Tourist Olympics - Tapas, Segways and Thong Patrol

Trip Start Apr 02, 2007
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Trip End Apr 28, 2007


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Friday, April 20, 2007

Meanwhile, back at the ranch.... I was working hard those two weeks while Mr. Ravnaas was enjoying his Easter vacation with family. But Saturday finally arrived and it was time to get on a plane for Europe. Sadly, the weather report said rain and highs in the 60's, but hey, that's still warmer than Seattle or Norway.
 
After an uneventful flight, I finally re-united with Hans in Copenhagen - ah, so good to see him again!  We grabbed a quick snack and caught up on events, before heading to catch our connection to Barcelona.  The airports weren't too bad, so it was a relatively smooth day of travelling.  We caught a cab into the center of Barcelona - the first thing I noticed was the large not-so-attractive apartment buildings - all with laundry hanging out.  The good news is that the architecture went uphill from there - but everyone does dry their laundry out their window. 
 
We found our hotel - in a back alley off La Rambla.  The alley was a bit dark, and the door had graffiti all over it, but again, first impressions were deceiving.  Behind that door was a clean and well maintained apartment lobby with an elevator up to the reception desk.  We booked at a place recommended by Rick Steves - Apartments Rembrandt.  With the exchange rate in the toilet somewhere, this was going to be an expensive vacation for us, and finding reasonable accommodation in Barcelona was a challenge.  The place we chose was one of the few for under 100 euros a night.  The accommodations were somewhat basic - no extra hotel frills here - but the location was great.  Turns out that back alley was a perfectly pedestrian connector between La Rambla and the next plaza over.... and it was nice and quiet at night (can't say the same of La Rambla hotels).  The room was clean and roomy enough to be comfortable for 5 days.  Wow, and a free porn channel (why isn't that listed on their web site?).  Hmmm, though I would have traded the porn for another pillow - the only one we had on our double bed was this unusually long (4'?) mono-pillow.  Enough to rest both our heads on, and we got used to sharing the uber-pillow eventually.  I'm sure this is a relationship test/skill somehow.
 
Once we dropped our bags and freshened up, we rang our friends Nick and Paola.  I haven't seen either of them in a while - they moved to the UK three or four years ago, and Seattle hasn't been the same.  So it was great that they were able to spend a week in Barcelona as well.  I'd almost seen them in Vienna last year, but the terrorist issue at Heathrow threw those plans off.  The terrorists stayed home this time, so Hans and I met them for a quick beer and headed out for my first dinner in Barcelona.  Paola had found a recommended place - very busy, but very good.  The sangria was a total surprise - I'd had it a few times here in the states and really didn't like it.  This stuff is different - don't know what or how - but it doesn't taste like cheap wine with fruit in it ;-)  Instead, it tastes like a refreshing drink - not too fruity, not too sweet.  I think they may have made this particular batch with cava - so it had a bit of carbonation to it.  I'll have to try making this version when I get home, it was the perfect summer drink!
 
The next few days were a blur of wandering narrow alleys of the city.  My favorite story is when Nick, Paola and I were heading out to see one of the Gaudi buildings.  We only had time to tour one that night, so we were trying to decide which way to go.  How to pick one over the other?  Well, along comes Barcelona's own naked guy . This guy looks to be in his 50's, has an ...err... interesting piercing (Prince Albert, I guess?), and plenty of tattoos.  For example - from the back, it looks like he's wearing briefs - his whole bum is tattooed.  On closer examination (not *that* close)  - it's his whole bum as far as I can tell - no white showing in his butt cleavage.  OW! 
 
Well, we took his presence to be a sign - we should go to the building in the direction that naked guy is walking.  And walking in his wake was GREAT - we saw everyone's reaction as he goes by.  Absolutely classic.  We verified later that there aren't any public nudity laws, so maybe by July, there's a few more people looking for some natural air conditioning. 
 
Hans was sad he missed naked guy, but was pretty happy to help out the local tanning patrol on the beach - a few topless girls and thongs around (likely more when it gets a bit warmer).
 
There was plenty more we did and saw in our five days there, but in the interest of keeping this entry to a semi-reasonable length, I think I'm going to go into bullet list mode to cover the highlights and lowlights.
 
Highlights of Barcelona:
 
-  The typical sites:  Sagrada Familia, Montjuic, La Pedrera, the beach.  Not sure the Olympic village makes the cut - the "fish" is cooler from a distance down the beach, and the village itself really isn't that interesting - just a bunch of buildings now and not all that architecturally interesting.

-  The metro subway - clean, cheap, safe.  Trains were also good and cheap - only 5 euros to take a quick day trip down to the beach town of Sitges.

-  Segway tour of the city (bcnglides.com ) - I've done a couple city segway tours and just love it.  We had a great guide (Edgar?) and a fabulous time.  Somewhere around 62 euros per person for a 2-3 hour tour, but worth the money in my opinion.

-  The people - friendly and helpful.  Yes, it's not American service, but they don't make you feel like you are a big imposition.  English seems to be present enough that language isn't a big barrier.  More than once, I had a server really go out of their way to work with me when we couldn't communicate with language.

-  The Spanish schedule - especially the siesta.  Much easier to adjust from jet lag, and stay up late if you get an afternoon nap in

-  The weather - it proved the forecasts wrong - sunny and in the 70s nearly every day!

-  Back alleys - always something interesting around the corner and surprisingly clean.  We saw a lot of street sweepers and washers - they might even clean every night.

-  Architecture - Old or new, in the city center it's generally interesting.  The "dragon" building by Gaudi was probably my favorite from the outside.  Santa Maria Del Mar was one of the best old buildings from the inside - sparse, but very beautiful

-  Food and drink - whether you are eating tapas, sharing paella, or eating a full "racion"... drinking Sangria, or the local beer Estella Damm, it's all good.  Though I'll admit, it's a little heavy on the meat + starch quotient.  A quick stop at the local fruit market is mandatory after a day or two.. and their produce is really good.  Here's a few things you must try while you are there:
o  Paella - either the seafood variety, or the "black rice" variety - very good.  I loved the paella at the 7 puertos, though the others thought it was a bit salty
o   Seafood - Cuttlefish or calamari, langostinos, shrimp, salted cod (baccalao)
o   Jamon - ok, I don't like ham (ie: white ham), but this is smoked - more like prosciutto.  Not bad at all.
o   Tortillas - here in Spain, that means an egg omelette of some kind - but good
o   Mixtos  and tostadas - basically varieties of toast with toppings
o   Olives - every variety seems to be here - one tapas plate had olives stuffed with sausage - good stuff!
o   Sangria - especially the kind made with cava to give a little sparkle to it - YUM
o   Cappucinos - I liked these better than the café con leche personally, and the Barcelona cappuccinos were better than the ones in Madrid (too bitter) or Toulouse (whipped cream?)
o   Oranges / orange juice - really, really good.  Orange juice is often listed as a dessert - try it and you'll understand it's not just for breakfast anymore.
o Sadly... we didn't try churros and chocolate. We did try "plain" churros, but without a dipping companion, they are a bit like bland fried bread. Ah well, next time.
 
 
Lowlights of Barcelona:
-   Panhandlers and street musicians, with the street musicians being everywhere - outdoor café's, trains, subways.  You will be "serenaded" at some point, and asked for money.  Still, they don't hassle you any more than other major cities, and take the hint without grumbling when you shake your head.  I have a general philosophy with street musicians/performers: if I actually enjoy what they are doing, or if I take a picture, then I'll toss a coin or two in.  I think we only parted with two euros total.  I'll admit I got really tired of hearing Lady of Spain and Theme from Love Story on a badly tuned accordion at nearly every outdoor café we ate at (or did the same guy keep following us around... sure that we would eventually cave and give him a euro or two?)

-   Pickpocket/scams - All the guide books warn about this, so we took a couple simple precautions (wallet in front pocket, purse across body and in front, and never set anything on the table or away from us).  We left with everything intact, but we did hear a couple stories... so don't be paranoid, but don't ignore the warnings either.

-   La Rambla - overrated pedestrian promenade - magnet for tourists (apparently also for thieves) - just way too crowded.  After one quick spin down it, we spent all our time exploring other back alleys around the Gothic Quarter or around the Cathedral.  Speaking of which...

-   Mystery puddles - lots of them, good thing for those street sweepers and washers that are always running around.  Dogs and people seem to be the culprit - we saw at least two guys assume the pose in a semi dark corner on an alley.

-   Cost / value - the exchange rate was not good, and lodging+food was pretty expensive even without the exchange rate hit.  And as mentioned, hotels in the city center are very expensive in general.

-   Older men in speedos.  Southern Europeans generally wear snugger/shorter swim suits, but PUH-leez. I do NOT need to see a 70 year old guy in a "jingly" fitting speedo.  Really, that's way more information than I need. The Barcelona beach had a lot more female eye candy than male.
 
Ok, I've droned on long enough.  The bottom line is we had a great time, and I'd go back to Barcelona in a heartbeat.
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