Friday, November 25, 2011


Las Ramblas, a tree lined, open air mall, crowded with both locals and tourists was the center of our stay in Barcelona. Our apartment overlooked a small street just off Las Ramblas, where sounds of singing, (off tune) happy (at least usually), slightly inebriated (or greatly inebriated) people could be heard…at all hours of the night. During the day our street was quiet, peaceful, and tranquil, though I must admit we weren’t there much during the day.
Most of the apartments had the tiny balconies overlooking the streets, some balconies large enough for chairs and tables, others filled with plants, bikes, or toys. On the main squares and the Rambla, people would sit out and watch the crowds down below. Ours, sadly, was one of the few without a balcony in front. We did have a bit of one in the back but it overlooked clothes lines – not particularly exciting.

Sagrada Familia

We took off the first morning to visit what is probably the most famous basilicas in the entire country – at least in Barcelona anyway. It was designed by a local architect, Antoni Gaudi and although the building of it was started in 1882, it has already taken over 100 years to build – and it is still NOT finished! Not only is it still under construction, they are also cleaning and refurbishing the original work because it is, well, old.  It is totally unique with Gothic and “Art Nouveau” blended around the building. Hmmm…perhaps blended is not the best word. 
Actually, each side is built in a totally different style and you can see bits and pieces of each style everywhere you look. The colored organic looking bulb actually has windows built into it to allow light into the nave down below.
The Nativity Façade is very Gothic with extremely ornate, naturalistic style, incorporating many different animals, plants, as well as people, with great detail showing the birth of Jesus. As Gaudi envisioned it, each figure has some importance; chameleons as a symbol of change while the two tortoises (or are they turtles?) represent the land and the sea as well as the permeability of stone (now, if the book didn’t tell me that, I would have never guessed). They are, however, intricately carved, have incredible detail and probably the portion of the exterior of the church that has the greatest Gaudi influence (he, of course, did not live to see the building built).
The Passion Façade, by contrast, is austere, simple and harsh in a modernistic Art Nouveau style. The figures are squared off and sparse and angular with few details to support the dramatic effect. It is a complete contrast to the ornate, detailed side next to it. It was actually constructed by Josep Subirachs, following the designs left by Gaudi and is supposed to strike fear into the local people. k
The final side, called the Glory Façade, will eventually be the main entrance to the basilica. It is still under construction and totally behind tall columns of plastic and steel so I have no idea what that will look like.
The interior of the church is totally unique, representing, again, naturalistic elements. The supporting columns branch out like trees with overhanging and drooping leaves descending from the ceiling. Numerous open areas allow light to filter in and while there are stained glass windows, many are just clear, open spaces with full light (although the fruity pieces on top allow some colored light in).  While this style is less detailed that the gothic presentation outside, it still includes elaborate curves, abstract shapes and intricate details worked into the iron railings and walls.
Gaudi’s influence is seen across Barcelona, and out across Catalanya (the north eastern portion of Spain, in odd buildings here and there, a rooftop, a corner in a park. This particular honeycomb design can be found in random walkways and across buildings. I really like the way it fits together and continues growing – very organic.

Around Barcelona

Pista de Botxes
We happened to come across a rather large group of people playing this particular bowling type game. It was amazing to see the intense concentration! It must have been a tournament of some sort – some people in the center were keeping scores and there was a cheering crowd around them. This particular group was primarily older people and the skill was nothing short of incredible – this coming from someone who knows nothing about the game. Apparently you want to throw the ball (looks like it’s metal of some sort and around 4 inches across or so) so that it lands as close as possible to a tiny colored ball placed at the far end of the marked alley. We saw some people knock that tiny ball right out of its place and then throw the next two balls to hit it again and again. Have no idea exactly what was going on but…they seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. If you look closely at the picture, the people are intently looking at the balls, and in the center there is a tiny red ball…

Montjuic Castle

Our next stop was the skyway (of course, all skyways must be tried out) up to the Montjuic Castle, perched on top of the hill, with “breathtaking views” of the city and the Mediterranean Sea. That was the pitch but obviously was meant for a clear day. We did have a fairly good view of the city and certainly tremendous views of stormy skies.
One of the most outstanding features on the skyline is the Sagrada Familia. Even though we were a few miles away from it, it towers above the rest of the city (most buildings are 5 or 6 stories tall to give you an idea of how tall this basilica really is).


I think that the heavens thought that we were out of practice with walking around in the rain so they again sent us rain to practice getting wet. We had decided to take a trip up to see Girona and, more importantly, Dali’s Museum (stay tuned…that will be coming). Since not all buses can arrive at the museum at the same time, they entertained us by taking us to the small, old town of Girona.
Girona has the distinction of having a very interesting old town, making it a great tourist spot if you want to check out old buildings, winding streets, and unique customs. It’s also known as a great cycling area and frequently used for training during the non-rainy months. The river is large and winds through the town. Along it are some extremely colorful houses perched right on, or over, the river. I wish the colors had come out better in the rain but…alas…
As in all old Hispanic towns, churches, basilicas, and cathedrals dominate the skyline. Here is but one of them we roamed by – I think there were about 5 just along the River Onyu. The anguished looking lion was perched nearby with a tale to tell…”Kiss my derriere and you’ll return to Girona one fine day!”  It used to be you had to scramble up the pole to do it but now they have provided a small ladder…and many people did it! We also found a very unique way to advertise…apparently the letters in the laundry hanging out is a company in the area – and this is one way to keep their name in your mind. Not sure what the company sells…possibly laundry detergent or clotheslines? 

Dali's Museum

Catalonia celebrates a number of unique artists. Salvador Dali was born in Figueres, Spain, a spot conveniently close to Barcelona and the location of his museum.
If you want to travel to a totally unique, unusual, uncommon, bizarre, eccentric, or peculiar museum, this is it. From the eggs to the king, everything about this place shouts. I have always liked certain surrealistic paintings or pictures and Dali’s Persistence of Memory (the melting watches) is one of them.  Not being a person who keeps up with the art world, I was expecting surreal but not quite what we found at the museum. 
It starts with what is probably the largest surrealistic object in the world – the museum itself. The building was originally the town of Figuere’s theatre but was bombed during the Spanish Civil War and was left in ruins until Dali decided to purchase and rebuild it to house his collections. It houses hundreds of works including sculptures, mechanical devises, custom furniture, 3D collages and other curious objects from Dali’s imagination. The effect is…well…bizarre. 

Park Guell

The next day we found blue skies and quickly decided it was the perfect day to head for Park Guell – a park designed by Gaudi (the same one who did the Sagrada Familia). It was originally supposed to be a housing development for the wealthy but they didn’t come so it eventually became a park. It actually has the looks of a great Disneyland – the buildings are so fanciful you expect children to be everywhere…and they are.
The designs here are every bit as unique – twisting rock pillars that seem to be like tree trunks, ornate dragon guarding the steps, terraced areas with views of Barcelona City and wonderful multi-coloured tiled mosaic seats (made from what looked to be broken dishes). It’s really an amazing display. The retaining wall behind Jeff has many convoluted shapes and is made up of tiny rocks, more ceramics and holds up another terrace and walkway.
At one time Gaudi lived in a house in the middle of the park. It now houses a museum filled with interesting furniture that Gaudi designed. 

Intermission provided by Living Statues

We have been amazed by the sheer number of living statues we have seen as we’ve traveled around Europe. We have found classic statue – that you didn’t even realize were anything BUT a real statue out of stone. We have seen couples, dragons, mummies, workers, gladiators…the imagination of these people are endless. It’s unbelievable how long they can hold a pose without cracking a smile, moving, or even seeming to blink! Las Ramblas, the main tourist street section of Barcelona has many of them each day. I must admit, however, I think I found the ultimate one during this trip to Barcelona. How in the world he managed this sitting position…I just can’t imagine. 

More Sunny Rambling on Las Ramblas

The gorgeous day kept us out roam, back up Las Ramblas and into some of the surrounding areas. As always, we read historical fiction books from the areas we travel to – this time a couple of different old Spanish novels. One of the mentioned a particular church called La Iglesia de Santa Maria del Mar. We found it on the map so set off to find it. Apparently it wasn’t in the same location that it was when the book was written. Actually, it’s in the same place but the stuff around it has changed. We had expected to find it located next to the water – it isn’t. The land has been rising very slowly and, we suspect, they done some land building themselves so…the church is now set back by quite a few blocks from the ocean. The buildings have also built up around the church – in fact rather than being free standing, there are now buildings that butt up against it. It’s quite amazing to see things they wrote about and how the land has changed in a hundred years.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Arch de Triomf

I just bet that if I say I saw the Arch de Triumph, you’d immediately think Paris. I was stunned when they said that there was one here in Barcelona. It was built for the Universal Exposition, held in Barcelona in 1888. It is located at the end of a very wide promenade, designed, of course, for the exposition, and was the main gateway and entrance. The arch is decorated with many different stone carvings and ornate motifs, including the Spanish coat of arms.
The Arch is found at the Parc de la Ciutadella – a huge park with some interesting things found all together. There’s a science museum, and a zoo (oops...we skipped this one, odd), the government parliament building (in a park?), as well as probably the most exotic fountain I’ve ever seen. It was huge, had about 4 tiers and seemed to have been made by people from 4 different eras and 10 different countries. It was, of course, built with the assistance of Gaudi. He was but a student at the time, however, his unique perception was apparent even then.
First there is the influence of Rome’s Trevi Fountain with the winged horses taking flight out of the waters. They are taking wing here too, though this time trying to escape the green moss that has taken over the fountain. Above, we have the birth of Venus, though in this rendition she’s clothed with more than just her hair. Strange because I don't think any of the other beauties were clothed. Surrounding the pool are Griffith type animals, spouting water into the pools. Atop the structure is a golden chariot, pulled by several horses – Ben Hur? Standing on the side, Poseidon stands with his trident, keeping an eye on everything…or is he getting ready to enter the fray? Whatever it might be, it is a sight not to be missed – nor forgotten. ­­
We decided afterwards to take a short walk, checking out shops and the beach and whatever else might be along the way. It quickly became apparent that what was on the path was the railroad yards. We were trying to get to the beach but that, of course, was on the far side of the railroad – which meant we needed a bridge. That short walk turned into a much longer one through some interesting vistas before we made it across and down the beach. 
Beaches here are quite interesting, even though it was cooling off and not play in the water weather. The surfers, of course, were out – nothing seems to keep them out of the water. We found sandcastle builders, a few die-hard sun bathers, a nude man roaming around, and the vistas of various, interesting buildings. All of this was really quite close to our apartment…if you skipped the shortcut. 

Spanish Wineries...of course

No trip to wine country is complete without a trip to the wineries. Catalunya is apparently a prominent wine producing area with some very old vines. We got to visit 3 different places that were totally different. Bodega Jean Leon was a very small winery with much of its work done my hand. Apparently he was an emigrant who made his fortune in Beverly Hills with his restaurant, La Scala. Lots of very famous people ate there -the menu on the wall showed meals for $5.00 – a trifle now but a fortune in the 1960’s but probably $100 for a meal now! Our next stop was Miguel Torres Winery, a larger winery with an extensive operation. They took us on a tour in a car complete with headphones in our own language. The highlight of the trip was set up like a Disneyland ride…the music playing, the lights low, the doors slowly opening on their own…a crescendo…a crash of cymbals…and the story of the winery began. Not quite the effect Disney has but…they get an A for effort.

The final winery produces a very fine “sparkling wine” called cava. Apparently France decided no one can have anything called champagne unless it comes for the champagne region from France, hence the different names we now see (and the higher price tags for champagne). I used to think sparkling wine was something inferior but really…it’s just champagne under an alias. You do have to check out the cool car. It is their famous sparkling wine… “Cordon Negro”…must cause quite a stir when they drive it around.

Monserat Mountain

We took off the following day with gorgeous blue skies for Monserrat Mountain, probably what is Catalonia’s most famous mountain range. It looks like the toothed blade of a saw and does explain its name…Montserrat means “jagged mountain”. At the top of the range is a famous monastery. This monastery has a couple of claims to fame. First it is the home of the Mare de Deu de Montserrat, better known as La Morenet or the little dark-skinned one. The wooden carved statue of the Virgin Mary and Jesus has turned a darker color over the years, giving her the name of the Black Madonna. Actually, what nature started to do to the varnish that was used, the locals have “enhanced”. It was explained that she now has had some touching up to keep her skin looking beautiful…and dark. Despite the assistance, she is apparently quite famous and there are long lines of people weaving through the church to get a glimpse of her. 

The monastery is also the home of one of the oldest children’s choir. They run a special school where the boys study regular subjects as well as music, learning 2 musical instruments as well as singing. They only take boys between the ages of 8 to about 11 (when their voice changes) and the choir is well known in this region. We had the opportunity to hear a few songs in a special performance just for the tourists. The most outstanding and amazing thing was that the priest who welcomed us. He shared with us information about the boys and the church - and he said it in 6 different languages! 

San Joan Funicular

We took the Funicular de Sant Joan up to the very top of the mountain, of course. The views were astounding. The clouds had completely disappeared and we had an uninterrupted view of the surrounding area. 
We hiked up to the ruins of a hermitage even further up the top of the hill – there’s even an old cistern up there, still with sweet smelling water (didn’t taste it but…it did still smell ok). This was a place where you could have stayed for a week, or two, and never hiked the same trail twice. We had been warned by the driver about the extent of the trails and cautioned not to stray too far…the bus would leave with, or without us. We looked at a sign at the top of the hill that pointed back to the monastery…by going to opposite direction. Well…we figured it was just a “go over the crest of the small hill and turn back”…it wasn’t…we hiked, downhill. I worried. We hiked. I worried some more. 
We hiked. After about 15 min. of straight down hill, we FINALLY reached a sign that allowed me to breathe a sigh of relief. Not only did the sign say the monastery was only 30 minutes away, it pointed the right direction and the road turned. Whew! The views approaching the mountain was again spectacular. We’d love to come stay here for a while and check it out!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Our next great adventure

I have to admit, I’m much more accustomed to traveling on Qatar Air in the middle of the night. In fact, I was surprised that there even were daytime flights – I’m not certain we have ever been on one before. On the plus side, this was an extremely full flight heading for Katmandu and we were lucky enough to be upgraded to Business Class! What a luxury! There’s room to cross your legs, an armrest that you don’t have to fight over and even something of a foot rest. Did make me change my mind…it IS possible to sleep on a plane.
We arrived at Katmandu late in the evening – around 10:00 or so – and began looking for our guide who was to meet us at the airport. We searched everywhere, or so we thought. We did find the Hyatt bus there and finally, as it approached 11:15 and the airport was emptying out, we decided to go to the hotel; the airport really didn’t seem like a comfortable place to be staying in the middle of the night. Sadly, we just didn’t look in the right spot – our guide was there, looking for us and somehow we missed them. They came out to the hotel for a midnight meeting – and to let us know that we needed to be up at 5:30 to get back to the airport to catch the plane to Pokhara. Here we were, at a luxury hotel, beautiful room, gorgeous bath that rivaled the Japanese bath, yoga mat, beautiful view…and we got 5 hours of sleep and left even before breakfast! Sad, very sad.
A 5:30 wake-up? I thought we were on vacation? Dutifully we got up, showered and made it downstairs in time to meet Bill, the man who orchestrated our trip and our guide, Tserig. He proved to be a delightful travel guide and great person to hang out with. He was always ready to answer our crazy questions – and find out the answer if he didn’t know it. Fortunately, he was going to be on the flight with us – a good thing since it seems that while most Nepalese in the big city speak some English, not all of them do. It was good to have someone who knew where we were going and could understand the loudspeaker announcements.
The International portion of the Katmandu airport is fairly modern with pretty up-to-date equipment and services…the domestic terminal, right next door, has the looks of an airport built sometime in the 50’s. The old scales, all hand signs, many more pat-downs for security – and much less intrusive than what they do in the US. The plane was very small – no more than 20 people. There was coffee service available…instant that is.

Pokhara is a much smaller town than Katmandu – something to be said about small airports and small towns – makes it a bit easier to get around! Wares are sold on the streets, fresh fruits and veggies from various carts, knock-offs from name brand items everywhere. Many carts sell various prepared foods too, though our western stomachs might have been unhappy with some of those delicacies so we stuck to the tea houses and restaurants that catered to the tourists. It was here we met our driver who was to take us to the trail head for our trek up into the mountains of Annapurna. 


Unique vehicles
Many vehicles
OK…no trip is complete without a comment on the driving and this one is no different. The people here are quite eclectic, gathering tips from around the world to create massive traffic jams and noisy passages on the various roads. Add to this the fact that road maintenance is running a bit behind (by maybe 20 years)… They drive on the left, unless, of course, you’re passing someone or dodging a pothole or driving down the middle of the road because…it’s there. 
Many more interesting vehicles
To be fair, some of the roads are only paved down the middle these days, making that the easiest place to drive. When you want to pass, you honk your horn. When you want someone to move over, honk, let you through, honk, stop honk. Now I must admit I got lost on honk talk but they seem to do just fine with it. It’s another country with legal “chicken”…as you’re coming up to an oncoming car, both of you driving down the middle of the road on the only strip of pavement, it’s always a test to see who will take to the gravel first. Usually both cars have to do it because there’s rarely enough space for even 1.5 cars on the middle strip. In town the cars jostle for position to get around a round-a-bout, make a turn or even just travel down the street. There’s always movement, rushing to get into any opening and push your way ahead. Add to this mix a million bikes, scooters and motorcycles weaving in between the cars and then the pedestrians trying to make their way across the streets. Really glad we had drivers the entire time. looks easy...

The trek started at a very unremarkable spot in the road; two small shops, where you could have tea, of course, buy last minute supplies (though hardly an issue since there were tea houses with supplies all along the trail), and the porter could tie your bags together, ready to cart them up into the mountains. Our porter was a young man named Pfuri. He looked as though he was about 17, although he is actually 21. He took our two packs, along with his own smaller bag, strapped them all together, added a long strap with a wrap on it for the head, hoisted it took his back and took off. He was ALWAYS ahead of us, jogging up the steep steps and climbs as if they were flat ground, while we slowly ground our way up the tortuous steps. All of the men and women of Nepal climbed the terrain as if they were on a Sunday stroll – absolutely amazing and humbling.

The trails we traveled on varied greatly…the beginning of the trek took us winding through a small village with stores, services and homes lining the path, a path not much wider than a single car. A road above by-passes the village proper, giving a way for cars to get up to the river crossing, about a mile in. Kids played in the path, chasing each other, tossing balls, rolling sticks, and watching the many groups of foreigners hike through their village. We had a leisurely hike up to the bridge crossing the river…the point where we entered the true countryside where donkeys, horses and men are the beasts of burden. 

Rhododendron Trees

Uphill...always up
Did I mention that there’s some uphill travel here? Hmmm….if I haven’t, I better mention it. The Nepalese took lessons from the Japanese, I’m sure. The Japanese built steps that were uneven, meaning that if anyone was trying to charge up a hill or into a castle the uneven steps would slow them down, making it easier to defend said castle or village. Well…the Nepalese took this strategy to heart and create an unbelievably uneven, unending, ever varying series of steps. Apparently the trail had its beginnings as passage between small villages, eventually becoming part of the trade route from Tibet down to India. The tortuous steps were created, developed, repaired and left is disrepair throughout the ages, leaving behind wide, narrow, winding, steep, gigantic and never-ending steps for the trekker, donkeys, horses and locals to traverse.

One learned quickly that taking photos frequently was necessary when ascending the tortuous steps. It gave a plausible reason for stopping and the scenery truly was spectacular, though I do believe the hundreds of pictures taken of donkeys and sculpted mountainsides might have given our guide reason to think that perhaps the pictures were more for the opportunity to breathe than that we really needed that particular shot of donkey number 978 (and that was only the first day!). It really was a challenge but I’m happy to say we made it up and enjoyed our first stay at a tea house in Tirkedhunga. (yeah, if it wasn’t on our itinerary, I’d have NEVER remembered it.) There were also some gorgeous flowers all along the trek - bright and brilliant colors - well worth stopping for.
 I wasn’t certain exactly what staying in “tea houses” was going to mean when we signed up for this trip. Turns out it’s just what they call their small mountain “hotels” – they’re usually very small places with a restaurant and small store to supply the trekkers with everything they need. The rooms are usually just two beds and nothing more – you bring your own sleeping bag.
Donkeys right through the village

 Nepal is working on improving its environmental impact so many of the tea houses have installed more efficient electric or solar water heaters replacing the old wood burning ones (depleting the forests for firewood is a large problem). They’re also working on providing more places where the trekkers can refill their water containers (and add iodine to purify it) so that fewer plastic bottles are used. Everyone congregates in the restaurant area, swapping stories, reading books, eating and drinking. Electricity service is erratic and so frequently we found ourselves in the dark much earlier than expected. Since early rising is a must, we really weren’t interested in staying up too late…and that first day…we were ready for bed quite early. 

Moving up in the world...

The only flat spot
OK…we’re on vacation…sleeping in is supposed to be one of the perks, however, not if you’re up in the mountains. We were up at 6:30 the next morning in order to be completely packed, had breakfast, and ready to travel by 7:30. Did I mention some stairs yesterday? Hmmm…believe I did. Well, we had a few more today, in fact about 3 hours worth of stairs, straight up, unrelenting, switching back and forth, giant sized, small sized and in-between sized. They went on and on and on and on…I continued to marvel at the ability of the local people to just climb the stairs WITH huge loads on their heads and backs. I had a little tiny day pack and it was too much at times (and most of what was in it was water!). The beautiful valley, the farms eked out on the steep slopes, the children rushing up and down the steps; even though it was tiring, it was uplifting and satisfying. Fortunately, the Nepalese have a long standing custom of creating rest-stops along the way, these stops consisting of wide platforms where you can easily set your pack or basket down and then talk with the other people who are there. It’s an old custom, a way of gathering news, exchanging information, learning about others, and just plain resting. Usually there’s a tree of some sort planted in the middle, offering shade and respite from the hot sun, or perhaps a bit of protection from the pouring rain. Believe me - we took advantage of all of these stops on the way up the hill.
While we toiled up the hills, we were also delighted to find numerous waterfalls cascading through the various valleys we wound through. Many times we were able to hear the falling water but not actually see the falls. Some we were able to get a peek of through the foliage. It wouldn’t be until the last day, as we returned to our starting point that we realized that all the water we were seeing would wind its way down to the valley we started in, pouring under our first bridge. We did find a beautiful pool that would have been a great place to soak in the water if it had been warmer – it was frigid. It was definitely worth the rest we took, however, just to take in the tumbling water sounds and enjoy the beautiful colors of the pool.