48 hours in Barcelona

imageThe smoke of a hand-rolled cigarette tinged the air as I sat and clumsily ordered my final espresso before catching the metro to the Barcelona airport. “Yo quero uno espresso…bitte”. I knew my mistake as soon as the words left my mouth. Now that German is my second language I found it required all my concentration to recall the Spanish which used to be my (albeit rudimentary) second language. It’s funny how that goes with languages, whichever one I’m currently studying is always the first second word I think of when I run through the vocabulary Rolodex in my brain.

I’m at the airport waiting to catch my flight to Dusseldorf, which is delayed (as it was on the way here)… from Barcelona back to my German home. This trip was spontaneously planned and just as spontaneously executed and that is just what I needed. It’s summer in Germany but the German version of summer is not quite what I’m used to experiencing… Preferences in life are often influenced by our upbringing, and mine was in the sun-kissed San Joaquin Valley of California. A land of perpetual sun in the summertime and warm, sometimes scalding days. I loved every minute. When it was 110F my sister and I would station ourselves in front of the air conditioner and watch cartoons – Garfield was a favorite. We’d suck on flavored ice sticks (what were they called???) and then every once in a while run outside to jump through a sprinkler or slide down our metal slide that was slightly cooled by the water pumped from our well and through the water hose that I snaked through the monkey bars to keep in position. As you can tell, I love a nice hot summer.

My love for summer only grew when I moved to Texas, where the climate was similar, although with the added benefit of cooling down at night in our hill country home. In Louisiana I reveled in the heat and humidity that many find oppressive and unbearable. I was happy to be drenched in sweat from head to toe after walking a rice field or getting in a good hard run. North Carolina is more mild than Louisiana and also lovely with the summer thunderstorms that put on quite a show.

Now, Germany enters the scene and I’m having a hard time considering that what I’ve experienced in the month of June should be called summer? Frankly, most of the days feel like Louisiana wintertime it with lower humidity. One chilly day a couple of weeks ago, I pulled out my blizzard parka because the Mercury made such a quick drop. I’m a big advocate for change, but I learned a long time ago to accept the things I cannot change and weather (unfortunately) is one of those things.

One thing I can change is where I spend my weekend. So, one night I pulled out my iPad and booked a trip to Barcelona. My life needed a little Latin flair, spicy food, architecture (I heard the city had some cool stuff) and sun, Sun, SUN!!!!! And sweat, if I could work up a sweat I’d be in seventh heaven. My 48 hour ramble through Barcelona met these expectations and then more.

When I landed in Barcelona, I caught the metro (L9) to my hotel. This required one transfer on the way, but it’s no trouble on the metro, it’s a great system and the longest time I ever waited for a train was 5 minutes. My first day I walked 30 K! A new record for me. Around 20 K my leg started to bother me (I’m still recovering from my flying kick mishap – 2 months into recovery and one to go until I’m good as new), so I started to ride the metro. I bought a ten pack of tickets for 10 euros, not a bad deal and similar to what I found in Paris.

On the first night my flight was delayed (I learned from a fellow expat traveler who spends his weekends in Barcelona and his weeks in Dusseldorf that this is the norm). This isn’t a big deal because the Barcelonians don’t begin dinner until about 8. I checked in and then inquired in the lobby about a good place to find tapas. The desk clerk recommended two places – one nearby and one that was one of the best places in the city. You can imagine where I landed – of course – I found myself on the not so famous version of a smaller more quaint Le Rambla, which was perfect in every way. I tried to get a table on the main square and was informed the wait was an hour so I should inquire inside. I started to wait in line and then I spied one lone bar stool and I thought, that’s my spot. I asked the fellow perched on the neighboring bar stool and he confirmed that I could claim the bar stool as my own.

I grabbed the stool and began to take in my surroundings. The top of the bar was lined with plates loaded with tapas – toasted bread loaded with grilled meals, meat salads, cold meats with peppers, cheese creations – you name it, if it’s delicioiso it’s probably on a tapas. Below the bar was an area that looked a lot like a sushi bar. It was a place reserved for raw prawns, trays of olives, sardines, and never-ending variations on seafood salads.

image

I ordered my usual which is whatever the waiter recommends. It hasn’t led me astray yet, except for that one time in Altenberg when I was persuaded to try a special cured ham which was basically SPAM (I’m convinced that the GI’s stole this concept from Germany and I’ll need some hard evidence to convince me otherwise). This time I was pleased with the offering – grilled beef for the first round and grilled shrimp for the second – both served on a nice piece of toasted baguette.

Slowly, over time, I started to chat with my fellow patrons at the tapas bar – it turned out they were from Mexico City and friendly folk. They provided some recommendations, which I halfway followed up on. It was nice to start the trip with some friendly exchanges.

On my second day in Barcelona I was feeling a little slow in the morning, yeah, that’s what eating at 10 pm will cause… I finally rolled out around 9 am. With so much to see I started out feeling a little behind. Also, when I checked in on Friday night I overhead a couple asking the desk clerk if they could print out their ticket for Sagrada Familia, which caused me to think I better get a ticket too! I started to worry it might be like the Eifel Tour which can be booked up for weeks in advance. Fortunately this is not the case and I had no trouble booking an entry to the Basilica at 17:45 and a tour to the top at 18:15. This gave me a very scary thing, a concrete schedule! I couldn’t miss my date with the family…

I looked at the map and took my usual strategy which is to go to the farthest point first and the work my way back. I threw on a dress, lightened up my bag to just the essentials, laced up my new pair of Nike Free shoes (my favorite travel accessory, pulled on some sunglasses, set my sights for Park Guelph and began walking.

One of my primary goals this trip was to avoid looking like a tourist. I had heard that pick-pocketing is terrible in Barcelona, the local economy is quit depressed so it’s not very surprising. While I do have some self defense skills, I didn’t want to need to use them, so I decided to avoid attention. I left my Nikon SLR at home and packed light. It worked for me, the only strange encounter I had was accidentally running full on into a kid when I was walking by a cool tapas bar. My breath was knocked out of me, but nothing was stolen!

Overall this city was great and I never felt unsafe. I also had many moments that I consider gems. As I walked toward Park Guelph I walked through a great old neighborhood and encountered a worker starting his day. He looked at me, paused, and then his face lit up with the most authentic, genuine grin. By reflex I grinned back and then I remembered where I was! Such a great feeling! This was book- ended about 24 hours later as I walked along La Playa and a guy rolling by on his skate board offered his hand for a slap. These moments of random human connection cannot be measured.

image

My trip was interesting timing. As I departed I heard the results of Brexit – the UK is out of the EU. I honestly don’t know what to think of the conclusion. Is it good, is it bad? As an American, I can understand the desire to be free. To create your own rules and decide the structure of your society. But, another part of me, I guess this is the new European side, is concerned this will lead to more dissent, separation and emphasis of the differences between cultures, economies and societies. Are societies different than cultures? I need to do some research on this point.

When I entered Sagrada Familia, these thoughts were in my mind. This church is being built (it will be finished in 2026) by the people and for the people. This is for all people (as long as you can pay the admission I suppose). As I entered the Basilica I was mesmerized by the glowing red and orange stained glass on the western walls. I looked up and admired the towering columns that were designed to replicate trees in a forest, even down to the filtered light. Gaudi really hit it this time. I have never been so moved by a building.

I rode the elevator to the top of the passion tower and then made my way down the spiral staircase. This staircase is the singular most impressive piece of architecture I have experienced. Gaudi’s ambitious was to recreate the shape of a snail shell and he did it! I took my time descending the stairs, admiring the architecture out the window on the way.

To be continued… Now I gotta grab dinner with some expats who are heading back stateside and then take the cat for a walk in the courtyard.

Advertisements

Believe in the Luck of The Four Musicians 

 

As we rolled slowly over the cobblestones Chas said “I’m pretty sure we’re driving through a pedestrian zone.” My response – “no that can’t be true…this is how the GPS told us to go…” Well I’m hear to tell you that GPS systems shouldn’t be trusted implicitly in Europe!

This is how we began our first stop on our American road trip. We were on our way to Wismar for the night. I picked Wismar because I’d visited for work and found it to be a charming retreat on the Black Sea. I knew my husband and folks would also love it. But, then, for some strange reason, I began to doubt if they would share my opinion of this city. Perhaps they would find it too small, not busy enough… I began to think that we should make some stops along the way. As I studied the route I saw two clear options: Bremen or Hanover. I opened up Rick Steve’s guide to Germany, flipped to the city index and couldn’t find Bremen or Hanover. Well, that didn’t help. I needed more data. One of my neighbors is from Bremen and her descriptions of the city were nice, so Bremen it was.

We arrived in the city a little after noon and I did what I usually do, which was to set the GPS to the city Centre. This normally works pretty well to find the interesting parts of the city. As we approached the pretty buildings, always a good sign, we suddenly found ourselves driving down a road that seemed an awful like like a pedestrian zone… Turns out it was, oops! Fortunately not many people about and no trains. We quickly found a P sign for a parking garage and headed in that direction. After the car was safely secured we headed in to town.

Our first sight was a beautiful church, but we were hungry and thirsty and we were delighted to find a market underway. We made a beeline for the market and found a number of wonderful booths selling bread, meat and cheese. I’d had a similar experience in Luxembourg when I visited with some girlfriends over the winter. Dad was drawn to the meat booth and found some delicious salami. Mom picked out a bread. Cheese was next on the list and we grabbed a few, especially some of the local cheeses. Everyone carried a little bundle of goodness as we searched for a brauhaus where we could stand outside to eat and have a local bier.

image

It didn’t take long to find the perfect place and we bought a local draft bier and then gathered around a circular stand up table to share our farmers market lunch. It was a sunny day, blue skies above and we were on a narrow side street at a brauhaus from the 1700s. These sorts of moments are wonderful.

On our way to lunch we stopped in the local tourist office and picked up some tips on places to see. The first advice was to definitely visit the old district in town called the Schnoor. It was quaint, a few too many shops for my taste, but I’ve come to realize this is how these districts stay in business. We couldn’t resist posing for a picture on one of the pretty little cobblestone lanes.

image

We took a meandering  path in search of the reason we had stopped in town – to admire the four musicians and, of greatest importance, to touch the donkeys hoofs for luck. Along the way we paused in a giant brauhaus. Munich style bier was on tap and we enjoyed a pint to refuel our adventure.

Soon after we struck out again we decided to stop in the giant church to  admire the art and architecture. It’s a very impressive place and I admired the nice folk-style painted interior. It reminded me a little of Matthias Temple in Budapest. Art that is approachable is very appealing to me.

As our eyes adjusted to the sunlight we roamed toward a tall statue in front of the Rathaus that celebrates trade. It’s done in a beautiful medieval style.

image

Still, we hadn’t found the four musicians. I was picturing a large statue that would be easy to find so I was a little perplexed. I popped in to a store and asked a lady where I could find the four musicians and she walked out of the place and led me across the square and around the corner to a construction zone. Suddenly, there it was, tucked between the scaffolding, in the shadow of a large building, the four musicians. I thanked our spontaneous tour guide for leading us to the statue. Then we waited our turn and experienced the ceremony of touching the donkey hoofs. The hoofs are shiny bronze, polished from many hands seeking luck.

image

As it turns out the donkey hooves did bring us luck. We had clear weather our entire trip. Moral of the story, make your first stop at a universal good luck charm and fate will smile upon your adventure.

My cat is attacking me now so it’s time to stop for tonight.

Next stop Lubeck and then on to Wismar.