Saturday, March 28, 2009

Beautiful Barcelona

Friday, March 27, 2009
The Griswold’s adventures in transportation continued today, our first in Barcelona. As in trivia, over-thinking something can lead to near, if not total, disaster. Case in point:
D had researched the HO-HO bus in January; had printed out the instructions for ordering tickets; and had also printed the list of stops on the three Barcelona Turistic bus routes. When he and MA finally decided to try the HO-HO, it was Thursday morning, less than 24 hours until the ship was due to dock. Therefore, before going into Cartagena, he went back to the website and registered and paid for two-day passes because the instructions said that that was the only way to do it. The passes were 20 euros for one-day and 26 euro for two-day passes. We went with the two-day figuring the little difference in the price was worth the gamble that we would ride twice. Of course, there was a handling charge added.

Later in the day, the company e-mailed a voucher which gave the address where we would have to actually collect the tickets. That wasn’t too bad, because it was “dead ahead” on the Rambla, a wide boulevard which stretched right to the cruise ship pier. Getting to the office would be a piece of cake.

We were pleased with our foresight until we walked off the ship this morning and found the bus – our bus! – sitting in front of the ship with employees selling tickets to every Tom, Dick and Harry who walked up. Although they had to pay either 21 or 27 euro for one- or two-day passes, they didn’t have to pay a stinking service fee. The nerve! To add insult to injury, we couldn’t get on the bus with our voucher. The first person we asked told us we still had to go the office; the second directed us to a Turistic kiosk about a half-mile away, opposite the Christopher Columbus monument.
We wended our way to the kiosk, waited patiently and were able to get tickets there, avoiding at least one complication. We joined the queue for the bus only to have everyone sort of push to the front when it arrived. Naturally, it was the same bus we had been denied boarding earlier. We were able to find seats only in the way, way back, over the rear tires. Head room was limited and so was our view because we were at the top edge of the line of windows. Needless to say, there were no seats on the top, open-air level. We were able, eventually, to snag a couple of seats in the front, but we had to ride facing backwards, so, although we had more legroom and better ventilation, we still couldn’t see anything being described through our headsets.
We were on the Blue Bus which begins its run driving parallel to the water and running past the former Olympic Village, now a trendy [and expensive] area of Barcelona. We drove past the Bari Gotic, an older section of town, and other neighborhoods as well. About one-fourth of the way through the Blue route, we came to Placa de Catalunya, the main square in town and the transfer point to the Red Bus. We exited there to transfer because the Red line goes to Sagrada Famillia, the Holy Family cathedral begun in the 1920s and only partly completed even today [more later].
We could have walked to Sagrada Famillia faster than the bus because we had to wait on line for about 40 minutes from the time we actually got to the line until we were able to get seats on a bus. We sat downstairs since we were going to exit in three stops. All in all, we spent almost two hours getting to the shrine. It was worth the hassle.
We had been to Sagrada Famillia in the Fall of 2001. On the HAL bus trip, we were not given the time to enter the church itself, just allowed to “ooh” and “aah” from the outside, mostly from across the street. The edifice is so massive that it cannot really be seen from close up. Near on, the individual parts are interesting, beautiful and mystical; from farther back, the whole project can be seen. It is almost like Walt Disney designed the cathedral while stoned. When we were there before, the completed portions looked like they had been made from melting wax. Much has been done in the past seven-plus years --much of the building is under wraps to protect it and much has been added.
Sagrada Famillia is being built with private funds, so the construction has been slow. In good times, work proceeds more quickly because there is more money available. We were glad to pay 10 euro apiece to enter the cathedral. The interior is mostly bare; however, the interior structure, the skeleton if you will, is very apparent. There was scaffolding everywhere and a few workers scattered around; we watched several plastering over a wooden frame but have no idea what the purpose was. [When we were waiting the bus on the way back, a gentleman ahead of us asked if we had seen anyone working, so D pulled out his camera to show a young girl plastering.]
We wandered around the perimeter of the nearly-abandoned church and into an exhibit showing how the architect, Antonio Gaudi, had incorporated Nature into the design. Much of what we had thought of earlier as “wax-like” was patterned after vines and foliage. Many animals showed up as decoration and rainspouts [like the gargoyles of Notre Dame de Paris]. Designs from plants and even rocks appear throughout the exterior and the spires. Knowing what to look for made our second look at the exterior even more interesting. Saints and sacred scenes had been added to the front since our last trip here and the façade now has “Sanctus” carved into the stone repeatedly above the front windows.
We took more photographs after we exited, mostly details from the front façade. Eventually, we read, there will be fourteen towers when the building is completed, each spire dedicated to a saint or other personage; the last one will be the tallest at more than 100 meters.
When we had gone into Gaudi overload [the cathedral is usually referred to as the Gaudi Cathedral], we went across the street for lunch at an outdoor café. We each had a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich and fries and the drink of the gods, real Coca Cola, not that sissy diet stuff. With a tip, we spent 22 euros, about $30 US. When in Rome….
After lunch, we tried to find the gift shop we had patronized seven years ago because MA wanted to buy another wooden box for her collection; we had bought them for D’s sister and niece last time but not for us. We found the store, but the boxes were no longer available. Something about the factory in Granada burning down. We’ll keep looking, either on the Rambla tomorrow or when we return to Spain on the way home in a few weeks.
As mentioned before, we returned to the queue for the Red bus. The line was short and the bus came shortly after we got to the stop. Maybe our luck had changed. We rode in the bottom again to avoid the wind of the open deck and meandered through the north of Barcelona until we returned to the square where we had waited so long this morning. From there it was only a short walk to La Rambla [often called the Ramblas]. We were almost home.
The Rambla is a wide boulevard with two lanes of traffic on either side of an extensive esplanade. Like Wenceslaus Square in Prague, which is also a boulevard with a pedestrian area in the middle, the Rambla was packed with people, mostly young, mostly locals. The walk down the hill to the ship was slow because of the crowd, but it provided non-stop entertainment. First, there are three distinct shopping area: birds [including roosters and canaries], flowers and artists. In each area, one can find a large number of merchants plying the trade. The artists well both finished works and made-to-order pictures, especially caricatures or informal portraits. There are also newsstand/souvenir shops scattered along the walkway and, toward the bottom of the hill, sidewalk cafes apparently run by restaurants on the street itself. There were also a dozen or so “living statues,” people posing motionless in various costumes who were hoping for tips.
By the time we reached the bottom of the hill, we were exhausted from the walking and the crowd. The Prinsendam loomed over us as we made our way past the Christopher Columbus monument once more, and then we were home.
MA was almost too tired to make it to dinner. A nap was out of the question; she was afraid she would sleep through dinner. It was Fiesta Night, and all of the waiters and bar men wore serapes, straw hats and/or rainbow suspenders. There were multi-color leis with little maracas on the tables. The best part of dinner, though, was the birthday cake the captain and staff sent to Mary, next door. We got to share the cake and ice cream even though we hadn’t planned on having dessert at all; we have fallen in love with the decaf cappuccino as dessert.

The show tonight was a Flamenco show arranged with local talent. It is an irony that flamenco is not typical of this area of Spain, Catalunya, but is normally found in Andalusia. However, the show was fun and the pictures blurry – those folks move real fast. After the show, D finished the journal for the day, checked e-mail and went to bed.
Tomorrow is another day in Barcelona, Scarlett.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The weather gods finally got their retribution today –overcast, chilly and intermittent rain. Yuck. MA’s back and knees were acting up because of the weather and yesterday’s standing, so she remained aboard while D explored some more.

After breakfast, he left the ship and right to the Barcelona Bus Turistic without any difficulty. There were only two others on the bus, both in the enclosed downstairs section where we sat yesterday when it was a choice; today it was an imperative. As we rolled along the southern route, the bus became more crowded and, eventually, passengers were using the unprotected upper deck. The ride was even more interesting today because he was seated by an unobscured window [one with not advertising on the outside], so he could see what was being described. The bus emptied out at Placa de Catalunya again.

The first stop on his walk was the Barcelona Hard Rock Café where he bought two shot glasses. One has the traditional Hard Rock logo and the other is unique to Barcelona, apparently done in Cataln, the local version of Spanish. Next, he went to CarreFour, a large European grocery chain, where he bought Laughing Cow cheese and crostini to have for early morning breakfasts when we are on tour. He wandered the store for a bit just looking; it was remarkably like any grocery store in the States.

Back across La Rambla’s esplanade to an ATM to purchase euros. The ship is still charging $1.45 per euro, so he wanted to see what a withdrawal from the checking account would cost. The final task was to find the HBMA. In Europe last spring, we had the HAMA, the Holy Apron of MA; now we have the Holy Box of MA. [Read yesterday’s entry for an explanation] None of the souvenir shops had any Spanish wooden boxes although one had several lovely boxes which had been made in India. Since she wanted a box from Spain, Indian boxes just wouldn’t do. Finally, he found something “different” in a tobacconist’s shop and bought it hoping that MA would like it. As mentioned before, we’ll be back in a few weeks, so we can look again then.

D returned to the ship, told MA about his adventures and then packed up the laptop to try to take advantage of the free wi-fi in the terminal building. He had mixed success. E-mail was accessible but he couldn’t get into Bank of America to find the cost of the euros. While waiting, he caught the journal up to date. All in all, it was a vain attempt and a waste of time.

When D left the ship this morning, he discovered that he had MA’s room key/ID card. The security people at the gangway didn’t care, but he got a funny look when he came back on board. MA thought it would have been funny if he had gotten back late – she would have been paged to call or report to the front desk. When HAL was sure she was on board, D would have been left in Barcelona.
Like many cities, Barcelona is a city of neighborhoods. The Bari Gotic is built on the remains of the original Roman garrison. The Olympic neighborhood is on the site of the housing built several years ago for the Olympics and Para-Olympics. They blend together easily. Most of the architecture is what we think of as European urban – mostly walk-up flats with store fronts at ground level, most with balconies which have wrought iron railings and a slight New Orleans flair. It is generally a low city; with the obvious exception of several more modern towers, the tallest buildings don’t seem to exceed ten stories. As a result, there is lots of sunshine [except today] on the wide boulevards and many public parks.

It is a city of art, too. The parks all have some sort of art either traditional or modern. Different neighborhoods effect different styles. The local artist most honored is Antonio Gaudi, designer of the Sagrada Famillia, who designed buildings and parks throughout the city. The Parc Guell, named for Gaudi’s patron, is at the top of a hill we chose not to climb. It is filled with representations of all kinds of animals, familiar yet not total reproductions. We hope to get there if there is a next time. Other buildings, such as the Pedrera, were pointed out on the Turistic bus.

Barcelona is filled with squares and traffic circles, also filled with assorted statuary. Avenues lead in every direction as people scurry hither and yon. Even on a dismal Saturday like today, the Rambla was busy, just not as busy as yesterday afternoon. And while this is a major cruise port and tourism center, the visible activity is mostly the people of this beautiful city just living their lives.

Summing up the rest of the day – we lost in trivia, skipped the show and looked forward with anticipation because we are in Marseilles, France, tomorrow.

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