Sunday, January 17, 2010

My trip to Spain: Villanueva de la Serena


It’s hard to sleep on a bus. If we had known how little used this bus route was, we’d have known that there was no need to get our bus tickets ahead of time. If there were more than half a dozen passengers on the bus, the count was only 7. It was hard to sleep on that bus. It wasn’t very comfortable. It helped that I moved back a seat, but it still wasn’t very easy to stretch out. Some of the other passengers showed Michele how to work the reading light since she had given up on even attempting to sleep and started re-reading one of the twilight books for the nth time.

Caroline met us at the bus stop. I think we called and she gave us directions, but things are kind of fuzzy after more or less staying up all night. I don't think we tried to actually act on any directions she gave us. She took us to her friend Holly’s apartment. Holly is very British, or as the Spanish would say, muy Britanico. I slept in the guest room, and Holly told me not to mind her bits and bobs. I guess that’s British slang for odds and ends, or keepsakes. I think Michele slept on the couch. However, she might have stayed awake on the couch for all I know.

After we had rested, Caroline took us out to meet Juan Carlos and his wife. Jaun Carlos is into weightlifting and body building, which is rarer in Spain than America. It’s still not super common here, but he really stands out over there. His spoken English was so good that I got going too fast for him to understand. Michele could kind of communicate in Spanish, but I really couldn’t. His wife didn’t speak English, so there was a lot of translation going of as we talked. We got topas and drinks. In the big cities, the topas were kind of pricey for what you got. Here, they came free with every drink. We got some traditional jamon and tomato on bread at the first place, then we headed to a second place. I guess this is the same in any small town, but Juan Carlos and his wife were always running into people they knew.

We got a variant of Sangria at the next place which was a mixture of wine and lemonade with ice cubes in it. Given the fact that a major way to eat in the local bars was to order drinks, something like this makes a lot of sense if you’re going to be drinking all day. We got a lot of food there. We got Calamari, which Michele and Caroline surprised me by agreeing to try. They seemed to like it pretty well. That was even more surprising, because this was obviously cut up squid. It hadn’t been cut into strips that could have been just about anything after it was battered and fried. The next order was a potato omelet fresh from the pan. In the cities, we had only seen this offered cold. I guess once you were used to eating this meal, it would be fine cold. However, as a foreigner, starting out with the cold variety was not appetizing. Maybe I should try making something like that for myself sometime. The last thing we got was a pork stew garnished with French fries. I have to give the food I ate here credit for convincing me that Spanish cooks were not all insane.

We left this bar, and went to a bakery. Caroline got Holly to meet us at a bakery for desert. Like all the European cafés and bakeries we visited, the chocolate deserts are the bomb. I don’t remember exactly what it was that I ordered, but it was really good. Some of Caroline’s other friends met us at the café too. At this point there was too much Spanish from native speakers for me to keep up with anything that was said. We went to yet a 3rd bar. Here the topas we were served with our drinks were decidedly of the snack variety. Juan Carlos and his wife left us at at this bar. We stayed a little while longer after that.

When we left, we went back to Holly’s apartment. We had done our laundry before we left, and it was all out on a line to dry. That was an odd exercise of hoping it wouldn’t rain and rearranging things which dry faster and spreading out the things which dry slower. We watched the movie Twilight and ordered Telepizza (the largest pizza chain in the Spanish speaking world) for dinner. Caroline likes corn and tuna for her toppings, which sounds disgusting, but really wasn’t that bad. I got a ham and pineapple pizza which was pretty good. The other thing we had to munch on was ham flavored potato chips. I thought they were really tasty, it may be a good thing that I can’t get them here.

Back to the movie, it kind of made me groan in many parts. I had been avoiding Twilight because of the sparkly vampires, and boy, did that “special” effect in the movie really suck. However, I’m a sucker for vampire stories and the movie effectively served as and advertisement for the books. Also, the book I had been reading was stolen from the bus station, so borrowing Michele’s twilight books was really my only option. I had finished the book I had which had not been in the stolen backpack, China Miéville's Iron Council. Unfortunately, it wasn’t good enough for me to want to re-read it.

On Sunday, Michele and Caroline went to church. I had slept in too late, so I stayed in the apartment and watched a little Spanish TV. I saw something on bullfighting, which seemed to be more advertising for a few prominent bullfighters. I also saw Davydenko beat Nadal to win a tournament. Davydenko may have had a big win leading into this tournament, but I think that was really the start of the surge he’s had in the past few months.

We ate lunch at a Burger king. I have to say, the onion rings and fries they serve in Spain are better than what you can get here. We mostly took it easy this day. Caroline took us by to see her apartment, but her roommates were out. We also walked around the town to see the school where Caroline taught and walked to the town park. Holly cooked pasta in a cream sauce for us for dinner, and it was really good. This day may not have been all that exciting, but we needed a rest after Barcelona.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Recent Movies

I'll work backwards.

The Hangover - I gave this to Michele and Robert for Christmas. I thought the first 10 minutes or so were kind of dumb, but then the movie hit its stride. It's not the funniest thing I've ever seen, but I did laugh a lot.

Avatar - Go see it in 3-D. You've seen the story before, but not done in this way.

Iron Man - Robert Downey Jr. is perfect as an irresponsible rich guy who has a change of heart after nearly being killed by one of his own weapons. It doesn't change his personality, just the decisions he makes.

The Wrestler - Awesome movie. There is wrestling in it, but by showing you how it's faked it really reveals the physical impact of putting on a show. The main character is easy to pull for despite the fact that he makes few good decisions and has a hard time following through on those.

Let the Right One In - Another awesome movie. If you can stand sub-titles, watch it with the Swedish language soundtrack. I actually switched the English off about 15 minutes in, and decided that the inflection and tone of the original actors is much better than whoever read the lines in English. A pre-teen boy, who is the target of bullies, makes an unlikely friend when a vampire girl who appears to be roughly his own age moves into his apartment complex.

Ghost World - I don't know what I think about this one. It's got Thora Birch, Scarlet Johanson, and Steve Buscemi. It's odd, but I'm not sure if it's good or bad. If any of this inspires you to watch the movie, let me know what you think.

Curse of the Golden Flower - I was expecting a martial arts epic. The movie is really a movie about political intrigue in the Chinese royal family with a smattering of martial arts thrown in at various times. I liked it, but I liked things like Hero or Kung Fu Hustle more.

Winter of Frozen Dreams - I didn't care for this one. It's a movie based on a true crime, and I think a 30 minute documentary would have been more interesting that the 90 minutes dramatization I watched.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

My trip to Spain: Barcelona Part III


This was our last day in Barcelona. I got pictures of the art decorating the hotel before we ate breakfast at the buffet. We left our luggage with the hotel and headed out.

The block of discord was near the hotel, so we walked there. It was something that we had wanted to see yesterday, but we were too exhausted from the trip to Park Guell. The block of discord is a section of town where building designers basically had a duel to see who could come up with the strangest designs. You can see from the two images I uploaded that there are some wildly different designs.

From there, we headed to the Picasso Museum. This was actually somewhat near the Gothic Cathedral. This didn't contain really famous Picasso works like the Reina Sofia did. Instead, there were representative samples from throughout his entire life. His early works are very realistic, which is kind of odd when you think of a Picasso portrait having three noses. Later in his life, like in his fifties and sixties, he turned his attention to etching and pottery. I suppose he is an artistic genius an all, but it's odd to think of someone picking up a new hobby at the age some people start to retire and becoming world class at it. One thing about this museum that was interesting was that it was established out of items from Picasso's personal collection.

After we left the Picasso Museum, we went to the Museum of Chocolate. The chocolate sculptures are really amazing. I've included a sample chocolate sculpture.
There were sculptures of every conceivable subject imaginable. There were chocolate monuments, animals, and even a chocolate Homer Simpson. There were also articles and displays chronicling the history of chocolate. The gift shop was as much of a draw as the rest of the museum of chocolate. I picked up a 90% cocoa bar for Dad. I thought about getting one for myself, but it's probably good that I didn't. Michele picked up some chocolate for her kids and some for her kids. Also, the tickets to the museum were themselves chocolate bars. We ate at a stir fry place, again not very Spanish. The place had just opened up, and if I had bout a chocolate bar for myself I wouldn't have been able to eat. They wouldn't have been able to break my large Euro note.

We got through both museums much faster than we expected. We had picked up our bus tickets the day before. So we didn't have any reason to get to the bus station early. We took another trip to the end of Las Ramblas, and looked around the mall at the end of the street. When we walked back to the hotel, we tried to walk down the side of Las Ramblas that we hadn't before. We still had time to kill, so we went to Otto's for a few drinks. I had two Catalan beers, which were both good. I liked the dark beer better than the red I had. Michele had some local wine. We collected our luggage, and headed to the bus station.

I had broken my last big bill at Otto's, so I went to use the ATM at the bus station. We had to use it the day before to get our bus tickets as they didn't process credit cards. Michele had propped up her legs on our luggage and my backpack was sitting on the seat next to her. When I got back, the backpack was gone. We had cleared it out of valuables since we intended to take it with us onto the overnight bus. However it still had souvenirs, chocolate, and the books we were reading. Here's the list I had when I made notes.

  • Umbrella
  • 2 packs of cards
  • 4th Twilight book in English
  • The Road between the worlds
  • Post cards
  • Uneaten tickets to Chocolate Museum
  • Gaudi book for mom
  • Gaudi coloring books for kids
  • Gaudi refrigerator magnets
  • Sagratta Famila bookmark
  • toothbrush, toothpaste, and dental floss
  • Spanish dictionary
There was a police station next to the bus stop, and we headed over there in hopes that the police might know of a dumping area where we might finds useless stuff. Unfortunately, they didn't have anyone there who spoke English. They had me fill out a police report, but I'm sure it went straight into a filing cabinet. I've never really had anything stolen from me, so the whole indecent was kind of shocking to me. If nothing else, sitting in the police station we were sure nothing else would be stolen.

While I was filling out the police report, someone came in to turn in a backpack she had found on the metro. The reason she turned it in was that there were music books an an envelope with 130 euros in it. I guess the money was to pay for music lessons. While the college age woman was filling out her paperwork, a frantic woman came to the police station with a child. Sure enough, it was her backpack and her missing money. So even though I had something stolen, that kind of renewed my faith in humanity.

When we got on the bus, the bus driver was puzzled that we had a one way ticket. He asked us something in Catalan, which neither of us could understand. Michele asked him to ask the question in Spanish, and she was able to answer that our sister was a teacher and we were going to Villanueva to visit her. The bus driver was so amused that two people would leave Barcelona for Villanueva without having a way back already planned out. There were only six or seven people on the whole bus, and I think we were the only two who rode the bus all the way to Villanueva. Overnight bus rides save time, but they are not a comfortable way to travel. Neither of us got much sleep on the bus, but it did get us safely to visit Caroline at her home away from home.

Friday, January 1, 2010

My trip to Spain: Barcelona Part II


We started this day, as we did every day in Barcelona, with the free breakfast buffet the hotel provided. Our plan for the day was to see the egg shaped sky scraper we had noticed from Mount Juic. A tall building really stands out in a city where most of the buildings are exactly the same height. We took the metro to the closest stop, and walked up to the building. We were hoping to see something that explained the history or the purpose of the building, but there were no signs. Michele askes someone in a kiosk at the foot of the building what it was in broken Spanish. I believe she had to resort to English for the words "this building." She was told that there were offices inside.

I did a web search, and the name of the tower is Torre Agbar. Here is a link with some construction information:
I apologize for the pictures which haven't been rotated. I haven't gone through to edit my digital photos yet, but I felt this day's update just wouldn't be complete without a few photos.

We left the Torre Agbar on foot to see the Sagrada Familia. When we visited the Gothic cathedral the previous day, we had both commented that we couldn't believe it was the three star and not the four star cathedral. Well, I believe it now. This has got to be the most visually impressive structure I've ever seen. Technically, the most impressive would have to be the Sears Tower in Chicago, but even its immense high doesn't give it the visual impact of the Sagrada Familia. I had seen the Sydney opera house on my only other major international vacation, and, as much as I like the Aussies, this is far more impressive. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the structure is that it is still under construction. It's untelling how impressive it will be when it is finished.

This is easily the most ornate building I've ever seen. On the outside are many different kinds of carvings on the wall. Inside you can see the workmen carrying out tasks in the center of the cathedral. Also on the inside are stations which explain the math of Gaudi's design for the Sagrada Famila. We took an elevator up to the top of one of the towers. There are several impressive views to be had from the elevated vantage, but the towers are, on a whole, a little bit scary. There are no hand rails or guard rails, and the passageways and stairwells are only wide enough for a single person at a time. There are a few niches and side paths that could be used if you needed to get around someone, but there isn't a whole lot of room to maneuver. Here's a shot of the spiral staircase to get back to ground level.

One thing that was kind of sad is that people had written graffiti on the tower and staircase walls. It makes me wonder at the sort of person who would deface something that is clearly a work of genius and millions upon millions of man hours of effort.

One interesting aspect of the construction of the Sagrada Familia is that it has all been funded by the donations of visitors. The city of Barcelona has already spent over one hundred years on the construction of this masterpiece. The idea of keeping so many generations working on this task is in and of itself amazing.

After we got back to the ground floor, we went through a little school building that was originally built so that the children of the workers could attend school while their parents worked. It's been turned into another mini-museum of displays about Gaudi and his designs.

When we left the Sagrada Familia, we ate at a nearby gelatto and sandwich shop. Michele wanted to see another of Gaudi's endeavors, Park Guell. (There is supposed to be an umlaut over the u.) The park was originally designed to be part of a gated community. This one failed, but if you dislike gated communities, you can blame Gaudi for designing one of the first. On the other hand if you like them, you can give Gaudi credit. We took the metro to the nearest station, and followed the signs to Park Guell. We went up steep roads and steeper stairways set into the roads. There were even a few escalators on the way, but they really didn't prevent much exhaustion.

When we reached the park, the view was amazing. Much like Mount Juic, you were looking down on the entire city, but from a different angle. However, the rocky and bare nature of the park didn't leave you much too look at in the park itself. I do have to admit I enjoyed the view, but this wasn't what I had expected. As tired as I was, Michele had done her uphill walking on a recently sprained ankle, and she was flat out exhausted. Ironically, the walk back downhill wasn't really much easier than the walk uphill. The path was so steep that it took almost as much energy to make it down the hill as it did to make it up the hill.

It was only later on the trip that a closer look at the guide book revealed our mistake. Immediately after getting off the metro we should have looked for a bus to take us to the front entrance of the park. We had, as the guidebook described it, made the exhausting hike to the side entrance.

That night for dinner, we got take out from Otto's to eat in our room. The hotel had provided a complementary bottle of cava. I'd describe it as a Spanish Champaign. I know we were in Spain, but the sausages and bratts from Otto's were good. I had planned on writing up our final day in Barcelona with this post, but it looks like I'm going to need a part III.