Thursday, July 3, 2014

Vacation 2014. Part the First.

The days fly by when you have nothing on your mind, I guess!

(Panorama shot of the fantastic Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona.)

Barcelona pics are on Flickr HERE.

Tuesday was already Day 5 of our vacation, having begun in ATW and flown thru Detroit and Amsterdam to sunny Barcelona. We were lucky in our hotel choice; it’s a nice place, and we’re close enough to the action that it’s not much of a walk, but far enough away that our particular street is fairly quiet. (We booked via Kayak and even using a map and their star rating system you can never be quite sure. The map is helpful, but it’s a definite disadvantage not to know the terrain. Anyway, we were lucky. One quibble: the A/C worked only feebly on the first night; after that, not so much. But the windows had no screens on them, so I felt sheepish leaving them open wide overnight. We eventually did exactly that and lived to tell the tale.)

Our flight got us into Barcelona in the morning of Day 2, and we took a cab to our hotel. Neither of us had slept much on the airplane, but it was too soon to check in to the hotel, so we dropped off our bags and headed out to see the sights. We walked the 3/4 of a mile or so to the center of the older portion of town and the start of La Ramblas, the old shopping boulevard that leads to the waterfront. We found something to eat and looked at the fantastic architecture and made note of the hop-on / hop-off tourist bus that covered either two or three different routes (depending on which company you chose) with a translated audio guide included. We decided to buy a two-day pass on one of those for the following day, and we’d ride all the routes over the succeeding couple of days. This was an excellent way to get an overview of a place we’d never been, and it showed us where we might want to return. Our hotel even gave us a discount of a couple euros for one of the lines, so that decided for us which bus to take. We were pretty bleary from lack of sleep, so after walking around we checked into our hotel and had a short nap and then headed back out for some tapas at the University Square near the hotel. There was fantastic people-watching, and we sat at an outdoor table next to a thousand other people, many of whom were watching Spain playing somebody in the preliminary rounds of the World Cup. It was as noisy and enthusiastic a crowd as ever cheered on the Pack, and it made for a fun evening.

We had some paella (where I had to pick around the prehistoric-looking crustacean-like creatures looking back at me with their fried eyes. I ate the chicken, and, my wife informed me, the calamari (maybe there’s hope for me yet) and my first exposure to the ubiquitous culinary delight that is Patatas Bravas. We have our french fries, and Spaniards have their bravas. These are chunked potatoes, like American breakfast potatoes, though always peeled in the ones we ate (it does not appear that this is a requirement). They are supposedly fried in a pan and turned so that they get lightly browned on all sides, though some places seem to just drop them in a fry vat. But then they are served with this spicy mayo-based sauce drizzled on the top. It’s that combination that’s so utterly delectable. We had them for nearly every meal after that first evening—at least once a day—and they vary slightly from place to place but are always quite delicious.

Day 2 was spent on the first of two lines on the tourist bus. We picked the line that would take us past Gaudi’s still-in-progress masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia cathedral. The rest of the route was beautiful, and we both took to Barcelona quite strongly; but this cathedral was simply unlike any building I have ever been in anywhere. We got off the bus and waited in line for tickets—the line was very long already by 9:30 AM, and we waited maybe 45 minutes or so. They meter people going into the cathedral, and tickets have a valid time. Luckily, our valid time was almost immediate, so there was little more waiting. The outside of the cathedral is chaotic and noisy and covered in scaffolding and towered over by cranes and looks rather random and organic. From one angle it looks like a huge ant mound. Based on the outside it’s maybe hard to see the genius in the nuttiness. But the inside is another matter altogether; it’s almost like something you’d see on Star Trek. My exposure is limited, but this seems to me the only real innovation in stone cathedral design in hundreds of years. It’s still unquestionably a stone cathedral—there’s not a bit of the “Crystal Cathedral” about it—but you can’t mistake it for anything else. It feels genuinely innovative and simply awe-inspiring from the inside. Gaudi was brought on board after the project had already been started, and the small portion of the cathedral that was extant at the time is still there and looks quite traditional. But after that everything veers in quite a different direction. (Cathedrals are often the work of several centuries, and it’s not uncommon to see styles change mid-construction. But this is a direction not seen anywhere else.)

I say this elsewhere, I think, but I’m still trying to decide what to make of Gaudi. I think I automatically chafe at the bit toward decoration for its own sake, and it’s hard for me to see where his vision ceases to be decorative and becomes something else. He was clearly a gifted technician, as his works seem very sturdy and mechanically-sound. So evidently his vision was not in opposition to sound technical principles. And yet the smaller-scale things he did—houses or door knobs or furniture—just look weird for weirdness’ sake to me. But at the scale of the cathedral it’s hard to argue with the results.

Day 3. I was surprised that today, a Sunday, much was closed. The busiest thoroughfares and shopping areas--the Ramblas, the waterfront, some of the biggest shopping streets downtown--were mostly open, but most of the little shops that dot the landscape were closed for the day. Including the Apple Store, which astounds me. It's right across from the Placa de Catalunya, which is packed all day. Of course, I needed the Apple Store to be open, because (despite traveling for a living) I managed to leave home without any of the stuff I needed to keep my iPad alive (old 30-pin cord or mini-transformer).

Anyway, we rode the second tourist bus line, which passed a lot of cool stuff but took about an hour too long to do so. We were quite ready to abandon ship by the end. And we spent the rest of the day wandering the streets and eating. Most of our food has been quite casual--a sandwich here, a snack there, the occasional tapas. We've been logging just over 10 miles' walking a day, and again got back to the hotel just about sundown.

Day 4 involved a morning visit to one of the two major Gaudi-designed homes in town, the Casa Battló. This experience solved few of my conundrums about Gaudi. It's an intriguing and singular house, but it seems at first glance to have placed a priority on being... weird. None of the surfaces are straight, all the windows are oddly-shaped and custom-carved. The glass all curves in at least one dimension, making, I assume, for an expensive nightmare to replace anything. It all feels hand-made, if lovingly-produced, all seven or eight stories of it. Every single surface, every stick of furniture, all the light fixtures; all of it was obsessed over by The Master, and it's hard not to think it's a bit nutty and self-indulgent. And yet it has real innovations in air circulation and structure and other things, and it's still in excellent shape and sturdy as a rock after 100+ years of a zillion people a day walking thru it. But I could not imagine living there, honestly. The oddity of it overwhelms everything else, and it's oddly beautiful and singular without being... homey in the least. At least to me (and Susan had kind of the same reaction).

After that, with some false starts we did what I'm almost certain will trump every other activity on the whole three-week vacation--maybe trump everything else put together: WE DID A FREAKIN' SEGWAY TOUR!! Yes, you read that right. We rode Segways. I've wanted to do this for about 250 years but never managed it. Susan suggested it last night and it seemed like Jebus Hisself had beamed the idea straight from Valhalla. And it was the AWESOMEST THING EVER.

I realize that the chance to drive anything will probably take the top prize of favorite daily activity for me. But this was especially rewarding. Because it's like walking without walking. It's like floating. It's even a little like flying. The Segway is almost silent, and controlling the machine is almost totally intuitive. Susan, who despite suggesting it was actually rather resistant to the idea, was sure before she started that she would kill herself or others in the process. I actually had to kind of push her to try (something that… generally isn’t done). And the first couple minutes did not dissuade her (though our guide was very complimentary). But within about 10 minutes she had it figured out and could do the little test-slalom course easily, and after half an hour she was riding like she'd been doing it for years. (This reminds me of my teaching her how to drive a stick shift 15 years ago, something she was convinced she could never do. That’s a story for another time.) I found the Segway to be almost perfectly intuitive right away. And it's so unexpectedly fun! The little body movements and leans that you perform to operate it seem almost to tap into some unused circuitry of the brain, like finding you have the wiring necessary to fly if someone just put the right wings on you. Even as Susan was convinced that she could not really control the thing, we quickly found ourselves matching the speed of the people or other Segways in front of us, and able to maneuver in tight spaces and to start and stop easily. It just happens like you've been doing it all your life. (We were joined by a Norwegian couple who were also first-time Segway drivers, and they had it equally solidly within a couple minutes. We all had an absolute blast.)

And it gets under the skin.

We took a 90-minute introductory ride that became two hours. We'd have ridden longer but Susan's back was bothering her after a little fall yesterday. But we both declared it our favorite thing of Barcelona. Maybe even of Life On Earth Itself. (Susan protests this touch of hyperbole, but I WAS THERE. She was very enthusiastic despite herself ;-)

The next day, Day 5, was spent doing laundry and getting a last walk around Barcelona before catching a cab to the cruise ship terminal around 14:00. The cruise ship facility in Barcelona is new and beautiful, and we whisked through pretty quickly and were onboard in time for a late lunch. The ship pulled out around 16:30 and we were underway.

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