The Destination Is The Destination 

One rule of polite society which I learned long ago is that, as a general rule of thumb, no one really cares to hear all of the details about your vacation. They want to know that you suffered no mishaps, and that you enjoyed yourself. And of course it’s helpful to have a very quick story or two ready, tailored to the person with whom you are discussing your trip, but that’s about it. So for those of you who were interested enough to follow my Instagram while I was on vacation – and most of my pics were of food rather than sightseeing activities – but not much besides, you may want to leave off reading at this point.

Otherwise, if you care to continue, I want to make just a few observations about travel more generally. For I hate to travel, as it happens, even though I must make the journey to get to where I want to go. My aversion perhaps has something to do with rejecting the old cliché about the journey being the destination, which is often adopted by those who have only a sense of the now and not the later. While I’m certainly interested in how you make the pudding, with all due respect to the cook I’m even more interested in actually eating it.

Part of my aversion to travel is the horror of traveling with other people who, in the present day, largely seem to view this shared activity as a forum for the indulgence of every kind of barbaric form of public behavior imaginable. But for the fact that some authority might still fine them for doing so, I would not be surprised to see the undulating, semi-naked, unkempt travelers who populate most airports and train stations today not bothering to go to the loo at all, but simply relieving themselves in their seats because they are too lazy to stop watching their phones. In that sense, “WALL-E” is, one suspects, a rather prescient film.

There’s also nothing like spending 7 hours in a flying aluminum tube, sharing your row with a couple of bitter Baby Boomers dressed as though they had rolled out of bed a few minutes before. In this case, Mr. and Mrs. Lemon, as I’ll call them, were a very dissatisfied pair indeed. They did nothing but bicker and complain throughout the flight, about things such as the temperature of the meal – which was perfectly fine – or why the covers on the pillows were not soft enough, or why the in-flight Starbucks isn’t as good as that in whatever putrid corner of Manhattan they happen to live in. Thank goodness for the extra gin in premium cattle class.

But let us not put all the blame on travelers, here, for we can’t forget that the people who control the procedural aspects of that journey are often part of the problem. Take travel on the AVE, for example. The AVE runs on the fastest and most extensive high-speed train network in Europe, knitting the major cities of the Iberian Peninsula together at speeds over 300km an hour and connecting them to the rest of Europe via high-speed French rail. The train is a great pleasure to ride, at least on the line I know between Barcelona and Madrid, for in under 3 hours, you can see everything from mountains to deserts, forests to vineyards, sprawling settlements to abandoned castles, from the comfort of wide leather seats with plenty of legroom – and that’s in tourist class.

That being said, it can be difficult to enjoy that journey when you can’t even get the journey started properly thanks to those charged with making it happen demonstrating the kind of gross incompetence that one expects at the Department of Motor Vehicles or The Prado Museum. At the train platform, I was told to go to a particular car, even though my ticket said I was to go to a different numbered car. I was then told on board by another person that this car was incorrect, and that I was to go back to the person who had told me to go there. Said person then told to go back to the same car, and tired of lugging my massive luggage and somewhat large self back and forth I sat down.

I was then told by someone else to leave that car, and to return to the same individual with whom I had started, and was told that no, now I had to go to another car all the way at the back of the next train. Not only had she neglected to explain this previously – twice – this detail was at all clear either from my ticket, or from the numbering of the cars themselves, which were not in ascending or descending chronological order. Bearing in mind that my grasp of Spanish is, while not perfect, at least close enough to native that no one ever addresses me in English when I’m in Spain, you can understand why I suspect, without being 100% sure, that the fault was probably not mine in this instance.

Despite all of the forgoing of course – and these are but two examples – I had a great time, and will likely be going back again in December/January. I’m doing so because, despite what conventional wisdom tells us, the journey really isn’t as important as the destination. I’m traveling not because I want to travel aimlessly. I’m traveling because I have a goal or destination in mind: being where I want to be. There are many things that can and should be learned from the journey itself, via reflection, experiences, and conversations, and I certainly have done so over the years. But the point of traveling is that I want my coffee at my favorite café in Barcelona, more than I want to flip through the in-flight magazine and come across an  interesting article.

You’re certainly welcome to dismiss me for being too rigid or too goal-oriented. But if you want to sit and complain about your corns coming on from how long the corridors are, or whine to your fellow passengers about how the WiFi on board wasn’t as good as what you have at home, you’ll be doing that without me. I’ll be making a bee-line for the exit, and my cab to downtown.

Let’s Make This Happen: The Faithful Traveler In Portugal

I’m going to do a bit of shameless plugging this morning and ask you to please take a moment to see a clip at the IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign for “The Faithful Traveler In Portugal”.

In this latest outing, Diana von Glahn takes us all over Portugal, to enjoy the sights, sounds, and tastes of this beautiful little country, in the tradition of the best travel series. Yet unlike other travel shows, “The Faithful Traveler” does something which no other travel documentary ever does in any depth. It takes the time to stop and show us the spiritual significance and Christian history of the places which secular guides simply breeze past, or at best explain briefly and more often than not get completely wrong.

If you’ve seen previous series of “The Faithful Traveler”, you know that the show mixes great scenery, research, spirituality, and humor. Host Diana von Glahn is serious when she needs to be, extremely knowledgeable – the lady does her homework – and yet always manages to see the humor in things. She’s exactly the sort of fun, thoughtful, and energetic friend that you would want to go on vacation with, which is what makes watching these programs such a joy. It’s also exactly the kind of positive, well-produced media that the Church has been asking Catholics to create, both for Catholics and for those who are interested in Catholic culture, but which so rarely gets made.

Please consider supporting “The Faithful Traveler” as I have, with a donation to help finish the series. For those of you who like premiums, there are quite a few on offer, as you’ll see by scrolling down the IndieGoGo page. Even if you can’t afford to help financially, please do add this special request to your prayer list, and be sure to share this link with others. You never know who may be in a position to help finish this program, and we all know how powerful the combination of social media and recommendations from friends can be. Thanks and God bless!

The Curious Conundrum Of Catalan Vs. Castilian Coffee

I’ve recently returned from spending the holidays in Spain, which began with Christmas in Barcelona followed by New Year’s in Madrid. I also spent my summer vacation visiting both cities, enjoying time with family, great art/architecture, music, and of course, food. Yet a curious aspect of both trips was something which confused me and my traveling companions on both occasions: why was the coffee in Barcelona so good, and the coffee in Madrid so terrible?

Back in May/June, when traveling with an American friend with ancestors from Catalonia, I introduced him to what is called a “tallat” in Catalan, and a “cortado” in Spanish, which is essentially espresso that has a shot of steamed milk mixed in with it. It’s similar to the Italian “macchiato”, although in Italy they use milk foam rather than warm milk. [NOTE: the flavored “macchiato” that you order in Starbucks bears no resemblance whatsoever to the real thing.] We began at Francesco, my favorite local café on the Passeig de Gràcia in Barcelona, where we went for breakfast every morning, but we also ordered it in many places around town. It was always hot, creamy, sweet, and delicious, no matter where we drank it.

When we got to Madrid, it was as if we had moved to another country where the same word meant something completely different, like how in Spain a “tortilla” is an omelet, whereas in Mexico it is a flat disc usually made of corn. During our entire time in Madrid, every cortado that we ordered was terrible: tepid, thin, watery, and bitter, whether it was in a corner bar or in a swanky restaurant. I was genuinely confused and apologetic, and wondered whether we were just having bad luck, but this seemed improbable given the wide variety of places where we drank it.

Over Christmas break the situation repeated itself. We drank cortados at Francesco every morning for breakfast, but we also drank them elsewhere. We had cortados for elevenses or after a meal at various restaurants and cafes in Barcelona, and we had them at the seaside in the resort town of Sitges, about a half hour south of the city. While Francesco is unquestionably the best, even at these other establishments, the coffee was always good.

In Madrid, the cortados were once again a serious disappointment. We tried corner bars, nice restaurants, and even the café at The Prado, but the only place where we were able to get a good cortado was at an Illy café located across from the Mercado de San Miguel in Old Madrid. The fact that this was an Italian establishment was not insignificant, because unlike virtually every coffee chain in this country that claims to make espresso-based drinks – which in fact taste like burnt worm excrement soaked in muddy water masked by large quantities of corn syrup – Italians do it better, as the saying goes.

While café society in Madrid looked to France for inspiration, coffee culture in Barcelona was heavily influenced by the coffee culture in Northern Italy, Sardinia, and the Italian cantons of Switzerland. Although the French originally invented the espresso machine, Italians bring the hot water in their espresso machines up to about 195 degrees Fahrenheit, so that espresso drinks prepared in this way arrive at your table nice and hot. While I can’t be certain, I suspect that the inevitably tepid coffee in Madrid is at least partially the result of not getting the water in their espresso machines hot enough.

Many Italian restauranteurs opened restaurants and cafes for the Barcelona bourgeoisie during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The now-gone Torino, for example, was an opulent establishment opened by the equally opulently-named Flaminio Mezzalama of Turin in 1902. It marked the only architectural and design collaboration between two of the greatest rivals for Art Nouveau outlandishness in Barcelona at the time, Gaudí and Puig i Cadafalch. As you can see here, it was quite a magnificent building.

And then there is the problem of the coffee roasting itself.

During the period of austerity which followed the Spanish Civil War, Spanish coffee importers began using a processing method called torrefacto, in which the beans are roasted with large quantities of sugar. This helps the beans to keep longer in storage, by coating them in a black film of burnt sugar. This coating comes off when the beans are ground for making coffee, and the result is the bitter, nasty aftertaste that we were experiencing. Even though the lean years of the Civil War era are long over, at least some Spaniards developed a taste for this abomination, I suppose in the way that many American GI’s during World War II developed a taste for spam, which is why you can still find this product on just about every grocery store shelf in America.

As a result, torrefacto-processed coffee is still widely and commonly used throughout Spain, either on its own or blended with other beans. You can even buy it from Spanish food importers in the U.S. (dear Lord, why would you do this?) However it turns out that Barcelona has long been in the vanguard of finally casting off this dark shadow. For years now, Catalan coffee importers and roasters have been rejecting the torrefacto process, in favor of single-source beans and bean blends roasted in the traditional way. This, in combination with the Italian coffee preparation methods that are a long-standing part of coffee culture in places like Barcelona, explains why the same drink tastes so much better in Barcelona, than it does in Madrid.

If you ever get the chance to visit both Barcelona and Madrid, visit any corner bar in the morning, and you will quite literally be able to taste the difference between the coffee cultures of these two cities. Taste is largely individual, of course, so it may be that you prefer the inky, oily taste of Castilian coffee. But for my money, when I’m back in Madrid this summer I’m sticking to the Italian coffee shops – or ordering a cup of tea.

Caffe Francesco, Barcelona