22 November 2012

the spain series: the finale

After my Barcelona sight-seeing day, Thursday was my country-hopping day.  I was up for my early start and jogged a little to make sure I was at the meeting point on time.  It wasn't long before the five of us waiting around were in a van heading out of the city.  Heading off on our task of being in three countries in one day. 

First stop was the little medieval village of Baga, Spain.  It was very chilly but the blue sky and shining sun made it a beautiful morning in this picturesque little town.  We really just wandered the streets for a while before we bundled back in the van and were on the road again.

 We certainly were spending most of the day travelling as I expected but the scenery along the way was very nice.  Being the person I am, I honestly don't mind travelling--sitting back, quietly amusing myself, observing the world as it passes by.  Our guide was informative too and told us lots of various things and was happy to answer questions.  He and the tourist in the front seat would start up a conversation in Spanish and then he'd go and explain in English what they had been talking about.

By mid morning we'd crossed the border into France by a mention of it by the guide as we crossed a little village bridge.  We stopped in the walled town of Mont-Louis and walked around some of the wall of the fortified citadel that is still used by the French army.  Here I particularly felt the cold as I only had ballet slip-on shoes.  Though the temperature was about 10 degrees it was lovely and warm sitting in the sunshine when our guide bought us coffee and something from the bakery.  I had a pain au chocolat.  Mmmm.

Our next border crossing was more of a deal.  Not only did we leave France and travel briefly in no-man's land between the police patrol lines, but we also entered Andorra.  Another country to mark off as 'visited'.  It's a tiny place squished in between France and Spain and pretty much surrounded by mountains.  It was quite strange to be in the capital, Andorra la Vella, and see mountains just behind the buildings.  In fact surrounding the city.  We had a few hours here and I wandered down to the old town, spied a melting clock sculpture by Salvador Dali, snapped some photos, tried to find a suitable tourist keepsake to add to my collection and wandered back up the street and into the newer city area still searching.  I stopped briefly to order some lunch and headed back down toward the old town deciding I should just get the first one I saw.  Only I forgot about the Spanish culture which is obviously carried out in Andorra as well of closing shop between 1pm-ish and 4pm.  Damn!  It was now in that time period and we were leaving before it was over.  Well, thankfully, ceasing all sentimental drama, I found a tourist shop still open that ended up having just what I was looking for.  I spent the last half hour sitting in the sunshine writing my parents a postcard and eating chocolate and taking in the city scene and mountains beyond.

 Exiting Andorra is a bit slower than coming in.  Vehicles are police checked for tax-free goods.  In Andorra, so our guide informed us, wine and smokes are cheaper and tax-free and thus there's a limit on how much you can leave with.  Apparently it's also worth coming for petrol and electrical goods if you live close enough.  So leaving Andorra behind, we re-entered Spain and took the scenic route back to Barcelona.  Arriving after dark I went straight to my hotel and checked my email.  I then went out to meet up with Natália again and some other girls she'd met at the hostel.  We had some great pizza for tea and roamed the tourist shops before I headed back to my hotel to prepare for another early start.

This was my most anticipated early start of my Spain holiday.  I was up and out of my hotel while it was still dark and picked up from the meeting point and again driven out of Barcelona.  We wove through country roads just north of the city until we came to a specific hillside.  Here the ute and trailer that had joined us along the way unloaded our ride.  I'd been mentioning doing this for quite some time to various people.  It was a wish I hoped to fill while I was having my UK adventure.  A fun, extraordinary activity that I hoped to be able to say I did in some foreign beautiful place.  For my birthday this year, my previous boss and her husband gave me money toward doing it.  It was a wonderful, thoughtful present and I'm glad I finally got to use it as I'd hoped.

So in Spain, just north of Barcelona, the hot air balloon was rolled out and I and the other rider held the mouth of the balloon open while the big fan filled it with air.  When it was looking quite balloon-like, the pilot set up the gas burners and gave a few squirts of flame.  Within seconds the air was warming enough to start the rise and before much longer the basket was upright with the balloon floating above.  I was buzzing with each stage, my excitement sneaking out in smiles and soft shrills.  The three of us climbed into the basket and with a few long blasts of flame were gently lifting off the ground and watching it shrink away.

It was a splendid experience.  I heard of what it's like from friends so none of it surprised me--except perhaps the first filling of the balloon with just a fan blowing air, which makes total sense really.  It was wonderfully peaceful.  Floating quietly through the air high above the ground with only the occasionally blast of the burners.  Wonderful!  The scenery was truly splendid and it was a fantastic sunlit morning to view it.  I made sure I soaked it in while I was up there.  Paddocks, crops, housetops, animals; various shades of green in patches outlined with an autumn tinged spread of trees, the design and layout of towns, the scene spanning out to the base of the surrounding Pyrenees mountains. In the distance, when we were up high, we could see Barcelona and Montserrat (the most well known mountain nearby). 

It was also a little thrilling as the temperature changes caused us to drop in altitude. We went up and down a number of times during the flight which lasted about one hour.  Sometimes we seemed to be going down fairly fast and the pilot would give a blast or two and then pause but we'd continue dropping.  He'd give another blast or two but the response was slow.  It took a while for the hot air to shift our direction but we gradually would and then the lift would increase in speed.  It must take a bit of practice to not overdo the delayed response.  A few times we got pretty darn close to the tree tops.  As we were skirt over a patch to where we would land we even skimmed some before popping down in a turned over field.  The chaser (the guy who picked us up from Barcelona who followed the balloon flight with ute and trailer) managed to get nearby but we had to jump out and pull the balloon along while the pilot kept it floating just above the ground.  Once in position, he re-landed it, switched it all off, opened the balloon top and the pack up began.  We helped pack the balloon back into the bag once it was deflated--part of this required sitting on the bundle to expel the final trappings of air.  By now the sky had completely clouded over and as they were hauling it all back on the trailer drops of rain began to fall.  Perfect timing.  Back at the launch site we were presented with flight certificates (written in Spanish but I can basically read it) and the gave us some breakfast.  The pilot toasted ham and cheese sandwiches over the balloon burner.  He he.  Then they dropped us happy chappies back in Barcelona.  A wonderful birthday treat and something I glad I got round to doing.  Splendid!

In the afternoon I managed to find some stamps and post some postcards, saw the Arc de Triomf which in Barcelona is red bricked, and then found my way to where I was heading: Museu Picasso.  It's apparently the largest collection of Picasso artwork and was initiated by Picasso himself who spent quite a chunk of time in Barcelona.  Picasso firstly makes me think of cubism.  Those whacky portraits with facial features all askew. But this collection was like a Picasso lifeline and was mostly pre-cubism days.  There actually wasn't much cubism in the museum.  It was interesting to look through the various stages he went through with his artwork and his phases of different medium usage.  There were some I liked the look of, a fair bit that didn't capture my attention and a lot of seemingly rough sketches.  Couldn't take photos of course.

When I'd had enough of that I wandered the streets some more until I sat down in a little restaurant and ate paella for tea.  I decided before I came that I had to have this dish while here but I wasn't that thrilled with it. I don't think it was the best restaurant but it satisfied my hunger.  I then scurried off to the train to go see Font Mágica de Montjuïc before it stopped it's show for the night.  It was quite a sight walking up the street toward it.  The street was lined with little fountains lit up leading up to Font Mágica, the main fountain lit up in red.  Behind it the National Museum of Catalan Art was lit up and beaming.  I must have only caught the end or perhaps it's the time of year.  I only saw it in red but it apparently has a variety of colours.  It dances it's display to music and I was there for maybe 15mins before it finished for the night.  Still, it was nice to see it in action.  After that I headed back to my hotel for my last night in Spain.

Saturday I walked into town and found that little take away place again and successfully ordered a cup of tea in Spanish.  No English used. I was a tad chuffed with myself though it was pretty basic phrases.  He he.  I then wandered toward the sea deciding I should visit the beach here.  Unfortunately by the time I got to beach I was completely distracted by mentally repeatedly practising the phrase "¿Hay un baño por aquí?" and utterly busting by the time I finally found one.  Much relieved I took a short stroll along the dark sandy beach smiling at the fact I was walking by the Mediterranean Sea.

After roaming shops again for a little too long I hurried myself back to my hotel to collect my luggage and jump trains to Barcelona Sants Station.  It took me longer to get there than I'd anticipated however and the next train to the airport was 20mins away.  I was feeling pushed for time so I ditched the train idea and went back to the street, searched and found an ATM to gather some cash and went to catch a taxi.  Even that took a while as I knew and had seen the Spanish word "Libre" displayed in some taxis meant "free".  I had assumed--wrongly so--that the other word I saw meant the opposite and so hailing a taxi took a while.  It wasn't until I half hailed and the taxi noticed and pulled over that I realised it was probably the Catalan word for free.  So I took the taxi to the airport which got me right to the exact terminal and company I required on time.  Phew.  First time I've caught and paid for a taxi for myself.  Now relaxed I settled in for my flight and farewelled Barcelona and thanked Spain for a lovely holiday.

19 November 2012

the spain series: episode two

Once I'd alighted from the overnight train from Madrid, I was off in search of another train to ride.  The little Spanish I've learned was a bit useful but I quickly discovered that in Barcelona, in Catalonia country, the main language on all the signs was Catalan.  It's a tad similar but not the same.  Thankfully most tourist-using signs had Spanish as well and sometimes even English (like at the major train stations).  And even though most people seemed to be pretty decent at English, they at least knew Spanish so I could usually manage one way or another though I still think my Spanish is very limited.  Anyway, with a change on the Metro, I was just one block from my hotel.  I was excited about being able to sleep sprawled out in a bed when night time came again.  For now it was about 8:30am and I couldn't check in yet.  I locked my luggage away and accessed the internet to email Natália, whom I met on our Madrid bike tour and arrived in Barcelona the night before.  I then headed out to Mirador de Colom which is a tall monument somewhere nearby where she was staying.  I stopped by a little take out and got a sandwich and cup of tea for breakfast.  They serve big teas and put in warm milk.  Cool.  I sat on the steps of the monument enjoying the sunshine while I waited and hoped she'd read my email.

I waited round longer than the time I mentioned though I didn't end up giving that much time before meeting.  I'd forgotten my phone was still an hour behind on British time.  She found me though and she bought a couple of Portuguese guys she'd met at the hostel who were wanting to look around the city as well.  It ended up being a great sight-seeing day because they had plans about what they wanted to see and the only thing I knew about Barcelona and had planned to see was La Sagrada Família.  And of course, exploring with company is more enjoyable.

First stop was one I would have happily skipped but Natália is a bit of a die-hard fan.  We went to the FC Barcelona Stadium.  That is, home of the Barcelona soccer team.  We roamed the store for a while.  Mainly just waited for Natália to decide what she wanted and could afford to buy.  The label hikes the price indeed.

From there we went to my one planned-to-visit landmark--Sagrada Família.  I'd seen it in photos and it looked interesting.  When I saw it in person I was truly amazed.  It's a church--a landmark, heritage church.  In Europe.  But it's not gothic style.  It is soooo different from anything I've seen.

The style is one of it's own.  The cone peaks alone make it stand out but the sculpture style is interesting as are the various shapes used in the construction.  This is the side we saw first.  The sculptures depict the crucifixion of Christ.  Below, between the cone peaks, you can see the golden resurrected Christ.  This side is the newer side.  It's the side I like best.  We went around the other side too where the beginnings were sculpted in.  Creation I think and the birth of Jesus and such.  It's highly detailed and a bit more gothic like.  I think I like the newer side better because it's different.  Unlike so many of the other churches around Europe that I've seen, the scaffolding and building site accessories here were not because of restoration or cleaning.  This church, begun in 1882, is still under construction.  Estimated finish is still 20 years away or so.  I was greatly impressed by this structure and I was yet to find out it was part of a running theme in Barcelona.

After some lunch we headed off to see some houses one of the guys wanted to see.  Apparently designed by some Antoni Gaudí who's a bit of a Barcelona celebrity.  We went first to see La Padrera which leaves an impression with it's wonky, wavey exterior.  I also liked the cast iron squiggly balconies.  At 16 Euros, we decided not to go inside.  We went instead to Casa Batllo.  Now Casa Batllo stood out even more.  This Gaudí guy was definitely catching my attention.  This one, Natália told us from her guidebook, was the most interesting inside.  So we decided to pay the 20 Euros to go in this one.

But, my word!  It was worth paying for.  I was astonished and intrigued by every corner or...well,... every inch anyway.  There's not a straight line in the house.  This place was phenomenal.  It wasn't long before I decided I liked this Gaudí guy.  In fact, he greatly impresses me.  Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) was a Spanish Catalan architect whose big passions were architecture, nature and religion.  It astonishes me that such designs as I saw in Casa Batllo and round Barcelona are so modern and different and out-there even for our day and age. And this man's life wrapped up in the 1920s!!  He was a man ahead of his era.  His designs, which are largely drawn from his study of nature, are amazing and structurally futuristic for his time.  Some of the techniques he applied--drawing from the Master designer's work--were used more widely and commonly decades later.

The house, just looking at it, is outrageously eyecatching.  Just looking at the outside leaves one exclaiming they've seen nothing like it.  There are multiple interpretations of what it resembles but I simply couldn't get over the fact that it looks like there's a dragon on the roof.  Inside there are curves everywhere and the whole place resembles nature in some way, shape or form....or all three.  The fluidity of water, the tortoise-shell or glimmering water surface pattern painted subtly all over the walls, the colours, the banister on the spiral staircase that looks like a spine, the use of wood and patterns carved into the doors...  His use of light and space were extremely well thought out.  The central lightwell inside adapts well with the skylight.  The windows get progressively larger as they get nearer the ground so as to let more light in to the lower levels and the dark blue tiles are condensed at the top and thin out toward the bottom making way for the pale blue tiles to better reflect the light.  The banisters around the lightwell were also made of glass with a wonky effect to it so that as you walked by the blue from the tiles in the lightwell wavered like the surface of a lake.  He was into recycling too and there's lots of colour mosaic decorations, especially in the outside areas.  He designed the house with the housekeeping rooms at the top (laundry and such) and you can see the arches in the pic below that support but also create the illusion of more space than there actually is.  There's also slats in the wall that let the light in but keep the rain out.  We even got to go up on the roof which I didn't expect where we could see the sleeping dragon.  The chimneys he clumped together to create a more visually appealing roof top.

So many amazing, wonderful, intriguing aspects to it.  Too many to remember or rave on about right now.   Fantastic use of light and colour and line and practicality.  If you're ever in Barcelona, you really should take a look inside Casa Batlló.  We were all glad we paid to look inside.

Before it got dark we headed to Park Güell to see the 'gingerbread houses', so labelled by one of the Portuguese guys, and the lizard.  He was right too.  There was two houses by the main gate and they looked like gingerbread houses.  This park has Gaudí all over it.  Also another of the Barcelona landmarks--more Gaudí of course--is the mosaicked lizard sculpture, the salamander.  We didn't see too much of the park really but the area we entered was artful and colourful in a fascinating, eye-capturing style.

After a few quick photos we headed up to the highest point where the light shifted from the natural glow of the sky to the man-constructed twinkle of the city below.  It was nice to look across Barcelona and take it in on more of a whole.  It was easy to spot la Sagrada Família jutting up from sea of buildings.  Bit of a stand out. After a while we went down again to the terrace above the salamander.  The terrace, one of the main features of the park, has a massive Gaudí-designed bench that snakes like a sea serpent creating the fence.  When built it was known as the world's longest bench.  The view was nice from here with twilight in full swing.

From here my day pretty much ended.  When we got back to the train station I headed off to my hotel to finally check in, prepare for the next day's adventure and go to bed--to a nice big bed--to rest up for the early start of my next adventure.  It had been a good day, a full day and lots of great sight-seeing.  More than I would have seen on my own I reckon.

16 November 2012

the spain series: episode one

I'd had a busy week, followed by a busy weekend.  I spent Monday morning, 6th November 2012, packing my suitcase and making sure I had everything I needed while anxiously aware of the countdown to catch my flight. I worry more than I need to though.  I made my flight easy enough.  I landed in Barcelona, collected my baggage and followed the signs to the train station.  Thankful for being able to select 'English', I purchased my ticket and boarded the train to Barcelona Sants. From there I caught my first overnight train. Combining travel and accommodation saved me some money but I didn't sleep a lot this night.  I didn't figure out how to tip my seat back so it was a little uncomfortable on my neck.  I got too warm somewhere in the middle there too and ended up escaping to the carriage behind which was like a bar area and sat on the cool floor for a good hour.  Come 7:30am I was in Madrid.  I hung out at the station and had some breakfast while I waited for the tourist information centre to open so I could get a map and hopefully not get lost.  

When I got to the centre of town I wandered around the streets browsing in the few shops that were open (most seem to open about 10am in Spain).  At 11am I joined a Brazillian lady for a guided bike tour of the city.  It was interesting to discover that there exists Brazillians who are not loud and crazy and energetic.  A pleasant Dutch fellow lead us around Madrid who was very informative.  Unfortunately there's not a lot I recall.  Just various bits and pieces.

In the Parque de la Montaña there are remnants of an Egyptian temple, the Temple of Debod.  A gift for helping UNESCO save some heritage sites.  From the park you can see across some of Madrid and our guide pointed out a massive park/green area within the city.  Apparently Madrid cheated when they did a city pollution test to see which cities were the cleanest environmentally.  They put their smog-o-meter in the middle of this huge park.  The park also contains a rollercoaster.

We also stopped by Palacio Real (Royal Palace) with a ridiculous 2000+ rooms.  The royal family don't live there though and only use it for official stuff, and maybe to pop in and do some work.  I wonder if most of the rooms are simply unused.  It was designed to have a statue of each of the kings of Spain that would sit atop the roof.  You can see some of them up there.  But apparently the list was 204 statues long.  They didn't complete this aspect and I'm not sure if they made all 204 but there's a bunch of statues scattered around the city and I maybe beyond.

We visited Plaza de Mayor which is a popular one.  I can't remember much of what was said there but it looked great.  The painted section (section with painted pictures) was where the royals or something similar used to watch the events in the square.  You know, the trials and hangings and other community events.

About half way round out 3hr bike tour we stopped in a cafe for a drink...included in the tour.  Us girls chose hot chocolates and our guide said they were different in Spain than we might be used to.  He was right.  They were super thick.  In fact, I was convinced I was eating a teacupful of hot chocolate custard.  We had cake as well which was yummy.

Another place we went was to Parque del Retiro.  We only saw a small section of it but it was interesting and pretty, especially in the autumn colours, and I saw a red squirrel.  It's the largest park in central Madrid and used to be a part of the Palace grounds.

We also saw Puerta de Alcalá, one of the ancient gates to the city.  Apparently one of the king's requested designs and a whole bunch of architects did so.  The king rejected all of them and then contacted the architect who built the palace and asked him to design something.  This guy, knowing all the others that had been rejected, decided to provide two designs so the more likely one would be picked.  The king liked both so did one design on each side.  I don't think I actually ended up taking a photo of the other side though.

Puerta del Sol was not actually a stop on one of our tours but I frequently traipsed through there in my walking about.  Wikipedia says it's one of the busiest and most well known places in Madrid.  I found that to be true in my one day there.  It was the place I trained to from the train station (the overnight train ended at a station further north) and it was a place I kept coming back to to orientate myself.  It has the statue of the bear and the tree which I know nothing about but was on lots of tourist trinkets.  And it was most certainly busy!  Aye.  Packed with germans!  Crazy soccer fans who'd travelled from Germany to watch a game in Madrid--with a German team playing of course.  They were busy shouting and chanting and singing and drinking.  Game preparations.  We saw the black and gold clad people everywhere we went but concentrated in this area.

And speaking of the sun (Sol is spanish for sun), I saw it.  Yay!  It wasn't that warm but it was sunny that day as you can tell.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the city with Natália (the brazillian from the tour).  Mostly we just explored the shops I think.  We also went to a pub for tapas.  Now tapas in Spain are a little bit of something to eat for free with your alcoholic beverage.  Well, you can also buy them if you want.  The place we chose didn't have very good ones.  We got a little chicken ball and cold fries.  Lame.  I've heard some tapas are pretty spectacular.  I had a sangria which was ok I guess.  The handmade sangria I had on my Scotland tour by the two spanish chics was way better.

Natália and I exchanged email as we were both heading to Barcelona that night.  She then had to go to make her flight and I wandered around town for hours in the cold until I got sick of doing that and headed to the train station early for my second overnight train.  This time, being tired from the lack of sleep last time and also figuring out how to lay my seat back a bit, I managed to sleep most the night with just a few random wakes. I was even woken by the train guy as we pulled into Barcelona Sants Station.  I happily grabbed my stuff and left the train.  Madrid was ok but it was really just another big city.  The Barcelona part of my journey, however, was the biggest and most anticipated part.