18 April 2010
Today was beach day. I slept in late and did absolutely nothing productive all day. After breakfast I went out to the sand to tan, in full local attire. That's right, I'm way more Euro than you ;)
Had a bratwurst for lunch, then siesta. Dinner was spent hanging out at one of the German pub-type spots, watching Stuttgart get absolutely ripped by FC Barcelona 4-1.
I said my goodbyes to the Balearics and flew back to Barcelona. Even though it is still the low season in Mallorca it isn't hard to believe it when they say Palma's airport is the busiest in Spain. The plane landed a little early, so I had time to catch an earlier bus to Andorra, though that meant skipping lunch. The ride out from Barcelona was spectacular, the Pyrenees create an environment unlike any other mountain range I've ever seen. I arrived at Sant Julia de Loria, the little hamlet I was basing the Andorran leg of the trip around, at about 6:00. Too early for any dinner places to be open, so I went into the capital to see what this tiny country was all about.
Andorra is a unique country in several ways. It is the only country with Catalan as the official language, even though it is not the native tongue of a majority of its citizens. It is also the only nation in the world with two separate heads of state, one from Spain and one from France. Not sure what this does as far as affecting the whole legislative process, but I'm not sure any of the Andorrans really notice (or care). There are only three state maintained roads in the whole country, and they run through the valleys between the mountain giants all around, connecting the seven different villages that make up the principality.
Andorra may be small, but it is big on two things: skiing and shopping. The skiing is obvious, as Andorra's geography gives it the best skiing in the Pyrenees. The shopping is due to some crafty marketing on behalf of the government. Since the country has such a small population (≈85,000), over 60% of the country's GDP is created by tourism and finance. The lawmakers decided to play that up even further my making Andorra a tax haven. This gives the nation the lowest prices in Europe on just about everything, and both retailers and shoppers take full advantage. There is one store in Andorra for every 40 people, a staggeringly high number. French and Spanish citizens pop in and out for all manner of designer goods and trendy electronics. The shops are so concentrated that the capital, Andorra la Vella, is really more like an incorporated outlet mall than a center of government. They also probably have the nicest soccer stadium of any country to never win an international match, it's some of the only flat land in the whole nation.
This is the day I made the only big boo-boo of the trip. My whole purpose for coming to Andorra was to try out nordic skiing at La Rabbassa, the only ski resort I've seen that just does cross-country skiing. Unfortunately, it is at the very top of a windy 17km road with no municipal transportation or accommodations closer than the bottom of the mountain in Sant Julia. The only way to get up there if you don't have your own car is to take an expensive taxi or use the van provided by the resort. This wouldn't be so bad if there was someone who could actually tell me when this elusive bus was running!
Even so, I regrouped and decided that a few hours of skiing was better than no skiing at all. A lady finally told me when the next bus was heading up, so I went out there 10 minutes early and rode to the top. There was probably only one or two weeks of the season left, so no snow in the valley and not much at the top except for on the trails. I was fortunate in that I asked for a lesson in English, so that really meant a private lesson because everyone else’s lessons would be in Spanish or Catalan. My instructor was great, and it turns out Nordic skiing comes pretty natural for me. I picked up classic style in about 20 minutes and skating in less than an hour. By the time I had to leave to go back down the mountain, I had all the skiing I wanted. People aren’t kidding when they say it’s the most physically demanding sport there is. The bus ride to Girona was about 3 hours, and I just wandered around the city a little while to get my bearings.
20 March 2010
This morning I slept in a little, but still got going with enough time to go to La Sagrada Familia right when it opened at 10:00. It's the dominating feature of the Barcelona skyline, and is master architect Antoni Gaudi's opus. Basically, La Sagrada Familia is a modern day incarnation of the great Renaissance cathedrals, all the way down to the fact that it's been under construction for over a century and still isn't finished. They are shooting for a 2026 completion date, but whenever they hit it, it will be impressive. The cathedral is massive, and a math scholar's dream. The whole thing is full of parabolic curves and double helicoid columns. To me it is exactly what the Italian masters would have done if they had access to calculus. At first I wiped it off as all being too modern for me, but then they had a little exhibit about Gaudi's nature-influenced design philosophy, and I fell in love with it. Not only was Gaudi an artist, but really an incredible engineer. Pictures will have to come later, since I left the camera-computer cable at home. On the outside, the apse (rear) and two of the three facades have been finished. The Nativity and Passion facades were each done by different Spanish sculptors, and I liked them, but I think they are both dead and am not sure who they have commissioned to do the final Glory facade.
That whole experience really piqued my interest in Gaudi, who I had not heard much of or read anything about before the trip. So I changed the plan of the day to visit his other big project, Parc Guell. This public park was originally supposed to be an upscale subdivision, but that flopped so the city purchased it and turned it into a garden/park area. The same ideas from the cathedral were carried out here, without the constraints of needing to be reverent or reserved. There are still plenty of sine waves and catenary arches, but add to that loads of colorful ceramic tilework and the result is stunning.
Those two stops used up the morning and most of the afternoon, so I journeyed over to the house of god for most Barcelonians, home of the Barca Football Club, Camp Nou. There was a Spanish league game that night against Valencia with tickets still available, but I decided that if I wasn't willing to pay $75 to see Auburn football play then I wouldn't pay that much to see FC Barcelona play either. And for all the talk about the veracity of European soccer fans, that's really the comparison I would make. It was basically the same as an SEC game in Auburn, except if Auburn was a city of 2 million people. Barca won 3-0 on a hat trick from one of their forwards, but hated rivals Real Madrid (read as: Alabama) did the same against their opponents to stay a game ahead in league play.
In the end I wound up skipping Barcelona's big gothic cathedral. I saw it from the outside and didn't read anything that said it was anything special from any of the other big gothic cathedrals in Europe I had already seen. If I was Catholic maybe, but unlike Rome, Barcelona's sights didn't really make much effort to explain the symbolism that make these places different from just some old stone building.
Monday was my last day in Barcelona, and the flight to Mallorca was scheduled for 7:15. However, I had to check out of the hostel at 11:00, so that took a little bit of sorting out. The budget airline I arranged the flight with charged €30 for any checked bags, so I just packed my backpack with the things I needed for Mallorca and rented a locker at the airport for the other bag. This was a good option, and I may do the same thing for the last leg of the trip, it's just so much easier to get around. Getting to the airport and taking care of that took most of the morning, but I decided to go back into the city and check out a few last things. I'm glad I did too, because I got to complete the Gaudi triangle, the private home he did when an incredibly wealthy patron needed a new house after marrying an even more incredibly wealthy widow. La Perdera, or La Casa Mila, was everything I had come to expect from Gaudi, this time in a residential setting. Everything flowed and curved, with every empty space oozing with class. Even the doorknobs were rethought, because the weren't so much knobs. They looked more like broken-off tree branches with holds for each one of your (or your small army of servants') fingers.
After that it was a quick ham sandwich and patatas bravas lunch in a local dive and back to the airport. The flight went smoothly and I just caught the last bus from the airport out to the string of hotels on the beach.
Mallorca is the largest of Spain's three autonomous Balearic Islands. The sheer number of hotels are a testament to the fact the Mallorca is the hotspot for summer vacationers. It's pretty much like Panama City for all of Europe. This also includes a large number of dance clubs that are dormant for a few more weeks until the high season begins after Easter. Right now the only real city on the island, Palma, is dominated by a veritable peleton of Lance Armstrong wannabes. Both mornings I've been here, literally thousands of cyclists (90% of them German) pour out of the seaside hotels and head en masse for the hilly interior of the island for some early season training. It isn't just amateurs here though. Before the pro season started in February, several top flight teams like HTC-Columbia and Saxo Bank had their training camps here.
You can tell the German influence on the island, both from the lighter skin tone and germanic tongue of the people and the large number of “biergardens”. I slept in late today (it is the beach) and focused on the Spanish side of things. Went for a super run out into the countryside, past the harbor and by some of the rocky parts of the beach. Then a went into town and wandered around a bit until coming cross Mallorca's own 14th century cathedral, complete with a central nave reworked by Gaudi around 1910. That led to a big late lunch and an early retirement to bed.
14 March 2010
I've walked at least 15 miles in the last two days, and it feels like more. There are really just two "hard" days of sightseeing days left, then I can recharge in the middle of next week relaxing on the beach in Mallorca. It might be 60 degrees and windy, but I'll be on that beach!
Saturday started out with a good early morning run up to Montjuic and around all the gardens and buildings from the 1992 Olympics. Then I came back, showered, and had breakfast. After that it was back up the hill, this time via cable car. The first stop was the Joan Miro museum, one of the premier Spanish artists of the 20th century. He worked in a lot of different media (painting, drawing, textiles, ceramics) and had a few recurring themes through most of his work, usually women, birds, and stars. They didn't have an audioguide, but let's just say I didn't have to read his biography to see he had some issues with women. Still, some pretty good stuff. Then I walked over to the Olympic stadium for a closer look, and walked through the Olympic museum. Honestly, it was kinda cheesy, I mean why are Formula One and bocce ball in the Olympic museum but wrestling isn't? It was around lunchtime then, so I walked down the backside of the Mont for a bocadillo. From there I meandered over to Museu Picasso, and was thoroughly impressed. His early representational stuff is incredible, even more so when you figure he was doing all this between age 13 and 30. I liked the "out there" paintings too, especially after seeing the context of his life story and a little of the why behind them.
Today is Sunday, so it will be a day to visit some famous houses of worship in Barcelona: La Sagrada Familia, Le Catedral, and Camp Nou (if you don't get the joke, you will in the recap tomorrow).
13 March 2010
After that almuerzo I came back and took a nap until six before heading back out with renewed vigor. Got to look around in one of the big Spanish department stores "El Corte Ingles" and the highlight of the day: Mercado de la boqueria. It's a huge fresh food market, full of colors and smells and people. The only thing I bought was a Valencia orange...from Valencia! It was a good part of breakfast this morning. Today the plan is Montjuic, including all the Olympic intallations and a big castle overlooking the city and the port.
12 March 2010
This probably won't be posted until tomorrow morning, but I'm typing it out here at Gate T2 waiting on the direct flight from Atlanta to Barcelona. Current time stamp 15:15 ET March 11, for those that care about such things. I'll land at 7:40 local time in Barcelona. I guess the purpose of this entry is to explain the “why” of this trip, run down a general itinerary and give some shoutouts.
Since the school year started I had been thinking about going back to Italy during spring break. The more I thought about it the more I wanted to go somewhere new. Spain has been on the list for a while, and it's cheaper than Australia or New Zealand. The thing people ask me most is my I'm not going with a group or something like that. Sponsored tour groups are pretty much out for me, since they try to appeal to so many different types of people that I think they can water down the experience. I think back to my last Europe trip when I went to Italy with Mom and Dad. My favorite experiences there were the afternoon I went out into the city by myself and the night we ate at a little tavola calda. The afternoon I went out it was to look for a little bike shop in a part of town not especially close to any of the big sightseeing attractions. It was wonderful to be the only non-native on the bus and being totally in the background as the everyday people did their everyday things: coming home from school, going back to work from their lunch break, or heading to church for an afternoon service. The restaurant experience was just as thrilling, twisting down several alleys before arriving at a tiny spot with no cars out front (no any parking spaces) and even lacking a sign on the door! But you knew it was the right place because of the sound. There weren't many tables, but every one was packed with patrons (we waited outside 20 minutes for a table) and topped with classic red and white checked table cloths and decanters of the cheap table wine. And the food! It was the best meal of the trip, right above the chicken panini from a street vendor. So that's why I do it. For the next week and a half, I dont want to see Spain; I want to be Spanish.
I'm trying to squeeze in a lot on this trip, so I'm starting with the architecture and art of Barcelona. Then I'll hop over to the Balearic Isles for a few easy days around the beaches of Mallorca. Then it will be time to move up into the Pyrenees for what will hopefully be a great first encounter with cross-country skiing (some places got two feet of snow earlier this week!). Then I plan to end up with a relaxing two days exploring the ancient city of Girona and watching the prologue of the Volta a Catalunya bike race.
First off, thanks to Mom and Dad for helping me get prepared for the trip, and for not freaking out too much when I told them I was going by myself. Also a big thank you to my headmaster for giving me the Friday before and the Monday and Tuesday after spring break off. I'll be praying for Winshape's two teams working in Brasília this week and next week and for Dad and Samuel going to Guatemala the week after next. Boarding is about to start, so hopefully everyone will be hearing from me en España real soon!