Stepping into the Past, Days 19-24:  Malta to Barcelona.  Barcelona is well-known as the epicenter of Catalan Modernist architecture.  Its most popular attractions are the architectural creations of favorite native son, Antoni Gaudí.  When Gaudí graduated from the Barcelona Architecture School, after his tenure as a mediocre student, the school's director reportedly remarked, "We have given this academic title to either a fool or a genius.  Time will show."

History would record that Gaudí subsequently proved to be the latter.  There is no mistaking his designs.  They are ground-breaking and unique and reflect his distinctive style, and most are located in Barcelona.  His most famous is the Church of Sagrada Família (the Holy Family), one of the most visited sites in all of Spain.
La Sagrada Familia (photo from Wikimedia)
Gaudí took charge of the project a year after the foundation stone was laid in 1882, scrapping the original Gothic design plans in favor of his unique interpretation of Modernism.  By the time of his death in 1926, the building was about 20% complete. Vandalism during the Spanish Civil War and a 2011 fire disrupted the building’s progress.

(photo from Wikipedia)
The church’s interior is defined by columns that stretch like tree branches toward the ceiling. Gaudí’s plans call for 18 spires, eight of which are complete, as well as numerous towers, chapels, portals, and other interior features. When built, the tallest spire, symbolizing Jesus Christ, is expected to secure Sagrada Família’s place as the world’s largest church building.

But the building is far from complete.  Projections that construction may wind up by 2026, the hundredth anniversary of Gaudí's death, seem overly optimistic, given that so much is left to be done.  (See the 2018 model of the plan to the right.  Parts already constructed are shown in tan.)  Gaudí is buried in the crypt of a chapel to the left of the Sagrada Família altar, so he will be present for what will be a grand celebration when the project is finally completed.

Though it is by far his most ambitious project, the church is not the only popular Barcelona attraction bestowed on the city by Gaudí.  Two homes he designed are also at the top of most visitors' must-see lists: Casa Batlló and Casa Milà.
Casa Batlló (photo from Wikimedia)
Known among locals as the “house of bones,” Batlló reflects Gaudí’s transformation of a pedestrian middle-class residence into a work of art. Designed to look more like the organic layers of an animal than a private home, the house has few straight lines. Much of the exterior is decorated with colorful mosaics made from broken ceramic tiles, and the roof line resembles a dragon’s back.  Currently the front of the building is covered with scaffolding and a canvas, as it undergoes restoration.
Casa Milà
Completed in 1912, Casa Milà was the last private residence designed by the famous architect. Its undulating stone façade and twisting iron balconies thrust the house into a neighborhood controversy and attracted unwanted attention from city officials. In the end, the local government forced the alteration of Gaudí’s original plans, ordering demolition of elements that exceeded height standards and fining the owners for numerous building code infractions.
Random building near Casa Milà
As remarkable as these and other Modernist structures are, they are not Barcelona’s only claims to architectural fame. The city is replete with architectural gems, many of which would generate special mention in most cities, but in Barcelona’s collection of riches, they’re just another bauble.
Sant Pau
Another masterpiece of Catalan Modernism is the Hospital de Sant Pau complex built between 1901 and 1930. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, like Sagrada Família, Sant Pau has been called the largest Art Nouveau complex in the world. Named for a wealthy Catalan banker who left his estate to the city for the construction of a hospital, Sant Pau was a fully functioning hospital until 2009. Today it is used as a popular museum and cultural center.
 The Ohla Hotel sees the city.
The architect charged with transforming this historic building into a boutique hotel engaged an artist to create a design on the building's exterior that would 'bring soul' to this former department store. Four years later came the installation of 1,000 basketball-sized ceramic eyeballs pointing in various directions on the building's facade, giving the Ohla Hotel its distinctive appearance.
Arc de Triomf
The Arc de Triomf was built as the main access gate for the 1888 Barcelona World Fair. Designed in Moorish Revival style of red brick, the arch overlooks a wide promenade, a popular gathering place and a pathway to Citadel Park, the city’s signature green space. (A more famous entrance gate designed by Gustave Eiffel was constructed for the next year’s world’s fair in Paris.)
Palau Nacional
Another building constructed to welcome visitors from abroad was the Palau Nacional (National Palace), which served as the main site of the 1929 International Exhibition. Sitting majestically on the hill of Montjuic, the Spanish Renaissance building later became home to the National Art Museum of Catalonia.

And just walking around the city, one comes across a wealth of architectural treasures which merit no particular attention in the context of Barcelona’s abundance but are immensely pleasing to the eye.
Spain outlawed bullfighting, so the old arena became a shopping center.
Catalonia Palace of Justice
Detail from an unnamed building
Art Nouveau confection
More random Art Nouveau
And Barcelona does funky, too.
Resurrecting Old Easter Errors
It comes as no surprise that we again plunged headfirst into a four-day Easter holiday without adequate planning. Incredibly, we managed to do this three times last April in the Balkans—Catholic Easter in Slovakia, Orthodox Easter the following week in Romania, and, another week later, Memorial Easter in Moldova. Naively, we thought we had learned our lesson.  We were wrong.

In our initial draft for this trip, we would have been in Israel this weekend, but came to our senses when we realized the country would be flooded with visitors from two religions with Easter and Passover coinciding. We recalculated and pushed that stop into May. Then we wavered between Barcelona and Andorra for Easter weekend, finally settling on Andorra.
Seeing the sights in Andorra
Apparently, thousands of other people had the same notion. About a mile inside the Andorra border on Saturday, we came to a dead stop in the midst of an overheated holiday traffic jam. We were just ten kilometers from our hotel, but in the next half an hour, we advanced only half a kilometer. The odds did not look good, so as soon as we crawled to a traffic circle, we followed it around 360° and headed back south to Barcelona, stopping just long enough to plant a drive-by letterbox in an Andorran guardrail.

And we learned that not just the Easter holidays but the entire Holy Week in Barcelona attracts many thousands of Spaniards to the city, in addition to the foreign visitors. Even though we were aware that tickets to the Gaudí hotspots needed to be purchased in advance, our intentions to get that done while traveling fell by the wayside so we were unable to enter any of the sites, prompting us to add Barcelona to our “must return to” list.

What's Next?
Now we leave Europe and head to the Middle East—seven days in Jordan followed by nine days in Israel.  With lots of historic sites on our agenda in these neighboring countries, we're looking forward to our first visit to the area in 40 years.

Chapter 6 Stats
    •  Started in:  Valletta, Malta
    •  Ended in:  Barcelona, Spain
    •  Air Miles:  760
    •  Foot Miles:  34.6
    •  Road Miles to Andorra & back: 232
    •  Highway Tolls to Andorra & back:  $59.76
    •  Gas to Andorra & back:  $42.20  ($6.04/gallon)
    •  Weather:  52° to 68°, windy, windy, windy
    •  Motorcycles in Barcelona:  59,271
    •  Architectural Delights:  too many to count
    •  Street cats:  0

Loved:  The eye candy provided by Barcelona’s many architectural jewels, both the acclaimed and the unsung. The ease of traveling around the city with its extensive public transit system.

Tickets to the most popular attractions.

Learned:  We’d say we’ve learned our lesson about Easter, but future lapses in judgement may prove us wrong as we do love to travel in April.
A Fair Fare Affair 
Though the stations can’t match those in Athens for cleanliness, Barcelona’s Metro system is superb. Almost any spot in the city has a rapid transit station nearby, a feature usually found only in much larger cities. And the cost is beyond reasonable: $1.12 per ride in the city, $5.17 to/from the airport.  Check here to compare the rapid transit map of Atlanta with a metro population of 6.5 million with this graphic of the Barcelona system that serves 5.5 million.
Avenue Diagonal
In Plain Sight 
Plane trees (called sycamore in the US) are popular choices for urban boulevards in Europe. Unlike Paris, London and other European cities, Barcelona allows its planes to grow to their normal height rather than stunting them with extreme pruning. This natural growth offers both shade and a certain majesty along Barcelona sidewalks.  Compare an example of mutilation pruning in England here.
Beware motorcyclists with malevolent intentions.
That's Evil, Knievel 
When we picked up our rental car from Hertz in Barcelona for our ill-fated trip to Andorra, the agent alerted us that motorcyclists have been known to ride up beside a car and point to a tire indicating it is flat. When the driver stops, the cyclist stabs the tire to puncture it. What the next step in this scam would be, he didn’t say and we didn’t bother to ask, knowing we wouldn't allow it to happen, thanks to his warning.
Now You See It... 
Driving in northern Spain, we were startled when we rounded a steep curve in a rural area and suddenly found ourselves in the full-blown town of Martinet. After passing through the densly developed town, we exited just as abruptly as we had entered, back in a rural landscape again.  This kind of development is typical of what we see in European countries, but this was particularly surprising because of the curved approach.
Cathedral of Barcelona, constructed 13th to 15th century
Train frequency meant we rarely waited for a subway ride.
Another view of the Palace of Justice 
Contemporary architecture in L'illa Diagonal shopping mall
One of numerous stunning viaducts between Barcelona and Andorra 
The lone Andorran official at the border crossing was on the phone with his back to entering cars.


Stepping into the Past, Days 16-18:  Cyprus to Malta.  Hey, Malta! You didn't have to try so hard to encourage us to move on. Really. You could have stopped after your Hertz agents asked us to put a $9,650 hold on our credit card because we declined to buy the insurance they tried to sell us. You must have been disappointed when we walked eight feet to the right and rented a car from Avis at a cheaper rate without the absurd hold requirement. (They really are trying harder!)

After that original plan was foiled, you still tried to get to us before we left the airport. Did you really think we wouldn't recognize your intentions when you had not one but two locals yell rude things at us because we took a wrong turn searching for the unsigned airport exit? And still we persisted.

We can't deny our grudging respect for your amazing powers of dissuasion once we reached the Hilton Hotel. Though we weren't daunted by your airport tests, we can't deny that they wore us down a bit. Otherwise, we would never have stepped into that trap at the hotel, where the “special welcome service” for diamond members stretched out our check-in procedure to an hour of employees repeating nonsense "information" about the hotel's amenities, all the while peddling lies to justify denying us the room upgrade to which we were entitled.

This might have worked in the day when only hotel employees could see the inventory of available rooms, but with the Hilton app, we have access to that information, too.  Their attempt to put us in a "relaxation suite,” which numerous Trip Advisor reviews warned are located over a public access beach where young people party all night, was laughable. Only after pointing out to the duty manager the extreme contrast between our excruciating experience at Hilton Malta and the welcoming and efficient Hilton Nicosia did not one but two rooms of the desired type suddenly become available. Smiling unctuously, he offered us the opportunity to select which we preferred.
Too many cars!
On our first full day, we drove through your frenzied Malta traffic to the old capital of Mdina.  How can you possibly need 385,000 cars for your 425,000 people?  After all, you're only 8 miles wide and 28 miles long.
Maltese roundabout
And what's up with painting a flat red circle in a wide place where three or four or more streets intersect and calling it a roundabout with no signs to even indicate it's supposed to be a traffic circle?  Have you noticed that most vehicles simply drive across the red circle instead of around it?
Should we or shouldn't we take this narrow road located near a quarry sending out big trucks?
And, while we're on the subject of traffic, why are massive buses and large dump trucks routed on narrow roads?

But back to Mdina.  When we arrived, you offered up a small car park that was full to bursting, supervised by a couple of guys who were surreptitiously soliciting a bit of baksheesh to allow the dozen drivers trolling around the lot a chance at the spots that vacated.  When we took an empty without paying the bribe, you gave the parking attendant a chance for revenge.  "It's raining!" he smirked as we pulled into a space we thought we were due after 25 minutes of circling.  And at that moment, the sky opened up with a deluge.  Devious.  And effective.  We called it a day and gave up on Mdina.  Clearly you were wearing us down.

That evening, with the rest of the world, we watched on TV the horrifying sight of Notre Dame burning in Paris.  Somberly, the following day we had an urge to visit some medieval churches, and you for once didn't bite us in the butt.
Our Lady of Victory Church, Valletta
The Church of Our Lady of Victory was the first building erected in Valletta, Malta's capital, located where the first stone of the city was laid in 1566.  Dedicated to commemorate the victory of the Knights of Malta, also known as the Order of St. John, over an Ottoman siege of Malta the previous year.  The church was subsequently remodeled and enlarged in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Ceiling frescoes from 1716 depict events from the life of Virgin.  We were the only visitors in this stunning sanctuary.
St. John's Co-Cathedral
In contrast, the elaborately decorated cathedral nearby was flush with admirers.  Considered one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe, St. John's Co-Cathedral is dedicated to St. John the Baptist and scenes from his life are featured.  Virtually all the wall and ceiling surfaces are embellished with a wealth of carvings, gold leaf and frescoes.  Competed in 1577 after five years of construction, the church's interior matched its austere exterior until the 1660s when the grand master of the Knights ordered the redecoration of the cathedral to rival elaborately ornamented churches of Rome.  Quite obviously, he got what he asked for.
Valletta, the Maltese capital city
Even though a whopping 359 churches were available in Malta to help us assuage our grief over Notre Dame, our only other ecclesiastical stop was at the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whose massive oval dome dominates the Valletta skyline.
Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel
Though its decor is simplistic compared with Victory and the Co-Cathedral, the sanctuary is adorned with striking red marble columns and elaborately sculpted white walls, a project completed over the course of 19 years by a single artist.  The original basilica, completed in 1570, was heavily damaged during World War II and had to be rebuilt in the latter 20th century.

When we entered the basilica, we found a toothless woman seated at a table with trinkets for sale and a metal tin with coins.  "Donation," she said when we walked in, opening the tin and rattling the coins.

We pointed to a nearby receptacle labeled in six languages, 'Donations for the Church.'  "Here," I said.  "No, here!" she exclaimed, rattling her tin.  We again indicated the official box and she again rattled her coins.

"For you?" I asked.  "No!" she cried, clearly shocked at my suggestion.  "For Jesus," she insisted, hand over her heart.  We finally relented and put a euro in her tin.  Shortly after, while exploring the nave, we saw her transferring money from Jesus's till to her purse.  We shrugged, figuring he would want to help her with her dental problems. On our way out, we deposited another euro in the official box.

The next day we were leaving but Malta had another surprise before we could board our flight to Barcelona.  The problems began in the gate area when an airline agent walked through the waiting queue tagging some passengers’ carryon bags to be checked on the tarmac. When asked why some people’s smaller bags were targeted for the hold when other larger bags were not, the agent claimed those people were in a tour and the plane was full and there was no more space for carryons.

After we challenged the unfairness and lack of logic in this reasoning, two young Spaniards behind us and an older British couple behind them did the same. Before crossing the tarmac to the remote stand, I removed the tag that was put on my bag (Ken had none). The young couple saw me and did the same. As it turned out when we boarded, there was plenty of bin space for our bags. The British couple, who did give up theirs despite fretting about their medications and tight schedule to catch a cruise from Barcelona, had an empty bin above them when they took their seats in the row behind us, grumbling about the Maltese and their surly treatment.
In the end, we had to conclude that this tiny chunk of limestone in the Mediterranean known as Malta just has way too many cars, an excess number of tourists, more than its share of boats, and a drastic dearth of elbow room.  Glad we went once but don't expect us back, Malta.

(Don't tell Malta, but we did wonder if our experiences could be chalked up to our expressed interest in finding out more about—shhh!—the Order.)

Chapter 5 Stats
    •  Started in:  Nicosia, Cyprus
    •  Ended in:  Valletta, Malta
    •  Air Miles:  1,082
    •  Road Miles: 68 (51 on rental car, 17 in taxis)
    •  Foot Miles:  17.48
    •  Weather:  48° to 64°, sunny, partly cloudy, rainy
    •  Flat roundabouts:  Too many
    •  Balconies:  8,362
    •  Boats:  3,709
    •  Tour buses:  Everywhere
    •  Exterior paint colors:  One - yellow, with variations

Loved:  (Hold on.  We'll come up with something!)

A limit on the number of cars.  Enthusiasm for using buses among locals and tourists.  A public rapid transit system.

Learned:  Too many people on a tiny island is a really bad idea.

The Maltese Balcony
A salient feature of urban architecture in Malta (and let's face it, the country is almost all urban) is what has become known as the Maltese balcony. Colorful, often wooden and pervasive, the balconies decorate virtually every residential building, especially in Valletta.  Apparently, the structures began to appear in Valletta in the mid-18th century, quickly gained favor and became the norm.  

The Math Done for You 
Our hobby of letterboxing has inspired a passionate interest in visiting cemeteries, not only for what is often exceptional sculpture and architecture, but also to see the variations of customs in how the dearly departed are memorialized.  At the small cemetery we checked out in Malta, we noticed that, as we had observed in Cyprus, the math is often done for you.  Rather than showing birth and death dates, as is customary in some places, headstones indicate the day of departure and the person's age.  Also in both places, we admired the tendency of using one grave plot for a family with all burials together and photos of the deceased often displayed.

Gorgeous decorations adorn crypts in Our Lady of Victory. 
Organ at Our Lady of Victory
Austere exterior of the Co-Cathedral.  Dials tell time, month and date.
Co-Cathedral's high altar.  If it ain't Baroque... 
Maltese balconies are usually individually decorated, but occasionally uniform. 
How long do you have to drive on the left before this sight isn't jarring? 
On our final day, we managed to locate an undeveloped spot at the Dingli Cliffs. 
We enjoyed some authentic Maltese pastizzi at Is-Serkin, a busy Mdina cafe.
Thinking of flying with Vueling, Spain's discount airline?  Don't!