Category Archives: Travel

Don’t Tempt the Hills of Barcelona Without a Plan

I think I know how the people of San Francisco feel. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement, but, trust me, Barcelona has one hell of a lot more hills than I imagined before moving here.

Think I’m exaggerating? Not hardly. Venturing out here is not only an exercise (forgive the pun) in figuring out the best route to get somewhere, but also in figuring out how many hills may stand in the way of the journey. Smart planning means finding a bus/metro up the hill and saving the walking for the return trip. After a year of facing a hill every morning on the walk to Liam’s school, I can firmly attest to the importance of good transportation planning. And decent shoes. And a treat to distract a six-year-old from the remaining 1000 steps upward.

I recently saw information on a cool new business venture, essentially a whole mini coffee stand on a bicycle. It’s brilliant and I have to admit being tempted, but clearly it’s designed for flatter lands than these. If I had to wheel that thing up some of these hills, the accident report wouldn’t be referring to tires when it listed a blow out.

So despite already having an almost daily hill challenge, Liam and I did volunteer for some extra climbing last weekend to check out a viewpoint that has become a favorite with some locals and the occasional tourist. Of course, the first step was cautious planning, because picking the wrong bus would leave us with a climb that inevitably would end up with someone crying. And Liam probably would be upset, too. Not to mention the fact that starting farther away from the target exponentially increases the likelihood that the GPS directions will aim us closer to Times Square than any Barcelona landmark. A baffled GPS app is par for the course here.

Known as the Bunker of Carmel, the site is a very reasonable climb as long as you pick the right bus stop. Interestingly, the walk up curves through a small residential neighborhood that is pretty much clinging to the side of a hill in precarious fashion. One wrong step off the deck of any of these houses and you wouldn’t stop rolling downhill for a week. The locals must be teetotalers or at least not prone to sleep-walking if they have a good sense of self-preservation. I’d probably tie myself to some furniture if I lived there.

Once we reached the top of the hill, we found a few dozen Spaniards sprawled across the concrete apron and hillside, checking out aDSC_0809 view that is clearly worth a million bucks. The bunker is actually the remnants of an observation point that dates back to the Spanish Civil War, designed to alert the city to air attacks. Fortunately, that’s no longer a worry, but the panorama of the entire city is every bit as noteworthy. The entire main part of Barcelona all the way to the harbor stretches in front of you, with the sprawl north and south going as far as the eye can see to the right and left.

As I sat a little mesmerized at all that lay out below, Liam immediately began concentrating on creating his own mini flip book with a story on spaceships. I stopped to ask him if he liked the view. “Yup,” he replied without even looking up from his work. Impressing a six-year-old is no small feat, but he was quite happy with his newly-created storybook, so that’s a pretty big victory in itself.

We lounged among young couples, families and phone-obsessed teenagers for about an hour and enjoyed a nice moment high above most of Barcelona. Sometimes a big view makes all the other challenges of life seem that much smaller. And in the Spanish way of thinking, nothing is ever so big that taking it easy for a while doesn’t make the day so much better. Maybe hills aren’t so bad, after all.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: As I have mentioned before, ham is a big deal in Spain. In fact, I’m not sure any other product inspires as much discussion, interaction and (literal) dissection. I stumbled on an interesting article the other day with considerable detail on how to store and care for your ham, including the entire legs that are commonly sold here. The key takeaway of the instructions is that ham needs a consistent temperature, limited light and no proximity to strong smells or odors, so the best place to keep your ham is the living room. I have to admit it sounded a tad novel to have an entire pig leg in the living room, but I guess that’s no stranger than an entire deer or moose head that some people choose to display. Definitely, an interesting conversation piece… I’ll also pass on a link to a funny list given to me the other day, detailing 58 things that drive a Canadian crazy. I can attest to many of these… And, lastly, I’ll give kudos to John Oliver for his rant on those behind the sad events in Paris. We need his humor, and his encouragement, and his honesty in the face of such ugliness. It’s easy to be angry and join the throng demanding that we blast them all off the face of the Earth, but isn’t invading and bombing them how this whole mess was inspired in the first place? Even though it is an unfortunate reality that there are times when war is inevitable, it’s tough to support making it the first recourse. That strategy hasn’t been paying off this whole century. Just my two cents…

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Barcelona is a Great City, and that’s not the Red Bull Talking

I never cease to be amazed at how livable Barcelona is for a major city. I give a lot of credit to city leaders for making Barcelona a great city, since it’s a real balancing act having a lot of people in a limited space and still maintaining working order and enjoyment of all the things that motivate people to come to a city in the first place.

Despite it’s population, Barcelona rarely feels overly crowded. Go down to the main tourist district on a nice day and there are crowds, but much of the rest of the city is fine to move around. The great transit system undoubtedly plays a big part in this. Simply put, most places are pretty simple to get to via metro or bus. And the fact that most buildings have underground garages means there’s not a logjam of cars everywhere. You’re a lot more likely to see a viral video of two people going postal over a parking place in London or Los Angeles than Barcelona.

Spain may have a laissez faire reputation, but clearly the city leaders here put a lot of time and effort into managing how the city operates. One of their big focuses is boosting sports and culture. It’s no exaggeration to say there is always something going on in Barcelona, from neighborhood festivals to music events to parties with virtually every theme imaginable. Nearly all these events are backed by the city and they all share one goal: get a bunch of people together in a friendly setting and let them enjoy life.

Last weekend, Liam and I ventured out to an oddball attraction known as Autos Locos, created by the colorful folks at Red Bull. In reality, it’s simply a modernized soap box derby with TV cameras, a honking big sound system and a lot of edgy people, thanks to the fact that Red Bull is the only fluid being sold on a warm day. There’s definitely some irony in the fact that people can no longer queue up for the iconic Spanish sport of bull-fighting (now banned in these parts), but instead line up for an adrenaline shot of Red Bull instead. Looking at the ingredient list on the side of the can, bull-fighting probably did less damage to fewer people.

The event was three hours of hijinks on an elevated stage near the top of Barcelona’s famous Montjuic as costumed teams pushed out their busoddball cars and then let ‘em roll down the hill. Many of the competitors work on these cars for months and the creativity came through in the form of a rolling hospital bed, a miniaturized tourist bus, giant ducks, a bumble bee, a shark and even a dude sitting on the crapper (otherwise known as a caganer in Catalan). I think the team who built this last one may have some issues, but that’s a much longer story.

Liam’s personal favorite was the team of four minions, who performed a rather unchoreographed dance at the start line before pushing their giant banana car off the line. I’ll chalk them up as memorable since 100 yards down the track the wheels literally fell off, leaving a disgraced minion sitting in a stationary banana. They get my vote for making the highlight reel.

As events go, it’s not exactly the excitement level of the Super Bowl, but it does say a lot about how the Spanish enjoy life. Thousands came out not for the silly cars, but simply to take a seat on a hillside, have something to eat or drink, mingle and enjoy a nice day. The event was a huge hit while the majority of attendees barely noticed the silly cars, and further proof that no one is as good at enjoying life as the Spanish. City leaders are clearly backing a winner, and adding more fuel to the claim that Barcelona is a great city.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: I hope I wasn’t the only one to get a good laugh at of the story explaining how Norwegians have adopted the word Texas into their language to mean crazy… According to reports, there was an earthquake about 100 miles north of Barcelona last week, measuring about 3.8. Can’t say I noticed, but some others claim to have felt it. I’ve been through one in Maryland and have little desire to experience another… I was chasing some extra freelance work lately on a website built for that purpose. It’s actually a rather grim glimpse into humanity. There’s an unending stream of people who want someone to write their “unbelievable” life story, but also lots of even odder requests. There’s the mother who wants someone to write her daughter’s college entrance essays, the secret lover who wants a eulogy for a coming out at a funeral that promises to be memorable and the soon-to-be felon who wants a letter for the judge expressing that he really is more responsible than the DUI charge suggests. You can’t make this stuff up. Truth is far stranger than fiction…

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Fall Starts with Sparkly Salt, Hockey and $7 Starbucks

With the time changing and the leaves starting to pile up on the sidewalks, fall is clearly here in Barcelona. I swear I barely had a chance to assault the world with views of my pasty legs before summer sprinted off into the sunset. A few eyeballs saved, at least.

The past couple of months seem like a whirlwind as we did a little more exploring and then settled back into the normal routine of the school year. There’s a few things I want to touch on that have been rattling around in my brain, covering a mix of sights we’ve seen and things we’ve experienced. It’s a hodgepodge, but hopefully still a little entertaining.

We spent a recent Sunday in the Spanish town of Cardona, which is famous for having a rock salt mine that was the largest in Europe for decades. The town’s history dates back centuries, largely driven by salt being such a valuable commodity for so long. It’s not gold, but it seems like nearly as many battles have been fought over it. A tour of the Muntanya de Sal (Mountain of Salt) IMG_0242_2includes a wander down into the former mine where salt drips to form remarkable stalactites and stalagmites. Seeing Liam in hard hat being the little miner for the day was clearly the highlight, but the salt formations were pretty spectacular at times also, depending on the lighting. It’s a good day out from Barcelona.

I have theorized in the past that Starbucks produces just a single board listing their prices and then uses it in stores everywhere. Only the currency changes. A large latte is four Canadian dollars in Toronto, four US dollars in Washington, four euros in Barcelona and four pounds in London. Well, a quick trip to Geneva has dispelled this belief. The Swiss city felt more like Tokyo as I realized the board listed the price as 7 Swiss francs (not 4), which is about $7 US. That’s one dear cup of joe.

Along with coffee, I got a quick fix of hockey in Geneva by seeing a Swiss league game. The team is actually part-owned and coached by Chris McSorley, a name that may be familiar from his brother Marty’s long stint as an NHL tough guy. The fans were quite into it and it was a decent level of hockey with a few borderline NHL guys on the ice. But I was horrified to see that they installed a small cheerleaders stage instead of seats in one corner of the arena. Everybody likes a cheerleader, but no Canadian worth their salt would give up prime seats against the glass for some pom-poms.

I have to wonder how people manage in Geneva considering the prices I spied. The city is famous for being home to the United Nations and the Red Cross, but bureaucrats and non-profit workers are not typically among the higher paid employees in most cities. Maybe that rule doesn’t hold true here and they can make a $20 hamburger meal work.

IMG_0162Seeing the cost of things in Geneva, it was even more surprising to stumble on a pub that specializes in large. Not satisfied with just a pint, they sell beers by liters – all the way up to one tub that would be about a gallon. Take my word for it, a liter glass of Guinness is a pretty impressive sight. What one would do with a gallon, I have no idea.

It’s still odd, but it’s become commonplace to spot little flocks of parrots loose in the city of Barcelona. I did a little homework and it turns out these birds, which are about the size of a pigeon, are actually a type of parakeet that is not native to the area. A small number were let loose by people years ago and have now turned into a thriving colony. They look just like a small parrot and have the same high-pitched screech that seems particularly appropriate so close to Halloween. There were around 40 of them perched in a tree I walked by the other day and their calls were nearly deafening.

As I delve deeper into driving in Spain, I’m becoming more of a fan of roundabouts. They are pretty efficient at keeping traffic flowing, although it does become wearisome when there’s one every half-mile on a long, straight road and the GPS drones on with the same keep turn right to go straight instruction. I did find some hysterical pictures of roundabout fails. In a couple of towns down south, the planners and constructors of roundabouts appear to have had a lack of communication during the construction process, leading to roundabouts being built tightly around a church in one place and the town pool in another. You definitely have to keep your head up after prayers or a dip if you want to make it home safely.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Very cute story in the news the other day from a reporter that was there for new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first ever comment to the press. The new leader had just turned two years old on December 25, being carried by his father into the hospital to meet his new brother, when he told reporters, “Merry Christmas. Happy birthday.” The Trudeau family charisma carries on…

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Driving in Spain Isn’t Hard, But That Doesn’t Mean It’s Easy

The thought of driving in another country scares the crap out of many people, usually with good reason. It’s not just about driving a strange car, but also all the other complications that are thrown into the mix. Who wants to tackle roundabouts, narrow roads, weird signs, manual transmissions and, in places like Britain and Australia, suddenly being on the wrong side of the road?

Climbing behind the wheel in a foreign land does sound about as sensible as jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. That said, it’s kinda the only way to get from point A to point B in some places. So, when it comes to driving in Spain, ole!

The more I delve into the intricacies of Spanish road laws, the more I see the Spanish are awfully precise when it comes to driving, although maybe a tad obsessive on occasion. They definitely love signs. There must be a dozen covering specific times you can stop or park, including ones covering the first or second fortnight of the month. Another one has a car flipped on its side that warns of slippery conditions. And a third shows a car in flames, warning that vehicles may be carrying flammable liquids. I sense that they really like to hammer home the point.

Like most countries, they have a sign with a picture of an animal to warn that critters may cross here, but interestingly if the same sign also has the old Spanish word “Cañada” across the bottom, it means the animal actually has the rigroadsignht of way.

My favorite rule with ample precision covers right turn lanes. If you are stopped at a light in a lane marked with arrows pointing straight ahead or turn right with the intention of driving straight and another driver comes up behind you indicating a right turn, you are obligated to also make a right turn, whether you want to or not.

Taking an extra right might not sound like a big thing, but I’ve quickly learned while driving in Spain that a wrong turn is no simple matter. The American concept of just going around the block never made it across the Atlantic. When you miss a turn here, it’s likely going to turn into a long exercise covering a few miles to get back to point A. This is largely due to the fact that the Spanish feel about left turns pretty much the same way that I feel about people who toot in elevators. There’s a real foul aura around them. You can drive all the way to the next town before finding a road that allows a left turn. Toss in a succession of one-way streets that prevent right turns and you get a sense about just how challenging it can be.

That said, driving in Spain really isn’t that bad. The highways are wide, modern and uncrowded. Back in the city, the traffic volume is higher, but still nowhere near the level of  large American cities. I heard a city official mention that, at night, 70% of Barcelona’s cars are underground, so that helps explains the lack of apparent crowding. Of course, these cars are parked in underground spaces seemingly designed for Tonka toys. In our garage, there’s one space consisting of nothing but a curve around a post. Not only is it a space here, but it’s used by a van the size of an Econoline. My time in underground garages is regularly interrupted by me stopping and saying ‘wow” as I spot another parking miracle.

The other remarkable thing about driving here is renting a car. I’ve had people tell they found car rentals for as little as $2.50 a day. My best is $25 for six days. It is a bargain, but the number of games the low end rental car companies here play is a minefield. That rental rate is like a loss leader, followed by a bevy of smaller charges where the money is actually made.

They push a fuel service which not only has an inflated price for the gas but also extra fees for pumping it. There’s always a fee for using a credit card, which is interesting since you need one to complete the rental. They drive the hoop like Michael Jordan when it comes to pushing the extra insurance. On my last rental, the agent pretty much trotted out every horrible scenario except locusts in an effort to get me to add the insurance. And, of course, if something does actually happen to the car, then a whole new flood of fees will pop up with the repair such as transferring the vehicle to the shop, loss of use, loss of value, etc., etc.

So far I’ve been lucky and avoided most of this quagmire of fees, but it’s a pit that really easy to fall into, especially for the smiling tourist thinking about nothing but the vacation days ahead as they land in a strange place. I can only imagine how much is collected from these folks each year. Driving in Spain isn’t for everyone, but sometimes you just have to take the leap. But don’t forget to give the cow the right of way.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: The saving grace of never being able to turn left are the roundabouts. They love them here. They are not too tough to navigate at one or two lanes wide, but occasionally in the city you hit one that’s 4-5 lanes across. It’s literally a free-for-all, anything goes roller coaster ride in these. I have no idea how you escape from the lane all the way to the inside. There’s probably a Skoda down there that’s been circling since the turn of the century…

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When Lost in Spain, I Guess Spelling Doesn’t Count Anyway

When hopping from one language to another, it’s not surprising that discrepancies in spelling pop up. The alphabet differs from language to language, which means differing letter sounds and a multitude of ways to spell words as they move back and forth.

That said, spelling definitely feels more like art than science when it comes to Spanish. Case in point, within four blocks of our apartment in Barcelona, I can spot three different spellings of our street name on the front of other buildings. No doubt some of this is driven by the fact that Catalan is more important than Spanish here, but I think you get my point. Names are a tad relative.

As we’ve traveled around the country, these interesting spellings have sometimes made locating an address about as easy as finding a pickup truck without a gun rack in Texas. We spend this past long weekend on the small island of Menorca, but when I put our hotel address into Google Maps, it gave me directions to drive five hours back to Barcelona. Did I mention we were on an island? As far as I know, the rental car didn’t come with flippers and a snorkel.

For that matter, even the name of the island is in question. It’s about 50/50 whether it gets listed as Menorca or Minorca wherever you happen to be looking. I kind of thought things like the name of an entire island would lend itself to broad agreement. My bad.

The other common X factor in addresses here is the lack of a house or building number. Many times the address is simply a street or plaza. That’s not so much of an issue in a small plaza, but I’m still trying to figure out how that works for lengthy streets. The mailmen must be psychic. Or maybe those little yellow carts they all pull around are actually holding homing pigeons.

Street adventures aside, our long weekend in Menorca was a nice break from the city (this was the third long weekend in September on the school calendar for those keeping score). Like so many places in Spain, Menorca has been overrun by invaders from other lands countless times. Romans, Moors, the very appropriately named Vandals, even the British sailed on over and took charge for a while. It’s popularity certainly is not waning.

Menorca is not well known for a lot of things, although it is said that the simple slingback sandal popular in Mediterranean countries came from here. The shoe stores and souvenir huts certainly play that up. There are a couple of famous festivals in summer, including one where a man parades a well-groomed sheep around on his shoulders for an evening. I’m not quite sure the history on that one, and I really don’t want to see the google results for man-sheep interactions to find out.

With a couple of fair-sized towns and a plethora of beaches, Menorca displays a lot of that same Spanish appeal we have seen many times. Tourism definitely drives the island, so the locals are a little more affected than a typical mainlander, but still friendly. It stands up as well worth the visit. That is, as long as you can find the hotel.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: It’s not really my bailiwick since I’m not Catholic, but I was firmly in the camp that this new pope was a nice breath of fresh air as he stood up for policy changes more aligned with the times and humanistic ideals. I can’t believe he is naïve enough to not see that meeting with an evangelical loon would carry a ton of weight. Feels like there’s more to this story… Regardless of your politics, if you don’t find Carly Fiorina one of the scariest human beings on the planet, you’re just not paying attention… In this week’s driving class, I had an hour’s lesson on the many different lights on a car and their uses. The most notable part was the section on fog lights (back mandatory, front optional in Spain btw). I don’t think I will soon forget the deep-voiced, heavily-accented female instructor’s emphasis on the word fog, which sailed across the room sounding exactly as a far less appropriate F word. If a question on fog lights comes up on the actual test, I’m going to get thrown out of the room for giggling…

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