Letting it All Hang Out in Tarragona

How did the naked KFC Crispy Colonel get his tender white meat so tan? I couldn’t help but wonder this as we saw the darkest white man possible strutting his stuff (and I mean all his stuff) up and down Savinosa Beach, just outside Tarragona.

We were in a throwback mood anyway, so thoughts of George Hamilton (aka the Crispy Colonel KFC pitchman and the actor known more for his tan than for his acting chops) were apropos. Our hotel, Hotel Sant Jordi, screamed the hipster ‘60s or ‘70s.

When was the last time you saw a hotel’s name reverse-weaved into the bath towels? Or a comb and dental set as in-room freebies? The only things missing were a “sanitized for your protection” strip across the toilet seat and a Dean Martin soundtrack playing in the lobby.

Don’t get me wrong: it was a terrific place to stay, with a big room, great view, thoughtful amenities and a continental breakfast for three large enough to feed a continental army. The service was impeccable and at a level we generally do not experience in US hotels.

‘Nude-Nude, Nudity Beach’

But let me get back to the colonel. One of the attractions of Hotel Sant Jordi was its nearness to the Mediterranean Sea, about a block away. Marilynn and Declan went to Savinosa Beach immediately upon our arrival at the hotel while I stayed behind and caught up on a little work. They came back and reported that the beach actually was a nudist beach, judging by the lack of clothing on many people.

I did a little research afterward and discovered that topless is OK on every beach in Spain and that full nudity apparently is OK on any beach where it hasn’t been specifically banned by local ordinance. While I’m not puritanical, the thought of full public nudity does knock my American sense of decency slightly off-kilter.

It doesn’t affect my sense of humor, however, as I quickly adapted words to the Ramones’ “Rockaway Beach” to my own purposes:

Nude-Nude, Nudity Beach,

Nude-Nude, Nudity Beach,

See the twigs and berries on Nudity Beach!

(Oh baby…)

Enough nuts for one day

And it doesn’t affect Declan’s sense of humor either. He and Marilynn had discovered a quaint bistro overlooking the beach, where we had pizza for dinner. There were still a few nudists hanging out, as it were, as the day waned. For tapas, the waiter offered a bowl of nuts. “Would you like some nuts?” I asked Declan. “No. I’ve seen enough for one day,” he replied.

Our train to Murcia didn’t leave until 1, so we spent time mid-morning the following day back on the beach. Declan played in the shallow waves and swam a little in the Mediterranean, while Marilynn and I walked back and forth along the beach, a stretch of perhaps 300 yards.

A group of  four men, two Fully Monty and two wearing shorts, were also walking back and forth. A few single men sans shorts were walking, and we saw at least two women with their baps out sunning themselves.

And then we spied the colonel. He was 12 shades darker than any other person on the beach, without a tan line anywhere. I looked anywhere but down as we walked toward each other, but I did turn around as he walked past. In addition to the deep tan, his hair was slightly long and pulled into a bun in a style I describe as “Señor Top Knot” when I see it on football players.

His other buns practically glowed, which made me wonder if his dermatologist charged extra for the additional real estate he had to examine. And given how dark this man was, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d fallen into a ‘70s time warp, when a deep tan was a sign of health rather than a warning sign for melanoma.

Gaudí’s Lesser-Known Attractions Merit Attention

Although Antoni Gaudí’s masterpiece undoubtedly is La Sagrada Família, Barcelona’s best-known architect left indelible marks throughout his hometown.

Park Güell, Casa Batlló and La Pedrera are three more examples of Gaudí’s imitable style, each of which attract millions of visitors each year. But you can also see lampposts he designed while you walk along La Rambla and Plaça Reial plaza.

Park Güell a whimsical jewel

Designed as a mountainous retreat for wealthy Barcelona homeowners, Park Güell was a bust as a housing development. The property was purchased by the city in 1922 and turned into a public park. Despite the crowds (Park Güell attracts nearly 4 million visitors a year), the attraction is worth a visit.

Timed tickets allow only 300 people to enter every 30 minutes, but visitors tend to wander throughout the park taking selfies and pictures of each other, leading to bottlenecks. These bottlenecks can be frustrating, but there’s always a side path you can take to avoid the worst of the crowds.

Upon seeing Gaudí’s work, one can’t escape comparisons to Dr. Seuss, with the undulating railings and benches, supports that look like angled tree trunks with expanding roots and buildings that seem to come straight from fantasy novels.

Three kilometers of trails, several buildings and a proposed marketplace for Park Güell were developed before the project was abandoned. From the main entrance, you encounter twin houses and the porter’s lodge without a straight line to be seen. Twin staircases converge on a landing guarded by a colorful lizard.

Further up you’ll discover the marketplace, a welcome respite from a hot day as you wander among the 88 oddly angled stone columns supporting a massive roof. Off to one side, tree roots appear to hold up a covered walkway. Look carefully, and you’ll see a washerwoman carved into one of the columns. Reaching the top of the enclosed park you’ll find a viewing platform with a curvaceous bench running along its edge where visitors line up for photographs. From there you’ll get a great overview of the park, the city in the middle distance and the Mediterranean Sea beyond.

Even more to see

Outside the park itself you’ll find Casa-Museu Gaudí, where the architect lived for the two decades preceding his death. The museum also features furniture that he designed. The surrounding park is tree-lined and very hilly, but it provides more city views and a respite from the worst of the crowds.

Casa Batlló is a residential building in the L’Eixample district that Gaudí redeveloped during the same period as Park Güell. The façade recalls Saint George and the Dragon, a motif that repeats in the interior and on the roof. I defy you to find a straight line in a window, door or hallway. Residents would have felt they were living in a fantasy world as they opened oddly shaped doors with raised designs and walked along hallways that felt more like narrow tunnels.

After La Sagrada Família and Park Güell, though, Casa Batlló was a bit of the letdown. If we hadn’t already seen the other attractions, we would have been more impressed. It doesn’t help that the same number (if not more) people cram into this residential building as explore a 13,000-seat basilica each year. And it cost more to visit Casa Batlló than the other attractions. Kinda like charging the sardine to be put in the can, I say.

La PedreraLa Pedrera, designed by Gaudí as an office/apartment block, was similarly expensive, so we took pictures of the façade and went about our day.


La Sagrada Família Lives Up to Reputation

Pictures cannot do justice to La Sagrada Família and neither can words. It just must be experienced to be believed. Some call it a masterwork. Some call it (pardon the pun) gaudy, but everyone should agree they’ve seen nothing like it before.

Walking through the main doors, your mouth opens involuntarily as your eyes fill with color and shape and light. You may draw a quick intake of breath, as I did. Looking back over the hundreds of photos we took, none capture the vibrance of the experience.

A lifetime’s work, give or take a century

For those who don’t know, La Sagrada Família in Barcelona consumed most of Antoni Gaudí’s life. He took over the project shortly after its conception in 1882 and over the next 40 years turned the idea of a Gothic cathedral on its head.

More than 130 years since construction started, it’s still not complete, although principal construction is now projected to be completed in 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death. However, placement of the finials, or tops, of the remaining towers likely will occur several years later.

As numerous signs remind you, La Sagrada Família remains a construction site. Three cranes over the towers make that abundantly clear, as do the tall plywood barriers that obstruct two portions of the main floor designed to seat 13,000. Despite the barriers, despite the tour groups and the crowds and the Italian couple having a lovers’ spat, you feel at one with the place, filled with an inner peace.

Stunning inside and out

Oh, but the sights you will see both outside and inside despite the construction. Glimpsed from a high point in Barcelona, La Sagrada Família does not seem out of place. It was well sign-posted until we were a couple of blocks away. Marilynn was looking for signs and glancing at her fraying map when I looked up—and up and up. No signs were needed at this point.

Walking the exterior before our ticket time, we were struck by how huge it all seems but how visible everything is. Whimsical bowls of colored fruit top some towers. There’s a lamb with its legs tied together, obviously a sacrificial lamb. Snakes coil around tall columns. As you enter the church through ornate doors dotted with sculptured frogs, a pair of them appear in the throes of passion.

And then the breathtaking windows come into view. From subtle blues to the deepest yellows and reds, each window is awash in light and color and brilliance. In some parts of the church, the windows paint the floors in green and blue.

Gaudí touches are everywhere, from the nonlinear columns (he didn’t believe in straight lines) to an oddly shaped stairwell that reminds you of Dr. Seuss. Although Dr. Seuss is actually Gaudí-an, rather than the opposite.

An hour’s visit passed by in what felt like seconds, and there still were the museum and the crypt to visit.

When you do visit (note I didn’t say “if”) be sure to get tickets for an afternoon viewing. We wanted to visit the basilica in the morning but could only get tickets for 6 p.m. It turned out to be the best mishap of the trip, as the stained glass windows were truly ablaze.

Some will dismiss the whimsy of the La Sagrada Família as an affront to God. Architecture fans may decry calling this a Gaudí masterpiece 100 years after his death and 80 years since anarchists destroyed many of his plans.

But I will say that La Sagrada Família was as close to a spiritual experience as I’ve had in Spain.

Don’t read about it. Don’t Google it. Don’t watch a documentary about it. Just go.

Looking for the Tower of Hercules in all the Wrong Places

Declan and I set out from Santiago de Compostela to glimpse the largest city in Galicia, A Coruña. The city has a quarter-million residents, compared with just under 100,000 in the Galician capital of Santiago.

We walked through the Santiago market along with way, a fulltime market with meats, seafood, vegetables, fruit and lots more. The train station is a haul, and we got lost a couple of times, but the trip was a quick 30 minutes. Declan ordered our tickets in Spanish, and the seller commented that his Spanish was “perfecto.”

Declan wanted to see the expansive Plaza de Maria Pita, which backs up to the A Coruña waterfront and is the center of the compact old city. We took a bus to near the plaza and intended to walk to the Torres de Hércules, which we both saw signposted along the way.

Although attributed to the Roman god, the Tower of Hercules was built by Romans in the 1st century AD near the northern tip of the city. The signposts certainly weren’t meant for pedestrians, because we wound up walking in the total opposite direction for what seemed like days.

Once we got our bearings back (and took another bus), we arrived in the vicinity of the World Heritage listed tower but didn’t have a chance to look at it up close nor climb its tower because we had a home-bound train to catch.

Aimless Wandering in Pontevedra

Marilynn’s conference ended on Friday, so Saturday was her day to see Galicia. After a quick stop into the Cathedral de Santiago, we made for the train station to Pontevedra, the sixth-largest city in the region. Declan originally wanted me to rent a car and drive through a few towns and into Portugal, but we decided another train journey would be a safer bet.

With fewer people than in Santiago, Pontevedra proved much more walkable than A Coruña. It’s also off the beaten path, so we shared the narrow streets and numerous plazas of old town mainly with the locals. Wheeled transportation is popular for tots and adults alike, so we also shared the paths with little bicycles, big bicycles, electric bicycles, hoverboards and remote-controlled Mercedes and Range Rovers for the tykes.

We enjoyed a good lunch in a street-side café: scallops for me and seafood empanadas for Declan and Marilynn.

Declan wanted to see the original façade of Santiago de Compostela in the Museo de Pontevedra, but that part of the museum was closed for renovation. So we had to settle for modern Galician masterworks and pottery chards from early settlers to the area.

While wandering back toward the train station, we stopped into the Santuario da Virxe Peregrina, an 18th century church with Portuguese style. It was only one euro to climb up to the balcony and then further to the near the top of the chapel, so we did that. There wasn’t much of a view, but it did tick the tourist box for “something to climb.”

Cathedral Highlights Visit to Galician Capital City

At least the remains of Saint James are in a box, rather than on display in their naked, bony glory like Saint Teresa of Ávila.

Santiago de Compostela started as a pilgrimage site shortly after a tomb was discovered in the early 820s that reportedly held the remains of Saint James (Santiago) the Great, one of the 12 apostles.

A church was raised near the site that has undergone destruction, rebuilding, expansions and renovations over the intervening centuries. In fact, religious ceremonies here may have pre-dated Christianity.

As news of the remains spread, pilgrims began traveling to the city to pay their respects or seek atonement, leading to El Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage that more than 240,000 people undertake each year. Pilgrims usually sport a scallop shell, the symbol of St. James, on their backpacks. They also carry a “passport” containing stamps for places where they’ve stopped along the way.


As long as a pilgrim has a spiritual motive for undertaking the pilgrimage, those traveling more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) on foot/horse or 200 kilometers (124 miles) by bike are rewarded in Santiago de Compostela with a certificate. There are dozens of established Camino routes from several European countries, but here’s a primer for the novice pilgrim on how to prepare and the more popular routes.

Declan is already plotting for when he can walk the Camino and who will accompany him. In preparation for our trip, he made us watch “The Way,” about a man who travels to Spain to recover the body of his estranged son who died walking the Camino and winds up walking it himself. It stars Martin Sheen and his real-life son Emilio Estevez, so even if you’re not interested in El Camino, you can spend a couple of hours reliving the Jeb Bartlett presidency.

The square in front of the Cathedral of Santiago is the gathering place for pilgrims, who stop to take pictures of themselves or groups they have been traveling with. Backpacks are everywhere, which is why they aren’t allowed in the cathedral. Fortunately, shops around the square have paid storage facilities.

Santiago de Compostela is the capital of the Galician region of Spain, an area with Celtic roots. That’s why Marilynn was at an Irish Studies conference here. And in Galicia, like in the Catalan and Basque regions (and Northern Ireland), there are vocal groups clamoring for autonomy.

Honkin’ big censer swings fast

The Cathedral de Compostela hosts special services for pilgrims twice a day. If you’re lucky, you will attend services on a day that the world’s largest censer (thurible) is swinging, belching thick clouds of white incense smoke. Called the Botafumeiro, the censer weighs 135 pounds when empty and nearly 220 pounds when full. Eight men are needed to set the giant thurible on its 90-second voyage, where it swings in 17 cycles and can reach speeds in excess of 40 miles an hour.

The highlights of a self-guided tour include viewing the ornate casket containing the remains of St. James in the crypt. It also includes a trip behind the high altar, where you can hug the huge statue of St. James that dominates the scene. From a pew in front of the altar, you can see arms grasping the sides of the statue from behind, 50 feet above you.

A large-scale renovation project is currently under way at the Cathedral de Compostela, with much cleaning and updating evident between where scaffolding has been erected and where it has been previously. It has quite a shine for such an ancient building.

Around the cathedral, you will find a confusingly arranged set of streets with ever-changing names that can quickly confuse veteran travelers. But that’s OK, because you will find tapas bars galore at every turn, all the better to have a drink and a nibble as you plan your next steps.

Visit Ávila for the Walls, Get the Finger for Free

Maybe St. Teresa of Ávila can heal with the fungus sprouting from her dismembered finger. Admittedly, my dismembered finger would probably be sprouting funk, too, 500 years after it was cut off. But I likely won’t be a Catholic saint by then.

Ávila, about two hours northwest of Madrid by train, is known for its imposing fortress walls and as the birthplace of St. Teresa. As with all things vacation, I don’t ask too many questions about where we go, so I didn’t know what to expect from our visit to the Museo de Saint Teresa, built on the site of her birthplace home. I certainly didn’t expect to see St. Teresa’s dismembered ring finger in the gift shop—with decorative ring still on bony finger. You couldn’t take pictures, but you can see it here.

The museum was crypt-like, with long brick- and stone-lined passages punctuated with curved archways. There you can learn more about her life, including how she formed the Discalced (barefoot) Carmelite order, and see many of her writings. All the interpretation was in Spanish, so I could only look at the artifacts. I especially enjoyed the collection of holy water fonts. Teresa, who lived between 1511-1582, was a firm believer in the power of holy water.

You can pay two Euro to visit her birthplace, but the gift shop (and her finger) are free to visit. We’ve glimpsed other body parts and reliquary at museums in Florence and Coimbra (Portugal), but never so naked (or furry). Seriously, I wonder whether the white tufts growing from the top of the finger belonging to the patron saint of headaches could be used to treat diseases, much like the mold that Alexander Fleming discovered led to penicillin.

All I could think of was what a gruesome souvenir. And I was glad it was her ring finger and not her middle one. I don’t like the idea of a saint flipping me off from across the centuries.

Fine example of walled city

Ávila is a fine example of a walled city, which encompasses 77 acres, eight (or nine) gates and more than 80 semi-circular towers. The walls were begun in the 12th century and are integral to the city in more ways than one—a portion of the imposing Gothic Cathedral of Ávila doubles as part of the wall.

We visited during the day, but at night the wall is illuminated, giving what some refer to as a fairytale effect. You can walk along parts of the tower, which we did amid the raindrops. Surprisingly, admission to walk the walls is free until 4 p.m.—at least during this part of the year.

We also glimpsed many large nests on the tops of buildings and on electrical poles that likely were home to white storks and their babies. We’re not ornithologists, but that’s certainly what the birds resembled.

Our initial itinerary was more ambitious, but the rains from Madrid followed us to Ávila, putting a literal damper on our plans. Declan wanted to visit Los Cuatro Postes (the Four Posts), the place on the road to Salamanca where a 7-year-old Teresa and her brother, who wanted to be martyred by the Moors, were stopped by an uncle. The area is renowned for its impressive views, especially at night.

Declan had to settle for a postcard of Los Cuatro Postes that he bought in the gift shop of St. Teresa’s museum. The postcard was 35 cents, but seeing her furry, 500-year-old finger didn’t cost a cent.