Aug 19, 2016

Barcelona Sunday

Sunday morning we were up early enough to breakfast downstairs at the bakery before going back up to finish packing and checking out. We left our bags at reception and dived back into town. We struck out in a different direction this time, to Montjuïc, the vaguely soviet quarter filled with massive empty plazas, oversized monuments, exhibition halls and crowned with elaborate stairs and fountains leading up to the national palace / art museum. First stop was the Barcelona pavilion, which is an architectural icon by Mies Van der Rohe. It was the perfect time to go. So few people we thought it was closed, and the low morning sunlight was ideal for casting deep shadows on the compositional masterwork. And also empty enough to take goofy photos of me “levitating” and Saori doing yoga in front of the reflecting pool.

We climbed the stairs to the palace and sat on the top, drinking some kiosk coffees and enjoying the view. We made a quick detour by CaxiaForum, a renovated industrial complex, all in brick, before pressing on to the Sagrada Familia.

I was given the opportunity to see this building under construction about once every decade. I saw it first with mom and dad as part of a cruise when we were still living in Beijing in 1999 or so, then again with Chase as a backpacker in 2005. This is the first time I’ve seen it enclosed with a roof. I’d booked tickets online in advance so our line to get in was only about ten minutes or so. It was of course, pretty packed.

But what a building! A baroque fantasy. By turns severe and harsh, then whimsical and exuberantly floral. The stained glass filling the nave with red and orange light, the amazing beehive like spiral towers. The two main facades on either side are astounding. One depicts the nativity, the other, the passion. They are less facades and more sculptural and symbolic ensembles which hypnotize, haunt, and fascinate. One thing which struck us odd was the central crucifix above the alter. Jesus was doubly suspended- once to the cross, and the cross suspended in mid-air, ringed by floating lights like candles, and a giant round canopy in red and white stripes overhead. ...which makes it look like He just came parasailing in from the nearby beach.

We did a quick spin through the gift shop (there’s actually two, and that’s just INSIDE the cathedral), returned our audio guides and hit the trail back to Barceloneta for lunch. Walking through the crowded Sagrada Familia subway station, I felt a jostle against my backpack, and acutely aware of the pickpocket problems of Barcelona (wasn’t this where dad also had his run in with a pickpocket?) I whirled around to see a bunch of people, any of whom could have been the picker. They didn’t get anything. Just time enough to unzip my outer backpack pocket. I carried my backpack backwards at Saori’s suggestion after that.

We went to this great little tapas bar in Barceloneta for lunch. Jai-ca, the same place we were for lunch less than 24 hours prior. The food was that good. This time we branched into some grilled prawns and tried the chorizo along with the fried seafood. Good, good stuff. We took the rest of the afternoon to slowly make our way back to the hotel, pick up our bags, and mosey on out to the airport. We could have taken our time to see one more thing, actually. Our flight was two hours delayed. Direct, but we didn’t get back to Stuttgart until nearly 1 am, which was unfortunate.

Overall, it was a great trip. I didn’t need to take any time off work, it was expensive but not blisteringly expensive, and it was Saori’s first time in Barcelona, someplace she had really wanted to go for a long time. We ate some great food, walked a lot, and enjoyed the light feel of a summer vacation. A weekend is nice- mentally, you give up on a bucket list of must-see, after all what can you do in a weekend? But the trip still ends up feeling like a weekend stretched into a week.

And what a contrast between Barcelona and Stuttgart! These are two cities which share a time zone and are only a 90 minute flight away, but are separated by a worldview. Pleasure, for Germans, is the fulfillment of a thorough and detailed plan, the sight of a shelf of black binders with everything inside hole punched and organized, drinking the familiar beer at the familiar biergarten, and very occasionally eating something or going someplace ‘exotic’ for the thrill of the unfamiliar, like wearing a costume, rather than the possibility that the unfamiliar might change something in them. Rather like Hobbits living in the Shire.

It should also, perhaps, be mentioned that Germans and the culture here power the biggest economic engine in Europe, unemployment levels, social benefits, and vacation time are the envy of most of the world, while Spain continues to languish, and many Spaniard professionals who can speak other forms of Spanish (like Mexican) or other languages have left to seek their fortunes abroad. I digress.

Barcelona. Would definately go again. Next time, maybe a crappy hotel by the beach, a day on the sand, and maybe exploring the edges of the city a bit more.

Aug 18, 2016

Barcelona Saturday

We were going to make an early start of it Saturday, but as wiped as we were, we just missed the end of breakfast at 10:30 when we headed out. First stop was a few doors down: Gaudi’s El Pedegral (€20 adults) a.k.a. Casa Milá. It was a good time to go, we didn’t have to wait much at all for the elevator or tickets. There were lots of visitors already but it was still possible to take photos without people in them.

How can I describe what an intriguing delight Gaudi’s works are? Is it enough to point out that the biggest attractions in Barcelona are the works of an architect who was working less than a hundred years ago? We spent a long time roaming the undulating roof and admiring the sculpted openings for chimneys, drains, ventilation etc. It was a beautiful sunny day and the strong sunshine was perfect for shading the sculptural forms. The hundreds of thin brick arches supporting it in the attic made me think about today, it could be not be even marginally economic to build in this way with the current European standards of workers wages.  Especially for an apartment building.

We took the subway to Mercat de Santa Caterina on the outskirts of the gothic quarter. This is a public market hall by spanish architects EMBT who architecture superstars in the mid-noughties. In the vein of Gaudi, they also constructed a mossaic-covered organically undulating roof over the big market hall, but structured it rather conventionally. We marveled at the crowded meat counter selling specialty spanish suasages and cured hams and moved on.

Next stop was a return to Gaudi, the Parc Güell, which, if you come by subway, requires a lot of walking to get to. In the eleven intervening years since I was there, Barcelona has become even more like Disneyland: a timed entry ticket city. Even, as I was shocked to learn, Parc Güell, which closed off access to the area around the famous lizard steps and massive terrace. The fee is nominal- a US movie ticket price. But when we got there a little after one, they were effectively sold out for the day and most of Sunday.

We decided to check out what we could see in the garden and it turned out to be quite a lot actually. Old, giant agave in craggy, Seussian planters, nice views of the city below the hills, the blue of the mediterranian, and the giant W hotel tower on the coast (which one American tourist hilariously misidentified as a “Westin”).

It was pushing three so we decided to get a bite to eat for lunch so we took a leisurely stroll down the hill back into the city and then hopped the subway to Barceloneta. This is a very tightly gridded neighborhood sitting on a small peninusla between the harbor and the sea. It’s fantastic. It’s full of 5-6 story apartment buildings which shade the narrow streets from the hot sun while the cool breeze from the ocean blows through. A few small cheap shops, a bunch of tapas bars and restaurants, some liquor stores, a market hall, a church and plaza. In short, a perfect neighborhood for a beach.

The NYT named a tapas bar in one of thier famous “36 Hours in x” peices, and that was our destination, actually not all that far from the subway station and located at the head of one of the quiet narrow streets running the length of Barceloneta. Jai-ca. We snagged a small tiled table. The door glass was so heavily tinted and the place was so austere from the outside, Saori thought it was closed. Fortunately for us, they were not.

The service was not so great. Even for Europe. The crowd at 3pm seemd to be a mix of tourists and locals, more towards the tourist side, but we still found a seat. Seafood tapas and cold Estrella Damm beer were the order of the day. We started with a plate of fried baby squid which came out quite promptly actualy, and was followed by this kind of Catalan bread which was like a light cibatta, lightly toasted and spread with tomato and really really good olive oil. Then came the salad, which was tuna fish on fresh sliced tomatoes with sliced onions, and the fried whitebait, which was revelatory in a zingy vinegar marinade and a crispy fried coating. Finally, steamed mussels. And everything washed down well with the lager beer.

It was supposed to be a snack since we had dinner reservations, but it was all too good. We paid (so, so cheap!) and walked a short distance to the beach, where we kicked off our sandals and strolled up to our shins in the mediterranean. We walked along the beach, all the way to the giant copper fish by Frank Gehry, and then we walked back along the club storefronts lining the beach. We still had some time to kill before dinner, so we crossed Barcelonetta once more and settled into a beer at a craft brewery “Black Lab” not too far on the Gothic Quarter side of the intersection. We had a leisurely beer there, and then sauntered back into Barcelonetta for dinner at Barraca.

Barraca was another pick from the NYT “36 hours on the beach in Barcelona” and it is quite literally across the street from the beach. We were there right on time, precisely when it opened for dinner, and snagged a window seat on the second floor terrace. We were still a little warm from the beers we had been drinking since Jai-Ca, so we stuck with sparkling water. Barraca was also a seafood restaurant, which also catered heavily to tourists, but it really didn’t bother me that once more we were sitting next to a table of Americans and a table of Germans. I’d much rather go to a delicious tourist trap than a mediocre local dive. And the food was so good. We ordered some kind of white fish dish which came with a seafood sauce with white beans and mussels, bonito tartare, and cerviche for dessert. It was great, but we were so stuffed. We decided to stroll a bit to bajar la comida and of course we instantly run into more gelato. So we had to bajar la comida a little more which turned into walking all the way back to the hotel. Naturally, a little exhausted by the time we got back.

Barcelona Friday

Friday I put in a normal morning at the office, surrounded by vineyards and the sleepy village, and left an hour earlier than the normal friday quittin’ time of 3pm. Instead of going home or towards the city, I met Saori at one of the Sbahn stations and we were in our way to the airport. No passport control, no check-in, just breezed through to our flight, 90 minutes direct to Barcelona, and fifteen minutes after wheels down we were sliding into a taxi bathed the mediterranean air and warm late afternoon sun. Yo voy a Casa Milá, por favor.

Stuttgart is a city of dark greens and grays. Barcelona is lit in golds and dusty sepia. The canopy of our hotel, Hotel Praktik Bakery, was also yellow. And it was, in fact, a trendy bakery, with a long line of peope queuing to buy some of the fresh bread and pastries before the weekend. Push past the temping display and windows looking in to the bread prep area, and at the end of the bakery counter is a reception desk, as though you might order a standard room with your matcha muffin.

Location wasn’t bad. Almost next door to Gaudí’s Casa Mila and close to Diagonal metro station. Room was small but comfortable and nicely designed. Nice tile everywhere, giant rain shower, big comfortable bed. We were on the same floor as the internet.

We were of course dying to get out, so we left our valuables in the room and started walking. We strolled past Casa Mila, Casa Batlló, and along the Passig de Gracia, a boulevard of luxury stores and Hôtel Exorbiant. Tourists thronged the town: jammed with  Japanese, groaning with Germans, bursting with British, choked with Chinese, awash with Americans. We crossed the giant Plaza Catalunya and walked down las Ramblas.

Las Ramblas is a massive pedestrian street with two small lanes on either side. The street is like many other “high streets” in Euope:  quick fashion stores like H&M and Zara every block, chinsey souvenier shops, American burger franchises, tabacco shops, pharmacies, and local restaraunts for the tourists marked by giant menu boards on the street reproducing the dishes at life size. There were less street peformers than I remember and more gelato stands. But still, what a street! As always, I am surprised by how much in the end I value the energy of the crowds and the architecture over the content. Ramblas stitiches together two ancient city core neighborhoods, Reval and the gothic quarter, and all along its length, narrow streets open up to reveal tantalizing views of the baroque neighborhood beyond, inviting us to dive in and explore each of them.

We walked past the pilar of Christopher Columbus, and continued to the Mediterranian. We left the throngs of people headed to the big island mall and walked along the port to the corner of the gothic quarter where we dived back in searching for food.

We picked the first place that didnt look too seedy since I have a tendency to be too picky about where we eat. Not normally a bad thing, but one of the rules of happy travel is “eat when people are hungry.” Although I may modify our rule to “pick the second passable place.” It was a basic tourist trap, behind us had some Bostonians and the table in the corner was full of Germans. Tapas were ok, but the chorizo was good and the beer was cold. Not the kind of place we would have ordered paella anyway.

We wandered our way through the gothic quarter at night, working our way by feel out and back towards the hotel. Bought a beer and some water from a convenience store but then realized that you can’t drink in the street. Technically. The immigrants quietly selling cold cans of Estrella Damm in the alley intersections suggest the enforcement is not too rigorous. We crossed the city once more, back to the hotel, where we collapsed in an exhausted heap on the bed.

Medium is the message

I moved the blog again. I deleted the Tumblr account and moved everything to Medium.com, a more writing-centric website. medium.com/@wende...