We had survived our week of travel in the Pyrenees. We had managed to navigate successfully to get there, travel through the mountains, and get back to Barcelona. We were able to handle European traffic, poorly labeled highways, confusing Google directions and totally wrong GPS directions. We even overcame the rental car mess at the end. Now we had at least a full day to enjoy the city before Sandy's meetings started. This trip was my first time in Barcelona. I had heard many good things about it so I was eager to explore. Our first evening we didn't have much time (or much energy or ambition), so we took a taxi to the Hard Rock Cafe. They have a pretty standard menu at all of their restaraunts around the world. Neither Sandy nor I are adventurous eaters. With no lunch that day we were both hungry. We were playing it safe.
The HRC is right on the Placa de Catalunya, which we learned later is the main square in the entire city. It seemed like the entire population of the city was there. I was surprised at the size of the crowds there. And you have to remember that I lived in Singapore for almost three years. It takes a LOT of people to make me think that a street or a square is crowded. We had to wait a while to get seated even though the restaraunt was large. Afterwards when we did our madatory shopping in the store for HRC tshirts, we could hardly move. We gave up on getting anything because it was too crowded.
Sandy did have an adventure just before we left. She went to the ladies room but the latch on the stall broke and trapped her inside. She had to stand on the toilet and yell for help. Another Amercan in the ladies room helped her jiggle the door until she got out. Good thing that I didn't complain about how long she took in the bathroom!
We wondered how to find a taxi to get back to our hotel but when we came out there was a line of taxis on the street by the square. We climbed in and asked for the Hilton Hotel. Now most places I have been, even when the taxi drivers don't speak English (such as in most major US cities on the east coast), they know the names of the major hotels. Not this guy. Oh oh. A problem? No worries. Veteran traveler that I am, I had thought ahead because there are two Hilton Hotels in Barcelona and thought there might be confusion. So I had a city map with the hotel location circled. Well, we hadn't even gotten as far as which of the two Hilton Hotels we wanted, but when I showed him the map he recognized the location and took us right there. It pays to be prepared.
The next day was Sunday and we had a full day to explore. We planned to start our tour at the same place that we had been the evening before, Catalunya Square. We bumped into some HP people in the hotel lobby and one told us that he had taken the metro downtown without any trouble. We were only two blocks from a metro station so we went for it. The metro turned out to be quite easy and was clean, efficient and inexpensive. We got off at a station only 100 meters from the Hard Rock Cafe. This game is easy!
We were at one end of La Rambla. This is the most famous street in Barcelona. It is closed off (mostly) to cars and is just open to pedestrians. It marks what was the edge of the old medieval city. On both sides are restaraunts and souvenir shops and all kinds of businesses. Down the middle of the pedestrian mall were kiosks and sidewalk cafes. The entire street was filled with people. It looked like Orchard Road in Singapore on a Sunday afternoon. And it had just about as many different kinds of people. It is 1.2 kilometers long and runs from Placa de Catalunya to the Statue of Columbus at the waterfront.
One of its attractions is its "living statues". People dress up in weird costumes and then tourists have their picture taken with them for a donation. Some of them were quite creative. There were cowboys, romans, angels, gargoyles, headless people, Master Yoda, fairies, angels, a Dominatrix, - just about anything you could imagine. It was fun to see the street theatre and fun to see the crowds reacting to it.
Part of the way down we turned into Barri Gotic, the medieval city. Here the streets were very narrow - cars can only go through with great difficulty if at all. Mostly there are just lots and lots of pedestrians. In the center is the Cathedral. We toured through the courtyard but it was quite dark and not conducive to pictures. We couldn't go inside since it was Sunday and services were going on. From the outside the Cathedral wasn't too impressive either. It was covered with lots of scaffolding for repairs in progress. Even the light was bad for pictures (looking right into the sun). We have been to some pretty impressive churches in Europe. This one is way down the list.
The square in front of the Cathedral was jammed though. There was a huge flea market there. There was also a band playing which meant there were several groups of people in circles doing some kind of group folk dance. And of course every circle of dancers had a bigger circle of people watching and taking pictures. It was almost impossible to get through the square.
We went back to La Rambla and walked to the end. There were lots of stalls selling various crafts. Sandy found a stand selling nice glass jewelry (reminded me of SimonT, for those of you who have been to Singapore). She got a necklace for herself and another for a gift. Finally we came across a McDonalds. By this time we were ready for a break so we wanted to get some drinks. This McD's was high tech though. You could order normally at the counter. But it also had several kiosks where you could place your order electronically, pay with a credit card, then you would be called when it was ready. We tried it out but for some reason it didn't work. I guess I'm not techie enough. We resorted to old-fashioned go to the counter and stumble through the ordering process with a little english, a little spanish, and a lot of pointing. It worked though.
We reached the end of La Rambla and passed the Columbus statue. Everyone was taking pictures but it was actually quite difficult as the monument is very tall. Then there was another square, more music, and of course, more people dancing. Beyond was La Rambla del Mare. This is a continuation of the pedestrian walkway that goes over the water to a large shopping center in the middle of the marina. We went through the shopping center and then circled around. We stopped for lunch at a pizza place and had a good lunch sitting on the sidewalk watching the traffic and people going by. It's such a great European tradition to eat at a sidewalk restaraunt when the weather is nice. And Barcelona has nice weather. Afterwards we walked back through more of the Barri Gotic. Some of the passages are quite narrow and windy. Even with a map we got disoriented (note that I was very careful not to say lost). But eventually we came out at the Cathedral again.
It was time for dessert. We got ice cream cones and stood around the square watching people while we were eating. Two guys came out with a long rope. They stepped into the square and just started turning the rope. After a few minutes. a woman at one of the cafes got up and went out. She paused for a second, then stepped in and started to jump rope. Then a kid came after her to jump rope. There was no conversation. By the time we finished our ice cream, there was a line of people waiting to jump rope. That kind of sums up what a public square in Barcelona is like.
One of the things Barcelona is famous for is modern architecture. Antonin Gaudi designed many buildings and statues in the city. We walked to the Casa Batllo, a famous landmark in Barcelona. It was a house remodelled by Gaudi in the early 1900's. We paid quite a bit to do the tour inside but it was quite remarkable. Lots of brightly colored tile work, curves instead of straight lines - it was very striking. Not quite like our humble house. While very beautiful, it didn't have nearly as nice a sewing room or wargame room as our house. So we aren't going to trade. Since it was late in the day I even came back early the next morning to get some shots of it in good light. Even though it was expensive to go inside there was always a big line to get in.
By now it was getting late in the afternoon but we had one more landmark we wanted to see - the Sagrada Familia, the symbol of Barcelona. This is a privately-funded catholic church that is considered the masterwork of Gaudi. Construction started in 1882 and is not scheduled to be completed until at least 2026. Like the great medieval cathedrals of Europe, it's construction spans many generations. Actually, in the twenty first century with cell phones and Twitter and everything being instantaeous, it is kind of cool to think about a project that takes a hundred and fifty years to complete. Instant gratification is not everything. It is scheduled to open for worship this month (September 2010) and will be consecrated by the pope on his visit to Barcelona in November 2010. The design of the building is quite unusual. We didn't go inside as there was a long line (and we had just paid a lot to see the inside of the Casa Batllo). While the building is quite striking, I couldn't decide if I liked it or not. Sometimes really unusual designs, like the Sydney Opera House, take some time to grow on you.
It had been a long day. We caught a taxi at the Sagrada Familia back to the hotel. Once again, "Hilton Hotel" didn't mean anything but showing the map did. That night we met a friend (from HP in Boise and in Barcelona for the same meeting as Sandy) and went to a good Italian restaurant just down the street from our hotel. Our waitress was intimidated by our English/lack of Spanish so she called in the senior waitress who knew English. We had a great dinner.
The next day was Monday and Sandy had to start her business meetings. I had one free day to explore on my own. I didn't really go to any new areas. I walked from our hotel back to the same area we had explored the day before and spent the day wandering around La Rambla and Barri Gotic. I took a lot of pictures. The living statues were really out in force. I explored more side streets in the old medieval town. I picked up a few souvenirs including the mandatory tshirt from Barcelona.
That night we didn't feel adventurous so we had dinner in the hotel. Then it was time for me to pack up and go home. I took two large suitcases. I took all of my stuff and all of Sandy's stuff from our week long mountain vacation. She had to stay for several more days of meetings. Then she had to go on a vendor visit but more on that in another post.
I really liked Barcelona. The weather had been great but with a Mediterranean climate it is nice most of the year. The city is really good for walking. I hate driving around even in some US cities where it is convenient. But in most European cities it is quite difficult. And my take on the traffic in Barcelona was that it would be no fun at all to drive there. Their road system was really confusing. But I love to walk and Barcelona is a really easy city to walk in. I had read that petty crime was bad but it didn't seem as bad as cities like Rome that we had already been to. All in all, lots of energy, interesting people, lots to do. I liked Barcelona.
Next day I left for the US. I went Barcelona to Newark to Denver to Boise. No problem as I had three or four hours for each connection. Except my flight was delayed an hour leaving Barcelona. Ok, no problem, I have three hours. I boarded the flight, it went out on the runway, and sat there for a while. Then the pilot came on the intercom. He explained that there was a major water leak in the cockpit and unfortunately the water was running behind the main electrical panel. "I'm as anxious as you folks to leave, but I don't want to fly over the Atlantic Ocean with water pouring into our main electrical panel." Me neither. So we went back to the gate. It took two hours to fix the problem and we took off. We were predicted to gain back some time in transit so it looked like I would land half an hour before my connecting flight left. Could I get my bags, clear immigration and customs, and get through the terminal in time? I decided not to worry and just see what happened.
Unfortunately when we landed there was no gate for us. After all, we were two and a half hours late. So they put us in the penalty box. We sat for almost half an hour waiting for a gate. Good thing my blood pressure is low. And now I didn't have to worry about racing to try to catch my flight. I got off the plane just as my connecting flight was scheduled to leave. The airline people had prepared changes for everyone that they could get out that night so there were only about fifteen or twenty people from the flight stuck. I didn't have to wait long and I got new flights for the next morning. They gave me hotel and meal vouchers and sent me to a Ramada near the airport. I had a pizza in the hotel sports pub and got to spend an evening in wonderful Newark, New Jersey courtesy of Continental Airlines. What more could you ask for? With the time change I hit the sack right after dinner.
Which was good as I had a 5:30 am flight the next morning. I set my alarm for 3:30 am (you have got to be kidding). I was down at the desk at 4 am to catch the shuttle. When I asked the guy at the desk about the shuttle he said it would leave in "five minutes". I went outside and there was a guy there who said he had been waiting for a half hour already. So we both went in and confronted the desk clerk. He got on his phone and came back and said that he talked to the driver, who was on his way to work, and that he would be here in five minutes. We went back outside and waited...for ten minutes. By this time a third guy was waiting for the shuttle. We went back in and bugged the desk clerk. He got on the phone and after a few minutes told us that there was a van at the door. One of the guys had disappeared, but two of us went out. There was a van, no markings. I got in the back, the other guy got in front. This was weird. I was watching carefully but he did drive us to the airport. Then just as we get there the guy in front says "I assume the hotel management will take care of your fare". The driver says something like he doesn't know about management, but he wants twenty bucks for taking us to the airport. Now the guy in front gets indignant and insists that since the hotel shuttle didn't run, he gets to ride for free or he wants to be taken back to the hotel. No! No! No! I am not going to spend another day and night in New Jersey over an argument about twenty dollars. So I say I will pay the fare and the other guy can do what he likes. I think he talked the driver into dropping him off where he wanted because I had paid. What a flaming asshole. But I didn't care. I got dropped off at the terminal, I got to my gate, and I caught my flight with plenty of time to spare. That afternoon I was back in Boise. As soon as I got home I hopped in the car and drove out to Emmett to pick up Laney. She was really glad to see me. I'm sure that she was wondering where the heck we had been for so long.