One of the first concerts Espen took me to was Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin at the Wolf Trap. This date is memorable for two reasons. The first reason is that it was hot as Hades that day, and the gentle musical stylings of Mary and Shawn coupled with the heat lulled me into a state of suspended animation. The second is because it was the first time Espen told me he loved me.

We were waiting for the concert to start when he started talking about his love for Spain. His passion for the country was palpable. The culture! The food! The wine! “Wait —” he said, interrupting himself. “What kind of wine do you like? Do you prefer red or white?”

Uh oh. A test. “I don’t mind white,” I answered. “But I have to say that I’ve discovered I really enjoy a nice glass of red.”

He flashed me the biggest smile. “Oh …” he sighed. “I love you!”

Of course I knew that that particular “I love you” was merely in response to my appreciation of red wine, but whatever. He said the words, so they count. Anyway, not long after this, he invited me to his place for dinner. There on the table was a spread of assorted Spanish hams, slices of manchego cheese, a variety of olives and jams, and a glass of Vega, my first taste of Rioja. And thus began my introduction to Spain. It eventually became our “thing,” these Spanish ham nights. At least once a month, we’d spend a cozy Friday evening together and he’d tell me stories about his trips to Spain.

I soon learned that most (all?) Norwegians love Spain. It’s the second most popular place for them to vacation. It serves to reason: It’s fairly close and thus easy to get to. It’s a perfect place to flee to if you want to escape the cold and, at least if you’re a Bergenser, the persistent rain. My stepkids are no exception, and knowing how much their father also loves all things Spain, they gifted him with a trip to Barcelona to enjoy the three F’s: food, family, and football.

Mission accomplished.

We arrived late on a Friday night, travel weary and ready for bed. For the Catalans, though, the night was just getting started. Every stop our train made as we traveled from the airport picked up more and more passengers heading out to party. We were unpersuaded, preferring to save our energy for the next day.

We spent our first day taking in the sights around the Gothic City, eating churros and chocolate, and strolling through the market on Las Ramblas before embarking on a four-hour culinary tour Espen had booked for us all. Coordinated through Savor Spain, the tour takes its participants on a relaxed walk through various neighborhoods in Barcelona, with no fewer than six stops at various restaurants and bars off the touristic path. Our guide, Blanca, felt more like that fun friend who takes you around her home city than a tour guide hired for the night. One restaurant for appetizers and vermouth. A family diner called Elisabets for some traditional dishes. An old bar/restaurant known for showing local artists’ work. Fresh fried anchovies out on the street. On and on and on it went through Barcelona’s neighborhoods. And all the while Blanca shared stories about the city’s architecture, history, and art. Our tour ended at Bodega La Tinaja with platters of Spain’s infamous ham and cheese.

While our tour ended there, our evening did not — a fact that became very apparent the next morning when we all woke up a bit worse for the wear. Aggravating our collective hangover was the fact that we had only about 30 minutes to get to Sagrada Familia for our appointed entry time. By some miracle, we managed to snag a taxi and we arrived just in time.

I had never heard of Sagrada Familia until I met Espen. We were spending a lazy morning together when he started talking about Spain again, this time Barcelona. “And you have to see Sagrada Familia!” he said. “See what?” I asked.

“You’ve never heard of Sagrada Familia?!” He reached for his iPad, explaining a bit of the story and Gaudi’s vision as he searched for photos. He handed me his tablet. “There.”

“This place is real?!” I flipped through photo after photo. “I need to see this place,” I told him matter-of-factly.

And now I have. Some would argue that the exterior of Sagrada Familia could use some editing. Seen from afar, it does appear as if someone dumped concrete in the middle of the city and shaped it into some rough forms. It looks almost like a fancy anthill. But up close, the details of all the individual sculptures adorning the exterior come into sharp relief. Still, it is a lot to take in. The details crowd each other, competing for attention. But inside? Oh. My. It is otherworldly beautiful. The heights are dazzling, and every where you turn has another sight to behold. Words don’t do it justice. Photos can’t capture the scale. And to think it’s not even finished!

We could have easily spent more time there, but the mystery of Enriqueta Martí i Ripollés awaited us at Escape Hunt Barcelona. I had never participated in an escape room, so I had no idea what to expect. I’m not saying it was hard, but there were six of us, and we finished it with only 30 seconds to spare. But at least we did solve the mystery of the woman known as the Vampire of Barcelona. (So riveting was her story that Christine spent the remainder of the trip reading more about her and sharing her shocking history. If you’re curious, you can read more about her here.)

Afterward, the six of us decided to break off and do our own thing until the game later that night. Espen had done a little research and suggested a stroll along Passeig de Grácia, the grand boulevard through Barcelona where one can see more of the city’s and Gaudi’s sublime architecture. Even the streetlights are beautiful! One especially entertaining sight, though, had nothing to do with the city or its architecture. It was a woman standing in front of Casa Batlló. We watched her for a loooooong time as she primped and posed in an effort to get a good selfie. (I’m actually considering starting a video collection of people posing for selfies. On the other hand, maybe I should start studying them for tips since my selfies are often hideous.) As for Casa Batlló, if it’s half as fabulous on the inside as it is on the outside, it’s a feast for the eyes. Alas, we opted against paying the exorbitant admission fee to see it, preferring instead to enjoy our slow stroll through the city before the football match.

I’m not athletic in the least, but I do genuinely enjoy watching sports. Watching them live is even more fun because then you have the added benefit of group enthusiasm. And let me tell you this: When Messi scored what was the winning goal, the crowd went wild, our little band of six included.

Espen and I started the next morning eschewing breakfast in the apartment, preferring instead to venture to the market on Las Ramblas to basically eat our way around it. First came the pulpo. That was quickly followed by a large plate of pimientos al padrón. A fresh cup of juice and a bag of the biggest cherries I’ve ever popped into my mouth served as “dessert.” Eventually the young ones showed up and we headed en masse to Park Guell. Our minds had all been sufficiently blown by Sagrada Familia, so we were eager to see Gaudi’s landscape architecture. The park is interesting, but dare I say that it was underwhelming after the spectacle of the basilica? Still, we were lucky to have yet another sunny day.

After the park, Lasse and Kamilla headed to Passeig de Grácia while the rest of us headed to Castell de Montjuïc. Our plan was to take a leisurely ride in the cable car so we could sit on our asses and enjoy the views of Barcelona below. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that the cable car was closed for maintenance … and that the bus requires exact change. Oh well. It was an excellent way to build up an appetite for Christine’s next plan: Carrer del Blai, a pedestrian street chockful of pintxos restaurants and bars. Her research paid off — La Tasqueta De Blai was one helluva find, with the number of empty glasses and toothpicks gracing our plates testifying our extreme lack of control.

We still had plenty of time before meeting up with Lasse and Kamilla for dinner, so we hit the pavement to at least try to walk off our excesses. I’m not sure it worked, but we still managed to eat, drink, and be merry back at Elisabet’s, the diner we’d visited during our Savor Spain tour. I think it’s safe to say that it’s “our” place now.

I’m not sure what was my favorite part of the trip. For the guys, I imagine that the answer is seeing the legendary Lionel Messi score that winning penalty kick. For me, though, it’s a tough call. Sure, there was the copious amount of delicious food, wine, and perfect sangrias. There was Sagrada Familia’s glorious interior. And yeah, it was pretty cool seeing Messi score that goal. But there were other moments I’ve carried back with me that mean more. Laughing with Christine, Knuds, and Espen during the wee hours of morning as we tipsily ambled our way back to the apartment after a long day out. Working together as a family to get the hell outta that escape room (and screaming in unison when one of the employees banged on the door to scare us). Practicing my Norwegian with Knuds, who is always so patient and funny. Catching up with Lasse and seeing how much he’s matured in the years since our first awkward meeting back in 2013. That big family dinner at Elisbet’s that last night … It all served to remind me yet again of how insanely lucky I am to have married into this family.

Seen on the Street

Graffiti always seems so much more interesting in foreign cities, and Barcelona’s street art is no exception. According to our Savor Spain guide, there is actually a debate among street artists, property owners, and the city’s officials. Some property owners, both businesses and individuals, have been angry to discover the removal of street art from their homes and buildings, arguing that what the officials considered graffiti was to them free “original art.” In some cases I totally get it, but I also know that it would be my luck that my building would have art that was less Basquiat or Banksy and more random shithead with a spray can. Still it is an interesting debate. So is this art or graffiti? You be the judge.

It was a fantastic four days, and I can’t wait to visit Spain again. 

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