Monthly Archives: August 2015

Braving the Critters and Costa Brava

Adding to the growing list of statements that I never thought I’d write, the other day an ostrich attempted to eat my rental car. I’m giving him high marks for determination, even if his end result was rather weak.

With summer break rapidly coming to a close, we took a quick trip north last week with a stop in southern France and a couple of DSC_0642days at the beach in the nearby Costa Brava. The France swing was to visit a safari attraction known as Réserve Africaine de Sigean.

Part of the reserve is designed for self-drive, with the rest set up more like a traditional wander-through zoo. I figured the self drive would be a big hit with a certain six-year-old, although I have to admit I had visions of a certain safari attraction back home when I was a kid where the monkey population appeared to have been trained to tear the windshield wipers off every car that passed through. Did I get the full insurance on this car?

Fortunately, the monkeys were at bay at this reserve, but the ostriches were more than happy to mix with the visitors. The towering fellow who targeted our car stationed himself in the road for maximum effect with every car that passed, then proceeded to peck windows or attempt to eat side-view mirrors at whim. He certainly seemed convinced that he could dismantle and swallow a couple of pounds of plastic. For proof of his determination, I testify to the five minutes I spent scrubbing teeth scratches off the mirror after we parked. That seemed the wisest course of action when compared with trying to explain teeth marks to the rental agent upon returning the car. I didn’t envision that conversation going well.

Along with the entertainment of the ostriches, the drive through was a great experience with gazelles, zebras, giraffes and gnu wandering the fields around us. There was also one lone bear in his own unexplained, penned area. Not sure where in Africa one finds a bear, but he looked relatively content with the arrangement anyway.

Back in the zoo portion, the usual suspects could be found including some dusty elephants, swinging chimps, light-footed lemurs and even a bevy of happy-to-be-petted-but-prefer-to-be-fed goats. It was a good afternoon’s adventure to Africa only a couple of hours from Barcelona.

The Costa Brava is the beach destination of choice for those fleeing Barcelona in August. A couple of towns along this stretch (starting less than an hour from the city) remain very Spanish and brimming with locals, while a couple of others like Lloret de Mar and Tossa de Mar are more developed with transient hotels and see more internationals. In Lloret, for example, half the restaurants have Russian menus thanks to the influx of well-off Russian travelers. A number of the hotels also specialize in cheap package tours for Brits and other northern Europeans. It’s quite the mixed bag of languages on any given day, although it does mean wide use of English as a common denominator among all the other languages.

The beaches are long, wide and inviting. It’s a great option for a getaway close to the city, but be prepared for a few eye-opening sights. I expected guys in speedos, but not so much the willingness to just throw them off and change in the middle of the beach when swim time has concluded. I also expected some ladies to opt to go topless (note that this is not necessarily a complaint), but when a 60+ grandma IMG_0029wanders by without a stitch on as she heads to the water for a dip, well, that’s a little more knowledge of her world than anyone really needs.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Adding to the list of colorful labels I have spied here (still love “Wash Me” detergent) is this label for a Romanian red wine. Who better to cash in on a famous local like Dracula. Beware, the real terror maybe the taste… Hard to get used to how different construction standards are here. They don’t use a single stick of wood framing in buildings, but instead pour concrete for everything. No doubt, it’s pretty strong, but I’d hate to misread the blueprints and have to go backwards…

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Hey! Where’s All the People?

As August arrives in Barcelona, the annual migration out of the city by the locals is in full force. It’s really remarkable how much of the city shuts down for an entire month, if not longer.

I think I mentioned before that the local version of the DMV stops doing driving exams for the entire month. If you really need a license, well, come back next month. On top of this, the auto school where I have been taking a weekly class to prep for the test takes a break that adds up to eight weeks. That’s not a misprint – eight weeks between classes. If you really want to know what mysterious road sign means, well, come back next month.

I recently noticed a new café opened around the corner from us, maybe a month or two ago, which I guess may explain why they are only shut for a week in August. After all, two months of work deserves a break, no?

Newsstands are shuttered and displaying handmade signs stating that owners will be back in September. Seemingly, the majority of local cafe owners are on an extended break. Even regular office workers tend to take advantage of their 4-5 weeks of annual vacationbeach and disappear for the month, so even if the office is open, only a skeleton staff will be in place. There’s a surprisingly number of locals with second houses north of us on the beaches of the Costa Brava or on one of the Spanish islands where they flee for the entire month.

I’ve read comments online from tourists who are in a bit of a panic that they will come to Barcelona (or any other Spanish city) in August only to find everything shut. Here’s the dichotomy. This is peak time for tourists, so all the bars, restaurants, tours and shops catering to visitors are in full swing. It’s the businesses in the residential neighborhoods and the government functions that roll up the sidewalks for the month. Even in our local neighborhood mercado, about half of the 20+ stalls are quiet for the month.

All this seems even more remarkable to me considering that stores and restaurants are only open limited hours during the rest of the year. Outside the tourist spots, virtually nothing opens on Sundays, many things are not open on Saturdays and probably the majority close for at least part of weekday afternoons. Even among restaurants, it’s a real rarity to find one open before 8 p.m. Coming from the U.S. where so many stores only close 1-2 days a year, it’s an eye-opener.

In a nutshell, the Spanish certainly have a patent on how to live a relaxed life. It’s no wonder Spain has the longest average lifespan of any country in Europe. I haven’t looked it up, but I’m starting to think they didn’t even bother inventing a word for stress!

RANDOM THOUGHTS: During our walk to swimming class yesterday, Liam suddenly revealed to me that he is the master of 11 different elemental powers, such as water and wind. I couldn’t help but ask if that meant he was full of hot air. “Yes it does,” he confirmed confidently… I’m still trying to get used to seeing the Spanish word for free displayed outside places such as parking garages. I learned the hard way that this actually means open, as opposed to no charge. It’s an interesting twist of language.. I was very happy to discover a cinema showing movies in English only walking distance from our flat recently. I took Liam to see Minions. The minions speak in this oddball made-up language that liberally throws in real Spanish words. Suffice to say, the subtitles were quite the mixed bag when half the words flying across the screen were not even real. My new favorite oddball translation was for the character Frankie Fish Lips, which appeared across the bottom of the screen using the Spanish words for Frankie Face Fish. Somehow I’m thinking that moniker is not going to stick real well… The second tooth has fallen, meaning Liam now has a very pronounced gap across his bottom row of teeth. Beyond a slight lisp, he seems no worse for wear. It’s a good thing this happens in childhood when we don’t know any better. If I had to go through swapping out all my teeth at this age and not being able to bite anything worth a crap, the world would certainly hear about it…

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Catacombs of Paris Are a Descent Into the Eerie

Near the end of our recent Spanish/French adventure, I took a tour of the catacombs that criss-cross under the city of Paris. While I had a vague knowledge of what lay ahead on this tour, I didn’t realize this would be the runaway Oscar winner for strangest sight of the whole trip. I still give a little shudder at the thought of the experience.

As the story goes, Paris’ largest cemetery, Les Innocents, literally burst at the seams way back in 1786 when the weight of centuries of buried bodies broke through a nearby resident’s basement – much to the resident’s dismay, of course. The sprawling centuries-old cemetery was in the Les Halles district of Paris, which always rings a bell with me thanks to travel host Anthony Bourdain (Les Halles being the New York restaurant where his first oddball tales came to light). I’m not sure if Bourdain has toured the Catacombs of Paris, but it clearly would be up his oddball alley.

The cemetery had been a blight on its neighbors even before some of its occupants made that fateful break through a basement wall. Paris officials knew they had to do something, so they came up with the plan to move the bodies into the old stone quarry tunnels running beneath the city. Over the course of the next two years, about six million sets of bones dating back as much as 1,000 years were moved into the underground caverns via eerie evening processions led by black-cloaked figures. A future tourist attraction was borne in one of the most novel fashions possible.DSC_0490

The catacombs is one of Paris’ most popular oddball attractions, but is fortunately governed by a limit to how many people can enter at a time. This means long lines during the heart of the day, but there are a couple of tour companies that hop the queue with a set tour. It’s well worth the extra euros in my mind.

You enter the catacombs by descending 120 steps on the way to eventually being about 150 feet under the street. It’s a claustrophobic feeling to descend the circular staircase into the catacombs, and no more comfortable even when the tunnel opens up at the bottom knowing you are surrounded by the real bones of millions of former souls.

More then just eerie, wandering through the catacombs with stacks of bones six feet high on either side as far as the eye can see is disturbing and humbling. Clearly, countless hours were spent planning and then carefully piling the bones in intricate patterns and shapes that are surreal to say the least. It feels a little like a monument to these former Paris inhabitants, but it borders on an inhuman insult at the same time.

The tour lasts a couple of hours and stretches through only about a mile and a half of the catacombs, but it is more than enough by the end. In fact, it rapidly becomes rather overwhelming to see just how much humanity is residing in these tunnels. The guide asks that people behave with respect during the visit, but I doubt this is ever a problem. Surrounded by so many bones, evDSC_0493en the most boorish of tourist is likely to be speechless.

No doubt this was one of the strangest tours I have ever been on, and one that makes you think about just how insignificant life ends up being for so many. It certainly is an experience, although clearly not one for all.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Far from complaining, I’m quite entertained by the overcrowded field of borderline crazy entrants chasing the Republican nomination. A full year of them beating up on each other and wasting the party’s money is the best idea I’ve heard in a while. But does anyone find it ironic that Trump just fired a top aide for making racist statements just days after his rampant slanders heaped on immigrants. Pot. Kettle… I agree with many that the lion-hunting dentist is a piece of crap and he knew full well that his actions were illegal (and likely immoral). I hope he’s charged. But it’s also ironic how people are throwing so much energy into going after him while barely registering a shrug at the weekly (nearly daily) stories of mass shootings of people in the U.S. If you need a cause to get behind, well, just saying…

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