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Europe – Day 11

I’m not kidding, I am starting to flag a little here.  Every day is packed with so much information and visual data my poor little brain is starting to fray at the edges.

So today we decided to just fit in what we could.  And we had (of course) a wonderful time.

The weather was just as hot as it had been yesterday.  So before we boarded our HOHO bus in the Placa Espanya, we visited the Arenas Shopping Centre  built into an old bullfighting ring.  I needed a sombrero, and found one!  I had been trying to buy one in the local small stores, even in the Mercat de Sant Antoni, but there was nothing that I liked, or that fit my largish melon.  Natura had one! It’s adorbs, as you will see from the photos, but also it’s comfy, crushable, made of PAPER! and it kept the glare out of my face which makes life much easier.

We then caught the City Tours bus for the West Side (Naranjas) tour which would take us through sections of the city we had not seen yesterday.

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We saw quite a bit of the city that had been built in the last 50 years–but following the original plan.  So many streets of apartment buildings, all very nice and soooooo livable!

We also saw some buildings we’d seen yesterday, as the two tours overlap.  But they were definitely worth seeing again! (all photos thanx to DH, AKA Cal Koat)

We swung down by the seaside again, but this time we saw a statue of the great Italian explorer and all-round jerk, Christopher Columbus:

Jerk

We found out the street we’ve been casually strolling upon, Avenida Paral Lel, had quite a history in this place.

Yes, we had a lovely trip through the West side of the city, but we’d decided to spend our last afternoon in Barcelona at Tour stop for the Poble Espanyol.  This is a “village” built for the International Exhibit of 1929-1930.  It was supposed to be a temporary structure, just to give the visitors an idea of the architecture and culture of the different areas of Spain.  But it was such a popular attraction that even though it’s gone through some tough times, it’s  a “must-see” while you’re here — especially if you’re not able to see the whole country.

Trying to fit in with the locals.

(Hey, look, I know carrying my purse across my torso like some skinny bandolero is not a “good look” but we’ve been warned countless times about pick-pockets and thieves, one nice lady at the Placa de Catalunya even going so far as to insist that I carry my daypack  backwards, in the front, and I like to be safe). (Also, cute hat, no?)

We entered and the nicest lady gave us a map and some suggestions of a route through the area.  But first…a stop for a sandwich and a coffee.  We learned our lesson yesterday.  Don’t skip meals or chances to sit down in a shady spot and re-hydrate.  We spent our mealtime watching a class of adorable youngsters in adorable school uniforms gambol in the main square.  Then we went off to see the village — and stopped into Fiesta!, a wonderful audio-visual presentation on some of the festivals that Spain is famous for.  The running of the bullsThe tomato-throwing festival (for realz). Holy week in Seville with floats and spooky costumesCastellers in Catalunya.  I wouldn’t want to be around while these events were going on (too much strangeness for me!) (and are the bulls and horses having a good time?  Asking for a friend) but they looked like fantastic festivals!

From there we went into the Fran Daurel Museum with some truly outstanding examples of modern Spanish Art.

Picasso, sure, even some Dali and Miro.  But so many Spanish artists I had never even heard of, in a peaceful and calming gallery, all part of the cost of admittance.

And a stroll through “Spain” and its regional architecture:

Andalusia!

And after a day fighting the crowds in the various Placas and Las Ramblas and the super-crowded Sagrada Familia, it was so nice to have this quiet interlude. There are little shops throughout selling artisan’s works, terrific hand-made souvenirs.  The only downside of this area is that there are audio-visual presentations of each area of Spain, and it makes one sad that one cannot visit all of them on this trip, as each is spectacular in its own way.

We saw some wonderful sights:

The city laid before you from MontJuic

Orange trees! Naranjas!

Then back onto the tour bus for a quick ride back to Placa Espanya.  DH needs a swimsuit (he forgot his old one on this trip, but he really needs a new one and I tried to talk him into getting a Speedo because, hey! Europe! but he says no) so we went back to the Arenas but this time we took the escalators all the way to the top, where there’s a 360 degree view of the city. 

Placa Espanya with Joan Miro and the Venetian Towers

It’s not a terribly high viewpoint, so you don’t see everything, but it was worth an escalator ride.

We walked back to our AirBnB (it’s funny that after spending so much time on the Paris Metro, the only time we’ve ridden the Barcelona Metro is to get to the train station for Montserrat) and will spend the evening packing and finishing up the fine snacks and wine we still have.

And writing up about our adventures.  And checking in for our flight tomorrow to Seville!

And having one (or two) dry martinis at the XIX bar on the corner, saying Adeu to Alberto and hearing about how we will love Andalusia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Europe – Day 10

What?  We are more than half-way through our Europe adventures!  No slowing down now, we still have lots to do and see!

Today once again the sound of the shutters being rolled up awakened us about 8:30.  We rose to another sunny day with big plans.  But because of a sluggish start and my getting ourselves lost (again) I was worried that we would not make it to Placa de Catalunya to start the HOHO (hop-on, hop-off) route that would take us to our final destination — La Sagrada Familia. Of course we were not going to miss our chance to see Barcelona’s most famous landmark and Gaudi masterpiece — I had booked our tickets months ago with Take Walks (through Expedia).

In the meantime I had bought us passage on a CityTours HOHO tour recommended by our AirBnB host, Arama.  We chose the East Side tour because it took us to the Sagrada Familia, but we also saw the waterfront and several interesting neighbourhoods. DH had his camera ready to capture the moments:

Some of the older buildings on the waterfront

One of the new buildings on the waterfront, very distinctive, like a sail!

We found out that, like Paris, Barcelona had a great rebuilding in the 19th century, led in this case by Ildefons Cerdà.  But although the buildings (built in a gridded block system with chamfered corners at the intersections) are all built to similar guidelines, unlike Paris each building, each block, each area has its own look and personality.  Since then the 1992 Olympics brought sweeping changes to some of the poorer neighbourhoods Barcelona truly has become a city bejewelled with architectural gems.

Gaudi, of course

An eccentric house in an upscale neighbourhood

A typical block near the beach

Frank Gehry’s fish and a lesson in architectural geometry

The entrance to a park

But all the time we were getting nearer and nearer to the Sagrada Familia — would we make it in time to join our tour?

 

We pulled up just in time to zip around the corner to meet up with our guide and luckily we were the first to arrive.  Anna (guide extraordinaire) even let us sneak off to get some water as some of our group hadn’t showed up yet.

It was a wonderful tour, informative and friendly, with Anna filling us in on the stories (and some Easter eggs) displayed in the exterior:

The inside was equally as beautiful and captivating:

I love the way the light shines through the stained-glass widows and makes the aisles glow!

And there’s even a little cottage, built by Gaudi as a school for the workers’ children:

Clean and surprisingly modern, though with a lack of parallel lines and right angles!

And we enjoyed the company of a member of our group who seemed quite …. bemused by some aspects.  When Anna showed us a picture of the original facade, out in the middle of an empty field with some goats in the foreground yet, the woman was totally confused.  “Did they dismantle it and put it in the city?”  When she saw the crucifix hanging beneath a canopy above the (unfinished porphyry) altar, she asked if that was Christ ascending to heaven.  No, just, how?  I mean, read the book for crying out loud.

After the tour ended in the school house Gaudi designed and built for the students of his workers, we climbed aboard the tour bus to finish the route.

We dismounted at the Placa de Catalunya (we’ll take the tour of the other side of the city tomorrow) and headed back to the AirBnB.  It was a miracle!  I remembered quite clearly how to get back, smoothly negotiating the streets and amazing DH by bringing us back by the most direct route.

We chose to have dinner in, today was surprisingly tiring (and sunny!) but we’re planning to go out to the bar on the corner to see if we can persuade someone to make us a dry martini.  No kidding, we get blank looks when we ask for one in any of the restaurants we’ve been in.  We dropped back to the Mercat de Sant Antoni and loaded up with snacks, then got some croquettes freshly deep-fried from a little shop around the corner. With some bread, cold cuts, cheese and olives it made a delicious meal.

The bar was open and the charming young bartender made us two delightful vodka martinis!  It’s called the XIX bar, which I assumed was a Catalan name, but had been calling it the “19” bar (XIX in Roman numerals).  Turns out I was right.  It’s the 19 bar.  19 carrer de Rocafort.  One of the reasons I love Barcelona is that it’s just stuffed with these little establishments.  They are very small and often very specialized.  Like making and selling only croquettes. Or a bar that specializes in gin cocktails. Or a pharmacy that’s just one room wide and two rooms deep, where I replaced my broken reading glasses.  So your neighbourhood has markets and bars and restaurants and maybe a clothing store or a bookstore or a wine store or a fabric store or a souvenir store.  But if you’re missing something don’t worry, it’s in the next block (called manzanas, or apples, in Catalan).

We left the XIX bar with the sky still slightly alight, and something soft and seductive in the air calling us to ramble.  Unfortunately, DH had been starving himself all day and he really can’t do that, plus we had TOO MUCH SUN!!! and not enough water.  So we’re heading off to bed early tonight ready for our last day in Barcelona tomorrow.

Love this city!

 

Europe – Day 9

We had big plans for today — a day trip out of town on my birthday!  It’s not every day a girl turns 65.  It’s not this day, either.  I see it this way:  between the age of majority (19) and when you are eligible for OAS (65) one can be quite vague about one’s exact age.  34?  43? sure, why not?  Then when you are 65 you are then eligible for lots of stuff.  But there’s no real reason to get any older than 65.  Okay, one day when I’m in my nineties I’ll get a kick out of prodding someone with my cane and boasting to my real age.  But until then, let’s just keep it at 65.

Our plans included getting up early, but for some reason we didn’t.  We were awakened by the sound of the local merchants opening their shop shutters, had breakfast, and then set out for the Placa de Catalunya, where we were to pick up the tickets for the trip.  This time I outsmarted that Google Maps minx by just saving a printout for the route to my pictures and following it.  Worked perfectly, and we got there and got our tickets with no problemo.  The tickets were like the never-ending gobstoppers of the day–they acted as fare on the transportation, as vouchers for lunch, and as tickets to the attractions where we were headed.  Which was:

Montserrat!

A monastery about 50 kilometers northwest of Barcelona, Montserrat is definitely worth the trip.  We started out on the Metro, then switched to a local train which took us to the foot of the mountain.

Cable car ready to climb

We then took a cable car, installed in 1930, all the way up to the Monastery.  We could have taken a little rack railcar to the top, but decided to fly instead.

We then climbed into the community and took a funicular railway to the top of the hill.

From where you could see all the way to the Mediterranean Sea!

The view without goofy Canadian tourists in it

The rock the mountain is made of is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  Once the bottom of an ancient sea, layers and layers of small rocks built up, glued together by natural cement, then thrust up into mountains that gradually became weathered.

But of course, it’s not where it is, it’s WHAT it is.

It’s new art (Dali)!

It’s old art!

It’s a magnificent church!

It’s a nice cafeteria!  It’s magnificent views!  It’s a whole new experience!

We loooooooooved it.

When we finally caught the gondola back down the mountain we just missed a train into the city.  But no worries, we sat in a shady spot and gazed up at the mountain where this wonder sits.

Adeu, Montserrat

We then headed back to Barcelona on the train.  They had told us that Montserrat was visible for miles around, and we could still see it many stops down the line, silhouetted against the sunset.  Truly wonderful!

We got back to the AirBnB and I have to say I was beat.  But that’s not good enough for my 65th birthday!  A change of clothes and a quick splash on the face, and we headed out for dinner.  Our AirBnB host had recommended Le Faisan, just down the street.  And I have to say that I can never enjoy paella again because I will be that horrible person who says ‘Well, when I was in Barcelona……” We ate until we were full, drank the delightful Spanish wine and left with large smiles.

Muy buena!

Then we walked down to see the magic fountains.  And they are truly magic.  We walked between the Venetian Towers down between fountains toward the giant fountains at the end of the street.

Unbe-freaking-lievable!  So beautiful.  And just for fun, just for giggles.

And then, miracle of miracles, we found our way back to our AirBnB just asking two nice ladies walking their dogs on the street which way to Placa d’Espana.

As my birthday is drawing to a close we tried to find a way to make it to the Dali museum but it would take another significant commitment of time — a whole day to find our way to Figueres and back.  We only have two more days before we head to Seville.  So we will spend them exploring Barcelona.

 

Europe – Day 8

We awoke to rain.  I chided DH, who was very disappointed to have come thousands of miles from a rain forest to Sunny Spain only to be pissed on by Mother Nature.  Ha!  I said, it’s likely just a gentle sprinkle.  Are we made of sugar?  We can use our handy umbrellas, and venture out into the showers.

Nope.  It was pouring.  Rain bouncing up from the pavement pouring.  Shoe-and-cuff soaking rain.

We had made no plans for today and as a matter of fact it felt good to have no place we had to be.  We ate a leisurely breakfast, showered, and when the rain let up around noon, we ventured out to the Mercat de Sant Antoni, just down the street.

It was built during the same era of cast-iron architecture of the 19th century that brought us the Eiffel Tower but it’s completely modernized inside.

We found store after store of food, and selected fresh bread and vegetables, cheese and sausage, olives and fish, and brought them home for our lunch.

It was truly delicious:

The tomatoes tasted fresh from the vine.  The Corinthian olives were just perfect.  The bread crusty and chewy and flavourful.

I think I’m going to like this place.

We ventured out to buy some souvenirs for the grandkidlets and got caught in a real downpour.

Saw these though, the Torres Venecianes. But see the white tower to the right of the towers? That’s a communications tower, designed to look like an athlete bowing their head to accept a medal, built for the 1992 Olympics.

Another little problem we’re having is the way some streets intersect others at a 45% angle, so you can have three streets coming to a corner.  We seem to get lost every time we go out.  And that snarky girl from Google maps is no help at all.  Anyway we got back here just soaked and we’re just waiting for the rain to let up so we can make our way out to dinner.

Luckily the restaurants in this neighbourhood are just coming to life around 8:30 because we set out to find someplace around then (some don’t even open until 8:30).  DH had been walking around in circles for about an hour with no luck, but I had managed to find someplace online right in the neighbourhood.  I didn’t write down the name, I was so sure of the location, but when we passed by it the “fancy” logo of the name threw me right off, and I didn’t recognize it.  So we headed to a place called Lolita’s just around the corner and had some tapas.  It’s hip and supposed to be a bit pricey, but we didn’t find it so, of course I expect to be in bed in a little while so was not going to load up on rich food just before hitting the hay.  Just a nice snack and a chat with some fellow tourists — they are from the Isle of Skye in Scotland. We also noticed another tapas restaurant right next to Lolita’s, and will try the other place that I didn’t recogniae one evening as well.  And I have to get some paella before too long!

All the wines we’ve tried have been outstanding.  And cheap!  Like 4Euros for a bottle at the mercado, or a glass of wine for about the same in a restaurant.

But the rain and the crowds have made me quite sleepy.  We have a big day planned tomorrow so tonight I’ll be tucked in quite early.

 

Europe – Day 7

Wow, a week ago we left Vancouver.  And already we’re one third of the way through our vacation!

We left Paris this morning via the Gare de Lyon with tickets I bought many months ago for the super-speed train. We got to Gare de Lyon in lots of time and made our way to Terminal 2.  Then we asked the young lady in a uniform how we could find out which gate to go to.  “Oh” she said, “You are too late.”  AAAAAAAAAHHHHH!  “No, not late, too early!  You are too early.”  **Whew**

These trains are the bomb.

This clean, comfortable way to travel had us zipping through the countryside at nearly 300 kph.

The lush green fields and fat cows gave way to sparser vegetation and shaved fields to the salt marshes of Languedoc – Roussillon(Nimes, Montpelier, Beziers, Narbonne, Perpignan) .

Then to the Mediterranean and Barcelona.

We arrived at the large, modern railway Barcelona Sants station and decided to get a bite before going to the AirBnB.  We tried texting our host but DH’s phone just wasn’t getting with the program.  So we called Telus on my phone and he got it straightened out.  Must buy more data as we are using it up like crazy with our Google maps walking us around.  Our conversation drew the attention of a young man in the cafe, who is from San Francisco and studying in Barcelona.  He is also interested in world music so DH and he had quite a good chat.

We finally got hold of our host (she called us when she saw all the strange messages from the same number) and she advised taking a cab as it would cost about 10Euro.  It did!  Our AirBnB is in a very nice neighbourhood, very convenient to many attractions.

With a nice view of the street

We’re currently at our AirBnB, and after a dinner of sausage and crema al queso de cabra with a crusty bread, olives, and a robust red, we are about to go out to explore.  Because in Barcelona the evening is ALWAYS young.

Back from our explorations.  We did not make it to see the Magic Fountains, even though they are quite close to our AirBnB.  Apparently the lady at Google Maps can’t speak Catalan any better than I can, and led us in merry circles until we were practically back at our starting place.  No matter, the fountains will be there every evening, so we will be back.

What everyone says about Barcelona at night we must echo.  We went out around 10 pm for our stroll, and though the streets weren’t full, they were not empty either.  Lots of parents with pre-school age kids, lots of open grocery stores, lots of restaurants and bars full of diners.  You certainly felt safe (if a tad lost) among so many.

We settled in for our nap, a bit apprehensive about tomorrow’s weather — they are calling for rain.

 

 

Adieu Paris – some thoughts

So it’s good-bye to the City of Lights and Love, and on to Spain.

Ole!

But a few thoughts before I leave.  First of all, the number of motorcycles and scooters. Incroyable.  The motorcycles will happily zip across a sidewalk (or through a sidewalk cafe) to cut a corner.  There is a company in town that rents electric scooters.  And when they run out of power?  Adieu!  They just leave them on the side of the road (or weirdly, the side of the Metro line).  Someone must come around and collect them, but yanno, it’s always a shock to see them on the sidewalk waiting for their owner to come and get them.  And believe moi — they are everywhere!

And, as DH pointed out, there are hardly any big cars.  Even the expensive cars are just mid-sized, not a lot of SUVs on les rues et boulevards.

Next:  The Paris Museum pass.  DD got one for each of us, but only us wrinkly ones got the full use of it.  It’s great for cutting in line at the major museums and the Arc de Triomphe, but if you have small kids, forget it.  You won’t get your money’s worth.  But for us old timers, c’est magnifique!

Le Metro: definitely the best way to get around Paris.  I learned it in a heartbeat, but if you need a little assistance just use your Google maps.  It’s swell.  And DH was amazed to learn the origin of the Subway tiles we have in our shower. It connects with all the rail lines and gets you where you want to be toute de suite.  Any city’s transit can learn from the Paris Metro.  But……it’s not very accessible.  You especially notice it when you are schlepping a suitcase with you, but there are a LOT of stairs and not many escalators (escaliers mechaniques).

The people:  warm and friendly and so helpful.  I was waiting for the sneers when I started lurching through my high-school French sentences but everyone seemed thrilled to be able to practise their English (including the nice lady on the Metro today when I admitted that “je admire votre sac”,  and was told “Thank You!”).

The food:  We had wonderful meals in the restaurants we went to (being thrifty, we hit them up at lunch when the table d’hote is cheaper–watch out for the “formules”, the specials–but when we shopped at the supermarket we were disappointed. Yes the bread and fresh fruits and vegetables are formidable, but the market we frequented had practically no prepared food.  It was in a working-class neighbourhood and the people were looking for good food they could prepare at home, not pre-packaged frozen treats.  Quel domage!

Shutters:  We were expecting all the street-level shops to have shutters that closed at the end of the business day, but the houses and apartments had shutters on their windows, too.  The were great for security, but also great for completely blocking the sunlight when you wanted to have a lie in after sunrise.  I’d love to have some on our little place as we have no room for drapes inside.

The art:  fantastique!  If you have to choose between going to the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay, go to the D’Orsay.  You get more out of it, in square meterage. But I hope you don’t have to choose.

We didn’t see everything on our list — but you could be here for years and still not see everything.  We saw what we really wanted (yes, I know we didn’t visit Chopin’s grave at Pere LaChaise, but I don’t love Chopin) and left satisfied.

The fact is that this is our one and only chance to visit this city.  DD and family can look forward to coming back as many times as she wishes, but for us there are too many other places to visit to backtrack on our world travels.  But we are satisfied that we got as much out of Paris as we wanted.

Au revoir, Paris!

 

Europe – Day 6

As this is our last day in Paris, we decided to just enjoy what we could and not to try and crowd too much into the time we have.

There was some discussion about some of our party going to the Catacombs but the lineups threatened to be brutal so we went on to Plan B.

DH and I knew that the Pere LaChaise Cemetery was near our AirBnB but we didn’t realize that we could walk there in the same time it took on transit. So we did.

It really is very peaceful, although of course there were many people there (that made it easier for us to find the graves we were looking for, we just watched for a gathering of folk and made for it).  The really touching thing about the cemetery is that there doesn’t seem to be a special section for each different religion, everyone is all higgledy-piggledy mixed up.  Death, the great social leveller.

Among the graves we saw were

The Lizard King himself, Jim Morrison, who is listed as a “writer”

Moliere, who spends eternity next to fabulist La Fontaine

Edith Piaf, with members of her family

 

Gertrude Stein, friend and mentor of the Jazz Age notables

And of course, poor Oscar Wilde, whose restored gravesite is behind plexiglas.

That was enough, it was time to join the world of the living, so we walked out to the Gambetta Square and decided to take Rick Steve’s advice and enjoy a ride on the #69 bus from the Square to the Champs de Mars by the Eiffel Tower, its regular route.

It was quite a pleasant route, and we saw a lot, but for some reason the bus stopped in the Rue de Rivoli and we all piled out.  When your tour closes a door, it opens a window — on food. We decided we would find a good place for lunch and we did!  Le Pick Clops is a kind of American style diner, where you can enjoy your burgers to the soundtrack of the 50s and 60s.  A nice lunch.

I looked up on a map (yes!  a paper map) and saw that if we strolled up the Rue Vielle du Temple we could reach our Metro line at Oberkampf station.  It was a great walk, with chic boutiques and cafes, all maintaining the traditions of Paris (except maybe closing on Sunday, they were all open).

Just before we headed down the stairs to the Metro station we decided to have a drink in a sidewalk cafe.  The waiter had no idea what we meant by a dry martini.  He gave us their drinks menu, and sure enough, not a martini to be found (not even a Manhattan, just a Cosmopolitan).  So we had a couple of their concoctions and soaked in the Parisian atmosphere while people-watching and checking out the architecture.  It’s apparently not enough that all the buildings are the same height (six storeys, usually) and all made out of creamy limestone.  No, check it out, all the windows line up all along the block — each storey is the same height in the buildings.

rue de Rivoli? Or Montmartre? Or Marais? C’est la meme chose! LA MEME CHOSE!!!!

It’s a bit odd.  Symmetrical, but odd and kind of stage set-like.

Another quiet dinner and evening in.

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