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Journal of No. 118


August 11th, 2009

Cruise 2009, part III & last @ 02:09 pm

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Jul 31
Back to Barcelona. One annoyance of the cruise is that they want you out of your cabin by 8AM, but the ship doesn’t dock until 9AM, and they won’t be ready to hand out your passport and let you off the ship until 9:45. Probably the 8AM is in Italian time, and we could have ignored it, but we tend to play by the rules no matter how silly.

Once back on land with our luggage, we hopped in a cab for our hotel. Being early, the room wasn’t ready, but at least we could leave our luggage there, while we did a little more adventuring. We started with the Museum of the City, which traces the development of Barcelona from Neolithic times to the present. It’s housed in the Royal Palace, but the extraordinary thing is that a huge area of Roman-era Barcino lies beneath the palace and has been excavated, similar to the subterranean part of Naples that we saw. The elevator that takes you to the ruins has, instead of floors, a digitial date marker, so you watch the date drop from 2009 back to negative something or other. Then, you can walk among the buildings (here on elevated walkways so you don’t mess up the archeological site): laundry and dying pools (still stained blue with the dyes), salt fish and garum factories [considering what garum is made from, I'm surprised it didn't still smell], and winemaking areas, as well as parts of churches and other structures. This was much more like a museum than what we saw in Naples, with an audio guide and explanatory signs, but we still enjoyed the Naples excavations more since we were practically alone, walking the streets of old Neapolis. But this was pretty cool too. Back upstairs were other relics of the various periods of Barcelona’s history: Roman, Moorish, Gothic, etc.
After visiting the museum, we got some camera batteries, and swapped them out at a little restaurant where we had some wine and focaccia.
From there we strolled around the old part of the city (the Barri Gotic) largely at random. A streetvendor was making ashtrays out of soda cans, and despite our complete lack of use for an ashtray, dark_of_night got a souvenir. After strolling some more, and seeing bits of the old Roman walls and aqueduct, we tried the hotel again. Still no soap, but they kindly asked if we’d like to go to the rooftop bar and enjoy a welcome glass of champagne. I don’t think the clerk finished her sentence, before we were on the roof with flutes in hand. The area up there has a bar and Jacuzzi, and fabulous views of the city. A trifle too windy up there, but a welcome change from the hot streets below.

Eventually, we got in the room and strategized for a bit, and set off for Park Guell with its mainy Gaudi elements. It’s situated on a hill; though the Metro got us within a km of the park, the remaining blocks were quite an uphill battle. You’ve possibly seen pictures of some of the artwork there: colorful wiggly benches, weird spires and such. The place was hot, crawling with tourists (us included, of course), and spread out over a wide area. Though it has great views of the city, it wasn’t as interesting as I’d hoped.

A couple random observations: visible from one edge of the park was a building occupied by anarchist squatters… fairly common in Barcelona it appears. On the Metro coming back, we walked behind a guy I called Senor Bumblebee (though he turned out to be French). His tanktop was yellow and black stripes, and he had the most unusual arm-swinging gait. Why am I even mentioning this? I dunno.

Back at the hotel, we had some time to clean up and rest a bit. But as things cool down, it’ll soon be time to venture forth for some tapas.

Went to a couple places in the guidebook, but they weren’t open yet, since the Spanish eat crazy late, but the third one was open: Onofre. dark_of_night declared that they had the best olives in the world, and she may have been right. They also had some excellent Catalan charcuterie and potatoes and cheeses (Manchego, Zamorano, and another cheese I don’t recall (and didn’t like much)) and excellent everything else, too. We washed it all down with a spicy Rioja.

Aug 1
Got out fairly early to get to the Metro to get to the train to get to Figueres, Salvador Dali’s hometown and home to his museum. In the Metro station, there was a stumbling couple who looked like they were finally ending last night’s partying. The train trip was about 2 hours, covering almost 100 miles of ground. The landscape started very urban (graffiti is common, though sometimes closer to art than stupid tagging). One graffiti design I noticed quite frequently in the area outside the city was sort of a white coathanger… dunno if that had political implications, since abortion is largely illegal in Spain. Anyway, the city slowly faded away and then we traveled through forested areas and smaller towns, many of which were hardly worth a whistle stop, though our local train stopped at them all.

Once in Figueres, we navigated our way to the Dali Museum. Along the way we found a farmer’s market with nuts and fruit and the occasional ham. The whole market smelled great. The museum was crowded, but still well worth it. Dali himself spent more than a decade setting the museum up, built out of an old theater building, and the result is as weird and wonderful as the man himself and his art. It’s packed to the gills with his works in any medium you care to name: sketches, watercolors, gold jewelry, sculpture, prints, holograms, stereograms. You name it, Dali did it.
It was a treat to see so many famous images: the Hallucinogenic Toreador, Abe Lincoln. It was stranger still to be in the Mae West Room (here’s somebody else’s Youtube video of it). There’s a tiny stairway (topped by a camel… why not?) that provides the perfect viewing angle of the room, but before that you can walk about through the arch of her hair and earrings, and look at her couch-lips, etc. Another touch of Dali going beyond what you might expect is the Cadillac in the atrium. A beautiful car, surmounted by a goddess figure and overshadowed by a sailboat dripping with artistic tears, perched on a column of tires over the Cadillac… Just when you think it can’t get any more surreal, it starts raining inside the car on the figures seated within. Ridiculous! The Museum was really a great experience to see what a creative genius with no limitations could produce.

Travelling back from Figueres to Barcelona took another two hours on the train, after which we got a bit to eat… just some fried peppers and chorizo [which is ‘just’ a delicious sausage, quite different from the ‘fresh’ chorizo we norteamericanos typically expect.] washed down with water and white wine.

We tried to peek in the cathedral again, but during the tourist hours, it’s €5 to look around inside. We’d seen the insides for free before, so it didn’t seem like a bargain, even if they do let you take the elevator to the roof. I was satisfied with the rooftop view from the hotel, so this may be the only time I met a cathedral and did not demand to get on top of it. So we Metro’ed out to Casa Mila (aka La Pedrera, ‘The Quarry’: an unflattering name given to it by the Barcelonans of yore, who didn’t realize they had a future tourist attraction on their hands.) It’s so much of a tourist attraction that there was a more than half hour line waiting to get in to it (and onto its roof). It didn’t seem like fun to wait around in line, so twice in one day I was thwarted from getting on top of a tall building. Ah well, it’s pretty enough from the outside.

Back near the hotel, we picked up a tarteleta de Cointreau from one of the many sweetshops in Barcelona. It was a tasty chocolate tart-thing with gooey innards. It was so chocolatey that we couldn’t tell if there was any Cointreau taste to it at all. But it certainly was nice to nibble at it in our air-conditioned hotel room. It was another hot one today… in the train, there was a thermometer and it climbed steadily all the way out to Figueres… about 1 degree Celsius per stop. By the time of the return trip, the thermometer fluctuated between 38˚ and 40˚ (100˚-104˚). The Spanish siesta is actually a great solution to the problem. In the US, we wouldn’t put up with any crap from the weather, so we’d put air conditioning in every building and hasten the heat death of the universe. Here, you take a nap. It’s a very green solution. Then at 8PM, it’s still light and cooling off, so that even American tourists can seek out an early early dinner, like Spanish senior citizens or something.

Early or not, out we went and finally found a place near the Museo Picasso and it was good, but not great. I got the impression the café was run by gypsies (or Gitanos), but that may have been just been a whim of mine. We had lacon (Galician ham), sausage on tomato toast, chicken croquettes (dark_of_night was pretty dubious about the croquettes, filled with a creamy chickeny paste, but I liked em just fine) and refreshing Verdejo wine.

The Born and St Pere area of Barcelona was excellent for strolling through. Not quite as claustrophobic as the Barri Gotica, so the pace was slower and there were more areas for outdoor cafes and such. Some vendors selling their wares, including some cute (but too expensive) jewelry made from forks. Lots of people jost strolling the streets. We made a big circle through the district and then back to the hotel, where we finished the night with a drink at the rooftop bar, including the finest caipirinha I’ve ever had. There was also quite a show… thunderclouds had bulked up against the surrounding hills and lightning and thunder played along the horizon, and we had a great vantage point from which to enjoy it.

Aug 2
Out early… a little too early as it transpired. We stopped for pastry and coffee at a café near the hotel and then took the Metro to Monjuic. We had noticed lights at the Olympic Stadium last night. I don’t know if that meant that the Barcelona football team was playing, but there were 4 Spanish football hooligans along with us on the Metro train, and they were still celebrating. But we transferred to another line and left them behind. Interestingly, the funicular train that gets you halfway up Montjuic is part of the Metro line, so there was no extra cost for that, though it didn’t open until 9AM and we had to cool our heels for five minutes or so. The funicular was fun to ride. At the bottom end, the tracks are quite horizontal, but as it picks up speed, the track slowly curls up into a steeper angle as you zoom up the hillside. At the top, we found that the Teleferica (overhead cable car) that goes to the very top of Montjuic didn’t open until 10AM. No sense in waiting when we have perfectly serviceable legs, so we hoofed it, passing through a botanical garden with some aquatic plants that harbored little frogs. Construction of various sorts forbade our way to the top at various points, but we persevered in getting to the top.

At the top is a castle, and one can roam at will around it, on it and in it. However, the military museum that allegedly opens at either 9:30 or 10:00, depending on what guide you believe, had not opened by 10:15, so we gave it up. Nevertheless, the castle grounds are impressive, and there are great views of the city. The castle is something of a tragic monument to the Barcelonans; over the past couple centuries the Catalonians have tried to separate themselves from the rest of Spain, and the castle has been used to shell the city when in revolt. More recently, the castle changed hands a few times during the Spanish civil war and both Franco’s nationalists and the Republican opposition used the castle as a site for executions of enemies.

Having walked up half of Montjuic, we not walked most of the way around it, which brought us around to one quarter that is home to the Cementiri del Sud-Oest, a dense cemetery composed mainly of ‘highrises’ of tombs, stacked five or six high in large blocks. From there, we moved into the area dominated by the venues for the 1992 Olympics (and the 1929 World’s Fair) and it was quite a long way to our eventual destination: the National Art Museum of Catalonia, housed in the National Palace. It is a fabulous palace, and it has a superabundance of gothic and medieval art. Yes, it’s mostly tediously religious in nature, but at least the Spanish artists had a great fondness for the grotesque, and there were many lovingly rendered martyrdoms and monsters and hellfire and angels smiting demons. So at least it wasn’t all Madonnas and baby Jesuses. It was only 70% Madonnas and baby Jesuses!

In the more modern galleries, there were El Greco’s and Velazquez’s, a roomful of Picassos, a Dali, Fra Angelica, Goya, etc. Naturally, also a lot of Gaudi and other elements of modernisme.
After the museum, we walked down through the other palaces to the Magic Fountain, which (at night) does a light and fountain show, choreographed to music. Sorry to miss that, but the Art Deco fountain is neat enough. At the end of the walk was the Barcelona Arena (used for bullfighting) and a Metro station that took us back to the Gothic quarter, where we visited the focaccia shop for a late lunch. Sipping our wine there helped to rest us from the day’s exertions. But not completely, so we took some time out to siesta.

Afterwards, a little more walking around, but since it’s Sunday, fewer shops and restaurants were open, making things a bit more challenging for our eventual dinner. We went to a more commercial/corporate restaurant. It wasn’t bad, but nothing special. The Guijuelo ham was supposed to be special, but seemed ordinary to me. On the other hand, the chorizo sausage was pretty good. I don’t want it to sound like we ate only sausage and ham in Spain, but… oh, who am I kidding? Pretty much we ate only sausage and ham. In some ways it’s very fortunate that we wanted to mainly eat tapas style. Going to an actual restaurant (as opposed to a café or bar that sells tapas) is ridiculously expensive by US standards.
Next up. Getting up at 4AM to start our journey back home.

Aug 3
Up at 4AM (aka 7PM yesterday in Los Angeles)
Taxi to the airport
Wait in line, idly watching the guy run the plastic wrap luggage-mummifying machine.
Fly to Frankfurt (setting a new personal record for being in Frankfurt…. twice in one year)
Airtram to the other terminal
Fly US Airways to Charlotte. Watched Gran Torino on the plane – I liked it more than I thought I would. Got into Charlotte about 15 minutes late.
Now I will bitch about US Airways. Flight 705 arrives in Charlotte at 3:15 and Flight 705 continues on to Los Angeles at 4:40. With the late arrival, that gave us an hour to run the gauntlet of three government agencies: Immigration, Customs, and TSA. Perhaps on some blessed day on which no other planes arrive at Charlotte, and flight 705 is on time, this is possible. But I think those days must be rare indeed. Very shortly it was apparent that there was no way we were going to make our connecting flight to LA. I suppose an optimist would describe US Airways’ time schedule as optimistic. I am a pessimist, so I call it a total failure. Anyway, they came on the PA and announced that they were holding the plane for an extra hour.
Even with that help, we hustled to get it all done. Of course, we wound up waiting another half hour for the people who didn’t hustle as much as we did. And when we arrived, the plane had already boarded the people who were starting their trip in Charlotte, so they sat there on the plane for close to two hours before we buttoned up and headed out.
By the time the food cart came by, your choice was a can of almonds or a can of Pringles. Fortunately, I wasn’t hungry. But I thank the steward for giving us free booze on the plane. That made it all okay. Waitaminute, no it didn’t make it all okay. But it was a tiny little bit better.
Back to LAX, and back home by about 8PM (aka 5AM tomorrow in Barcelona). So, it was about 25 hours of travel to get back. I actually adjusted to the time change pretty rapidly, though I had trouble actually sleeping the night through for a while.
Ok, that’s it.
 
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[User Picture Icon]
From:aaronjv
Date:August 14th, 2009 10:46 am (UTC)
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including the finest caipirinha I’ve ever had.

Do you recall the ingredients and/or preparation?
[User Picture Icon]
From:essentialsaltes
Date:August 14th, 2009 02:02 pm (UTC)
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Sadly, no. I was at a table, not bellied up to the bar.

Journal of No. 118