahead for The Copernicus Science Center. This is a popular place.
  • Take time to stroll through Warsaw’s parks as well as the riverfront.
  • If you can, leave time each day for walking around and watching a city rather than touring exhibits or buildings. You can get more of a feel for what it is like to live there.

Big Time Darts in Warsaw

I don’t know anything about professional darts. Still, if you ask me if I want to attend an international dart tournament in Warsaw, the answer is unequivocally yes. I don’t need a reason to go anywhere, but it pleases me if I can find an unusual one. For me, the PDC International Dart Tournament fulfilled this completely.

My husband’s friend, Alex, and his fiancé Jen would be flying in from Korea to meet us in Warsaw and attend the dart tournament that night. Alex, a dart fan, was bitter that he only had tickets for the first night, not the finals (they sold out immediately). We didn’t share his concern as newcomers to the game. After brief naps and showers, they tried to shake off their jet lag for the event that evening.

Before we came to Warsaw, I shared the promotional photo on social media to see if anyone had any tips for the city or my first dart tournament. I received none. When I looked at the men in the photo, they looked like they could slam some beers. Men with sausage breath who could fart as long as your leg. Alex told me that once a tournament had fart interference, with the two players blaming each other for the stench. Gary Anderson of Scotland and the Dutchman Wesley Harms claimed to be the smellers and not the fellers, each saying the other interfered in the tournament by stinking the stage up.

We arrived an hour ahead to find an already long line. One thing about PDC darts is the fans are encouraged to wear costumes. The sillier, the better. Sadly, we did not have time to secure any but I love any excuse to wear something ridiculous. Standing in line for admission, there were many people wearing beer hats, hats in the shape of dart boards, Pikachu hats that lit up, sombreros, mouse ears, crowns, and rainbow-hued mohawk wigs. For full-body costumes, there were pigs, tigers, an Elmo, a dinosaur, a crew of escaped prisoners, one convincing Jack Sparrow, the pope, and Mario and crew, to name a few. The crowd was colorful, excited, and happy to be attending that evening, their accessories blinking and glowing in the purple stage light of the stadium’s interior.

Dart bros getting a last minute vape in.

When I am in a crush of visibly excited white people bellowing at a sporting event, I get anxious. I am not trying to single out white people here, as I am white. Still, I have flashbacks to whooping and hollering assholes at football games and then back to childhood in the Ozarks when recess was an excellent time for kids to beat the shit out of each other. A ring of clapping and yelling children, egging the takedown on, was all too frequent. If you were the reluctant gladiator in that hillbilly ring of despair more than once, you see the remnants of their joy in the faces of excited adult sports fans. We had already been shoved around in Warsaw upon arrival and in the city center so I braced for an altercation.

My fears were completely unfounded. The crowd was excited, not looking for a fight (they weren’t Americans, after all), and everyone was united in their deep love of darts. I must admit, before the evening ended, I fell in love with darts myself.

The set up for the arena is fans in the bleacher seats and at long tables on the floor, Valhalla-style, drinking beer and sharing in the experience. The announcer arrived with a burst of lights and horns and presented in the manner of Michael Buffer’s “Let’s get ready to rumble.” Throughout the tournament, an announcer growled the scores with the flair of James Brown. Dancing Dimitri Van den Bergh of Belgium entered the event via a fenced chute to the tune of “Happy” by Pharrel Williams. Fans crowded the corridor for high-fives and hugs. Once onstage, Dimitri does a little dance to please the crowd. His opponent, Karel Sedlacek, did not. Other players are more serious, but each has a theme song for entry to the tournament, usually a tune that gets everyone clapping along to the beat.

You immediately sense the intense pressure on the players. The matches move quickly, and the players must maintain precision and focus despite the crowd’s hollering. At the end of each game, no matter who wins, there is a refreshing camaraderie and good sportsmanship as the players shake hands and clap each other on the back. You get the sense they know each other well and would be happy to have a pint together.

“Ah, they’re friends!” I said to my husband.

The crowd chanted, whooped with each favorite player, and clapped their names in unison. The most popular tune to chant to was the bass guitar riff opening for “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes. A large man behind us, his belly swaying over our heads and half out of his shirt, kept spraying spit and starting the chant repeatedly in a deep, gruff baritone. I rose with the crowd each time and chanted along in an approximation of Polish. I still have this riff on replay in my head with the name, Krzystof Ratajski, superimposed. He was a Polish player who won his match, to the crowd’s joy, and spoke movingly about what it was like to win on his home turf.

After a few matches, there is a break, and a dancing skeleton on the big screen encourages everyone to get up and dance. The people at the Valhalla tables rise and dance together, their matching beer and light-up Pikachu hats bouncing as one. There are families, men and women on dates, and groups of dart bros out for a night of fun. While standing in line for a hotdog, I saw a father dressed in a pink pig onesie walking carefully back to his seat while holding eight beers by the rims, pinched in his fingers. His little boy, a fierce tiger, ran ahead of him.

There was one massive drawback to this event. The organizers needed to plan appropriately for the crowds. Long lines formed immediately to limited taps, moved at a glacier speed and were understaffed. My husband bravely stood in line for 50 minutes to secure our only beers and missed out on the first match despite our early arrival. Food was equally tricky.

I stood in what appeared to be a short line of four people for hotdogs for over thirty minutes. Two languid girls worked the stand. No matter how many hotdogs anyone ordered, the hotdog vendor removed them slowly from the packaging, one at a time, and dropped them into the hot water and then stood there staring off into her own world, far beyond the stadium. No more than one hot dog was in process at any moment, as if it were going to be a masterpiece, a one-of-a-kind wiener. The line was resolved to this, and the young women were remarkable in that they never once broke the molasses pace or expressed any interest in the customers.

Even if you know nothing about it, try the championship darts. The events are broadcast live, and if you can get a group of friends together to see it in person, you will not regret the experience. It is intense to watch, and the crowds are fun. Be sure to wear a costume. More than one Pikachu or pope went home that night envisioning themselves as the next dart champion of the world, and the accessibility of the sport levels the playing field enough that, for some, that dream can come true.

Signs displaying the optimal score or often waved about.

General Tips:

  • Even if you are allergic to sporting events because of negative past experiences, try attending a competition in a new sport. You may be surprised by how much you enjoy it.
  • Attend a sporting event while you are traveling in another country, even just another state. The contrast between what you experience at home and elsewhere may surprise you.
  • Go out and grab a pint with your friends and try some darts!

Warsaw: Trying New Dishes in the Old Town

Warsaw may not have welcomed us with open arms, but our first evening out was lovely. Our spacious apartment in old town smelled heavenly from the street waffle operation below us. After stashing our luggage, we learned the restaurants closed early. Fukiera was our host’s recommendation, and it was lucky it was only half a block away.

I’ll admit I don’t know a great deal about Polish food beyond pierogi. Arriving back in the US for Christmas last year, my sister shared a Facebook ad with me. A woman was selling pierogi from a garage in a neighboring town. I drove to the house and stood on her doorstep while she went inside to get sacks of frozen dumplings filled with meat and cabbage. I love the simplicity of these types of exchanges. Someone makes something delicious, shoves it in their freezer, and someday you find yourself standing on a stranger’s doorstep with cash and a need. Those dumplings, boiled, sauteed in butter, served with chives and sour cream, sustained us through the Christmas visit.

The square, just a half block from where we were staying, had diners at cheerfully lit sidewalk cafes festooned with ivy and flowers. We grabbed an outdoor table at Fukiera, a restaurant originating from the 16th century, where we had a good view of the square. All the pushiness of the airport melted after our first drink arrived, the Fukier, a Bison Grass Vodka, Amaretto, Cointreau, apple, and grapefruit cocktail served with a slice of orange. The vodka is Polish, first manufactured in 1928, although they claim the recipe dates back to the 14th century. The Bison Grass name is because they slip a single blade of this grass into each bottle. The Fukier was chilled, potent, and refreshing, just the thing to wipe all memories of air travel away.

As we sipped our drinks, an occasional family or couple wandered across the square to take a photo with the mermaid statue (protectress of Warsaw) or worked the old iron water pumps. People walked dogs and sat on benches, admiring the peacefulness of the evening until a light rain briefly fell. We sat under large umbrellas and watched them scatter. I could see the open windows of apartments looking out on the square, a potted plant in a window, someone adjusting pillows on their sofa, and thought how nice it must be to throw your windows wide on an evening with a soft rain.

We both ordered the chilled beet soup from the summer menu, a traditional Lithuanian style served with dill and a free-range egg, topped with watercress and edible flowers.
The presentation was stunning with all the colors of spring, and the sprinkling of watercress on top created a nice contrast to the creaminess of the base. I cannot replicate the exact recipe from Fukiera, but this soup generally has a base of sour cream and buttermilk, with beets and cucumbers.

Soup Recipe and Restaurant Link Below: Warsaw: Trying New Dishes in the Old Town

This soup tasted how I wished every spring could be – fresh, sweet, smooth, and colorful. It tasted like something fairies in a magical forest would tip into their tiny mouths from silver thimbles. I imagined this soup sipped by queens, by powdered ladies in a gilded salon, by woodland nymphs, by angels when they needed a lunch break. This soup made us happy. My husband looked at me, and I looked at him. We did not have to speak. We were lucky, we both thought, so goddamn lucky, to be eating this soup together right now. Nothing could be better than this moment and this soup.

Then the next dishes arrived, pickled herring and duck dumplings. The flavors were an excellent transition from the soup’s lightness to the herring’s salty richness and the pierogi’s dense earthiness. The fish, coiled and glistening on a bed of diced and vinegary celery, garnished with even more watercress and blossoms, tastes nothing like anything you have ever had out of a jar. Tinned and jarred pickled fish are fine if you like that, but this was clearly fresh pickled herring. We ate it with the same ferocity and startled joy as the beet soup, and then my husband said something that shook me.

“We may have ordered too much food,” he said.

No, it couldn’t be. We never could have ordered too many of these incredible dishes. However, as we dug into the duck pierogi I realized he was probably right. The pierogi alone would have been enough for dinner, each dumpling crammed with what seemed like at least ¼ of a duck. Sauteed lightly and browned in butter, they were a heavy addition to our already expansive starters. We ate every last one before the venison arrived. At least we had the good sense to only order one plate to split.

The venison was dark, rich, and tender, served in a sauce of fresh blackberries atop roasted buckwheat, accented with black cumin. I’ve had many a fine dining experience with venison, and many an Ozark version as well served out of a crockpot in someone’s warm kitchen, but this was the best venison I have ever had. The tenderness of the meat held such intensity of flavor and absorbed the warm sweetness of the berries. We cleared that plate too.

Adding dessert was impossible, so we walked the short distance back to our apartment. The taffy and balloon sellers had long packed up, and the waffle and ice cream place below us was closed, although the apartment still held the sweet smells. We settled in for an evening of relishing the memory of dinner until sleep. If you find yourself in Warsaw, add Fukiera to the list of places to visit. After the fact, I read the interior is supposed to be unique and ornate (we dined outside), and some reviews were mixed on the service and food. However, we found nothing lacking at this dining landmark in the old city, and it has inspired us to try new dishes at home.

General Tips: