Sunday, March 29, 2009

Adéu Barcelona, Hola Madrid!

Some photos of the final day in Barcelona and a preview of Shane's and my wandering through Madrid.

As the sun greyed the sky, we rolled into the subway, a little bleary-eyed as we dragged our luggage behind. Our first destination was the Barcelona train station where the visiting Floridians caught a direct train to the airport. We said our goodbyes in the terminal that was slowly turning up the volume as commuters and tourists shuttled through the open common area.

It was a heartfelt goodbye. I’ll admit I was a little apprehensive joining the group, knowing everyone else had a deep history, and I would clearly be the interloper, the ruiner of inside jokes. But they had all made me feel welcome. I had only known these visitors for about 48 hours, but we had shared so much aimless wandering, and discussion over wine and beer, that it’s hard to deny we had become friends, and I am deeply thankful they were just such cool people to explore with.

After goodbyes, Shane and I went to the information desk to ask about tickets to Madrid, specifically if we could get a discount with our German Rail 50% off cards (Bahn Card 50. It’s a wonderful deal, half-off every ticket you buy in Germany for a nominal cost upfront). We were told we would get 25% off. Cool. The helpful Barcelonan then handed me a sheet with the cost we would pay highlighted in yellow. This is a key transaction to remember.

Three team members down, Shane and I turned to the subway again and headed to the fringes of town in search of Park Güell, the final Gaudì masterpiece that was easily reached from town. We hopped out of the station as the sun was painting the clouds a radiant pinkish gold. We grabbed caffeine and sandwiches to fuel our morning and started climbing the hill towards the park. Totting our breakfast with the hopes of enjoying it at the park, we crawled up the slope until it seemed to deflect in the wrong direction. We had taken a wrong turn. I’ve become pretty deft at whipping out the map, and we began to ponder. Unfortunately we had ranged beyond the edge of the view offered by Lonely Planet. Cobbling together the address, a bus map, and the guidebook, we eventually figured out we had to backtrack, losing the elevation we had just bought with our tired legs.

Turning a corner, we saw a series of outdoor escalators climbing a particularly steep, San Fransisco-like slope. We gratefully rode upwards, still clutching our coffee, praying the sun would take its sweet time waking up this morning. At the top of the hill, a sign helpfully showed the entrance to the park…was under construction. We hoofed it around a towering stone wall, searching for a way in. As I power-walked ahead, Shane noticed a gate, with a small map. He called me back, and we inspected the gate inscribed with the words “Park Güell.” We had found it.

We hustled through, barely registering the winding pathways, and arched tunnels. We needed to find a scenic bench, stat. We were getting really hungry. Finally, we found the main entrance, decorated with a whimsical twisted spire over the gatehouse. Next to the iconic mosaic lizard (more specifically, under the lizard) we found a bench where we could watch the sun rise, and take in the city, just as Gaudi intended. Between the view from the Park, Casa Milà, and the cable car, I think I have a better idea of Barcelona from the air than from the ground.

Park Güell was constructed between 1900 and 1914 as a housing complex conceived by one of Gaudi’s patrons, Count Eusebi Güell. He envisioned a gated community with a common area, gardens, and pathways surrounding a school for the community’s children. Unfortunately, the fortunes of the city began to change after the turn-of-the-century, and people were reluctant to move to the new development. The gated community idea would take a few more decades before fully flourishing in West Chester, Ohio.

You may notice the ending date also coincides with the beginning of World War I. There’s something slightly tragic about walking through a building (or park) built near 1900, or reading a book from that time period. Optimism infused the work of Gaudi and Jules Verne. Technology was producing incredible wonders like airplanes and the telephone. The future was gleaming with opportunity. Then Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and Europe was dragged into a series of conflicts that wouldn’t end until the close of the next century. So much for that optimism…

The Park became the site of Gaudì’s permanent home, as well as Count Güell’s. Soon after funding fell through, the park was opened to everybody. Apparently not many people take advantage of it at 7 AM. Besides the ornate entry, the park features a colonnade that functions as a public space and rain catchment. Above the columns is a massive common area surrounded by a looping mosaic bench, and a clear view of Barcelona. If I didn’t love the city before gazing off that balcony, I was ready to buy the ring and set the wedding date as I looked out over the harbor.

From the park, Shane and I began a walking tour of the city’s architectural marvels. Normally when I visit a city, I seek out the museums for the rare artifacts or art that I would never see anywhere else. This is part of why shopping in a city has never really appealed to me. I’ll probably be able to find the same store somewhere else with similar wares, but, in Barcelona for example, the buildings are unique to this city.

We first walked to the Hospital de Sant Pau, a series of Neo-Gothic buildings constructed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner with emphasis on vibrant colors and plenty of light for the patients.

You may recall Montaner was responsible for the Palau de la Música Catalana where we saw the German string quartet the night before. Montaner preferred making public buildings, while Gaudi often worked on private residences. The hospital, on the site of a 14th century hospital, is a sprawling complex with subterranean tunnels connecting the wards. This system allows patients more natural light in their rooms.

The problem came when the hospital had to be brought up to code at the turn of this century. A massive “modern” building was installed North of Montaner’s structure. Instead of getting creative, the new building is a white, concrete eye-sore that would look at home in any mid-sized city in the United States. Fortunately they preserved the older hospital for the medical school’s use.

With a blue sky over our heads, we walked from the hospital to the Sagrada Familia, snapping slightly less-soggy shots of the soaring spires. Following a guidebook map of non-Gaudi Modernisme buildings, we walked by a half-dozen residences that tried to buck the stylistic trends of the Industrial Revolution.

Shane considered his possible future as an architect-chemist. I tried to get the map pointed in the right direction. Eventually it was lunch time, and we had no idea where to grab calories before catching the train out of town. Right on cue, the farmer’s market we ate at the night before appeared at our feet.

The restaurant was closed, but the stalls were open with fishermen banging pots to get some attention, and more subdued vegetable salespeople (vegetables are a necessity, let the people come to you, I say). Tucked into the corners of the indoor market were small tapas bars. They seemed cheap, but we had no idea since there was no menu. We did see on key word “Tortilla.” Shane had been told to try a tortilla before leaving the Iberian Peninsula. This seemed like the time. After waffling over how best to approach the counter, I finally just dove in:

Me: Hola!
Bartender: (Expectant stare earned from watching two confused Americans wandering hesitantly around his stand).
Me: Uh, un? (Pointing at a tortilla)…y cervesa, bitte…I mean please, or por fav…
Bartender: (Hands me a beer) Sit there (pointing at a small table)
Me: Dank…Gracias…Thanks.

And I slid into my seat. Confusing German and my sliver of Spanish would become a common occurrence. Apparently I keep all foreign vocabulary in the same folder in my brain, and randomly select which word will best fit the situation at hand. Rarely am I correct. But, I had ordered. Shane went through the same halting process, but eventually we each had our lunch before us. I should note that a Spanish tortilla resembles a quiche more than a pita. It involves a wedge of crust, egg, and cheese, just in case you were wondering what I was doing with a flat piece of fried dough for my dinner.

Food eaten, we walked by a final Gaudi apartment, took a picture of his crest over the door:

and went to the train station. There’s an hourly train that connects Madrid to Barcelona via a high speed train. This means it’s slightly expensive to get between the two, and it is probably more cost effective to take a flight (though it probably won’t save you time, since the train hurtles over the 504 kilometers at 200 km/hr). In general, I prefer the ease of the train. You load your luggage near the center of the city and depart near the center instead of calculating routes into town from the airports that are usually near the fringe. The downside of the train is dealing with the ticket agent:

Me: Hello, is English okay?
Him: Yes, how can I help you?
Me: I would like to buy two tickets to Madrid. (With that I slid three cards under the glass barrier: my DB card for my discount, my German debit card, and my student ID)
Him: What is this for?
Me: Uh, the Deutschebahn card is for the Rail Plus discount…
Him: You do not get a discount.
Me: Um, yes, I believe I do, it has a “Rail Plus” logo on the back.
Him: This is for German trains.
Me: I know but the Rail Plus logo means (at this moment he turned to the ticket seller at the next window, pointed at me and laughed) uh (angrily I reached into my bag and hauled out the price list I had been given that morning) Here, this came from that guy (pointing emphatically like Chris Columbus at the Information booth. His smile fell).
Him: Oh, well…(getting angry) this won’t work (he shoved the debit card at me).
Me: Okay, um it’s a debit card, not a credit card.
Him: It won’t work.
Me: (Riled) Fine, use this (Slide American Express card under).
Him: (After sliding it through his machine, crowing with triumph) This won’t work either!
Me: (Angry) Then try this! (Flinging Visa at him. The computer beeps and boops. It goes through and the tickets print).
Him: Gracias!
Me: Danke!

It turns out American Express forgot I was off the continent for the year and froze my transactions. It also turns out everyone in Spain isn’t as friendly as you might hope. Though, to be honest, one of the insights I’ve gleaned through extensive traveling is this: There are assholes everywhere, and sometimes, you just gotta deal with ‘em.

After a brief wait in the station, we descended to the train. Our bags were scanned and our tickets and passports checked by at least three different individuals. This was new. In Germany you show up at the platform and dive onto the train. It’s possible to make it from Hamburg to Bonn without having your ticket checked once (though this is not common). Not so in Spain where terrorism has been a constant threat since the Civil War was started in the mid ‘30s.

On the train, Shane napped while I looked out the window. We crossed deserts and mountains, climbing through badlands and forests until we were on the Central Spanish Plateau, surrounded by vineyards and the capital city of Madrid.

An image captured as we hurtled through the Spanish countryside.

My first impression of the city was a very positive one. It’s only one Euro to ride the metro to any point in the city. For six Euro, you can get ten rides. It’s cheap to move around, so we felt obliged to do so. We headed for the center of town where we had made reservations for a hostel near the Opera House. We entered the building and were quickly informed by a clerk that the hostel was no longer located at that address. Confused, I walked into the street and called. Oh, they had forgotten to tell me their new address, and what? We wanted to stay until Sunday? Oh, they don’t have rooms for Saturday night.

Thus began a pleasant few minutes as we worked our way through Lonely Planet’s hostel list, eventually finding Hostel Cats. Our new home was nestled near the oldest part of town and thence all the tapas bars. I didn’t fully understand what tapas meant, but it seemed like a good place to stay. We soon discovered that Cats was set up in a former Muslim palace, and damaging the mosaic courtyard or stained-glass windows was a federal offense. Shane and I put away our spray paint and Louisville Sluggers.

We threw our luggage in our dorm, praying the other four beds would remain vacant. We also checked out our shower and toilet. A shower curtain divided the bathroom from the sleeping area. The toilet sat beneath a gable, causing you to risk concussion every time you needed it, and the shower was wedged into the corner with curtains hemming it in. They weren’t quite reaching the floor, so a shower looked like a slightly messy process. Fortunately, there were more…established facilities on the next floor.

Back into the night. We only had two days in Madrid and we were going to make these count. It was time to figure out what “Tapas” meant. In a slightly rustic bar, we soon discovered it meant appetizers. Fries, sausages, cheese, calamari, if you can put it on a toothpick or eat it with a small fork, it’s a tapas. After a beer and first round of snacks we rolled on to a bustling diner with the words “Cafeteria, Cerveceria” over the door. That seemed promising both for our wallets and our stomachs. The demographic ranged form high schoolers to old timers in for a brew. The owner found us a table wedged against the freezer and he quickly brought us a bottle of wine and a plate of fries and Chorizo with bread. Everything was fantastic, including the people watching. The pair of dudes next to us left behind half their wine. The owner swung by again, asking if we wanted to finish it up. We thanked him by reaching into the freezer every now and then to fish out ingredients.

Our final stop for the evening was a slightly trendier establishment that advertised cheap Sangria. We were in and seated, sipping the fruited wine and eating open-faced sandwiches before the door had swung closed behind us. It was a great night of bonding and people watching as we discussed girls, traveling, and science. Eventually we had to call it a night since we had the Prado to explore in the morning and we would need to rally our strength to take on all the Old Masters.

Stumbling slightly into our dorm, we were disappointed to find one of the other bunks was occupied. We quietly dove under the covers, setting our alarms for an early wake-up. Sleep when you’re dead (or back on the plane to Germany).

Coming next time: Art! Mass! Pilot Cow!


The requisite photo album.

The Beautiful and the Gaudí

A link to illustrations. It's the same album from the previous post, but with the following entry, more of the photos might make a little more sense. Also included at the end.

The next morning Rose, Kristen, Shane, and I were out the door and on the subway as the city got rolling. We were headed to the Eixample, a district primarily built up during the end of the 19th century. It’s now a very swanky shopping district and seemed like a good place to start our wandering. As we emerged from the subway, I looked across the street, searching for a street sign to get my bearings and was confronted by a riot of pastel mosaic tiles and rippling, skull-like balconies. The building was nestled between two standard high rises, which made it even more difficult to ignore.

Me: I think that thing’s famous.
Shane: Yeah, we should check it out.
Me: How much do you think a ticket costs?
Shane: Does it matter?
Me: Fair.

And thus began a day spent in adoration of one of the most creative, visionary architects I’ve ever heard of: Antoni Gaudí.

Because the Eixample was built up at the turn of the last century, Art Nouveau was in vogue as a loopy, organic rebellion against the hard angles and steel of the churning Industrial Revolution. Barcelona’s architects took the spirit of the French movement and infused it with a whiff of the Mediterranean and hard-edged Spanish mysticism, and Catalonian Nationalism producing “Modernisme.” The master of Modernisme was Gaudí. Intensely patriotic, and obsessed with natural forms, his buildings evoke wild gardens, and a little Dr. Seuss.

Then entry way to Casa Batllò. Everything, even the pottery, ebbs and flows.

The building confronting Shane and I was Casa Batlló. The apartment building was built in 1870, but Gaudí was asked to renovate it in 1905. Instead of just sprucing up the façade, he decided to move through every room, destroying right angles and infusing the building with light. Shane and I paid the entry fee, armed ourselves with audioguides and dove in – an appropriate metaphor as the interior has a very marine feel with blues, purples, and greens mingling in bubble-like fixtures. A massive ridge of tile fronts the façade with twisting chimneys and a lance-like tower slicing through the gable.

Gaudi was a very patriotic Catalonian and some people see Casa Batllo as a metaphor for Catalonia’s patron saint: St. George. The tower is capped with a cross and “JHS”, the Christian saint’s weapon slaying the pagan dragon. The victims of the beast are symbolized by the skull-like balconies and boney entrance-level. The attic evokes the ribs of the dragon with stark white arches leading to the roof.

The spires are maybe the spikes on the dragon's back, the gable his raised neck, and the cross the tip of St. George's lucky lance.

A less iconic example of Modernisme, to remind you that Gaudi was unique, even within his artistic movement.

After ogling at one of Gaudi’s smaller works, Shane and I were ready to visit everything else the man had constructed. After walking up and down the street to take in some of the less iconic, non-Gaudi Modernisme buildings, we headed for Casa Milà on Passeig de Gràcia. The massive, melting apartment building was built between 1906 and 1912. People live and work in the structure, but the top floor had a museum to Gaudi, explaining some of his biography and techniques. There were bones, leaves, and shells, some of his favorite motifs, and reproductions of the furniture he designed.

He was on the vanguard of ergonomics, making chairs that trace the arch of the back, and handles that perfectly fit the required grip of the hand. It’s a bit of an understatement to say he was ahead of his time. The roof of the apartment is festooned with a rolling, concrete hillside with twisting spires and interlocked arches. The rain should have driven us inside pretty quickly, but we continued to explore, taking in the view of the city, including a view of Sagrada Família (more on that building a little later).

After checking out the roof, we walked through a reconstructed apartment with furniture and fixtures that would have been common in 1910. It was actually a little shocking to be inside such a modern structure and suddenly be confronted with the lacy curtains and antiquated picture frames that would have been installed by the first tenants of the building. Next, we headed down the street for Gaudi’s masterpiece: the Sagrada Familia (The Holy Family).

The drizzle continued, so we grabbed lunch at a cafeteria-like restaurant recommended by a guy at a coffee stand. We sat by the window so we could try to take in the soaring spires of the structure while enjoying an unlimited supply of coffee (a rare thing on The Continent).

The full title of the building is “Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família” or Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family. Gaudi broke ground in 1882 and worked on it for the next 40 years. In 1926 Gaudi died after being hit by a tram at the age of 73, but construction has continued (with a brief respite in 1936 due to the Spanish Civil War). Estimates for the date of completion range from 2026 to 2080, though advances in design tools and materials have made the earlier dates more feasible. Construction is completely funded through private donations and ticket sales from visiting tourists like us. I’m glad I shelled out a couple of Euros to help make Gaudi’s greatest project a reality.

Now there are eight spires twisting towards the sky. Eventually there will be 18 representing the 12 apostles, the four evangelists, Mary, and Christ. The spire devoted to Christ will stand over the center of the building with a massive crystal cross acting as a kind of lighthouse for the ships steaming into Barcelona harbor. The Eastern façade was completed during Gaudi’s lifetime. It depicts the nativity and the tree of life. The opposite façade tells the story of the Passion. This section was designed by a Josep Maria Subirachs, who ignored Gaudi’s plans and infused the scenes with his own angular style.

Modern designers and artists have been given a little more license to develop their own visions of the project since many of Gaudi’s plans and models were destroyed in a fire set by Catalonian Anarchists in 1936.

In 2000, much of the interior vault was completed. The columns are like massive twisting tree trunks that branch near the ceiling. Skylights are surrounded by sunbursts or leaf designs, creating the impression of walking through a forest clearing lit by radiant stained glass. Construction is heavily underway as cranes swing overhead, and workers climb through the scaffolding.

Really the most incredible aspect of the Sagrada Familia, or really anything Gaudi built, is that it is truly one man’s vision. He conceived of a spiritually infused naturalistic world in concrete and steel, and people bought into his vision. To see the Sagrada Familia built is to see one man’s dream become a reality. Other artists – painters, photographers, sculptors, writers etc. – often work alone, or with small groups of people who share their vision, presenting their individualized vision as a completed whole for others to adorate or dismiss. An architect must convince hundreds of people – financiers, city officials, and construction foremen – to participate in his concept of the world. Gaudi’s was distinctive and people went with it. How often does that really happen?

As the temple closed behind us, Shane and I resolved to return in the mid-21st century to see the structure completed. If it’s not done by then, then we’ll take up masonry, and help speed the process along.

From there, Rose, Kristen, and James went shopping in the trendy department stores of Barcelona, and Shane and I went to immerse ourselves in a museum dedicated to another Spanish artist with a singular, distinctive vision: Pablo Picasso.

A (Self) Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. (after this I was told there was to be no photography in the museum. I thought it was just no flash. Whoops.)

The Picasso Museum was established in 1963 in the city Picasso flourished in (before going to Paris, that is). The collection begins with the young Picasso’s first artistic forays. From a very young age he showed an incredible eye for realistic portraits. When he was 16 he created his first prize-winning piece “The First Communion” followed by “Science and Charity.” The museum then moves through each phase of the artist’s career. You can watch him experiment with Impressionism, Pointillism, and Expressionism, then, after the Red Period, there’s a massive gap in the record. Enter Cubism.

Shane and I had to hustle through the exhibits, but had plenty of time to watch the mature master study “Las Meninas” by Velazquez, deconstructing then rebuilding the piece in Cubist strokes. In a few days we would see the original “Las Meninas” in Madrid, approaching the piece through Picasso’s eyes before using our own.

Again, the door was closed and locked behind us as we departed exactly at closing time. We know how to get the most out of our time, and really tick off museum guards (sorry, Grandpa).

The Barcelona Cathedral which was, you guessed it, closed for renovations.

From Picasso we headed to the theater. James had the brilliant idea to pick up tickets for a string quartet performance at the Palau de la Música Catalana. The Palau was finished in 1909 by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, another Modernisme master (Gaudi didn’t have the whole city to himself). The concert hall is a riot of green, blue, and purple glass. The proscenium is decorated with charging, mounted Valkyries and a bust of Beethoven. The opposite side of the proscenium has a bust of a famous Catalonian composer who drew on traditional folk tunes. Over his head, arches a stately tree. The folk symbols and classical symbols meet to support the artists below.

The facade of the "Palace of Catalonian Music," a mix of brick, steel, classical columns and dancing color. Modern music made tangible.

As students, we had the cheap seats for a performance that appropriately featured a German quartet tracing music’s growth from the Baroque to the Romantic (the Romantic is when folk stuff started to mingle with the more theoretical Classical). It was easy to zone during the early parts of the program, but the concert hall offered plenty of decoration to occupy my eyes. Once Beethoven rolled around, my ears became just as engaged.

No photos allowed here, but I wanted you to see the pegasus I got to stare at for the entire concert. Follow the link for more interior views.

The problem with the concert was its timing. It started at 8 and dropped us on the street at 10:00. We were about to have food problems again, since we were trailing the edge of the brief dinnertime window. As we hustled across town, headed for a restaurant our guidebook recommended, we ran into another pair of tourists looking for food. We confessed we didn’t know where we were going, or if it would still be open. Where’s a knowledgeable Barcelonan when you need one?

With a wrong turn, we found ourselves outside the closed farmer’s market. As we power-walked by, we noticed a very trendy restaurant with open tables. A glance at the menu told us we had a lot of cool options, so we strode in, unsure if they would turn the lights off before we finished dining. Shane and I split the Lobster Paella, Rose ordered a traditional Catalonian sausage, Kristen had a baked Catalonian cheese dish, and James enjoyed his curry. The ingredients all came from the neighboring farmers market, including the Spanish wine. We had plenty of time to eat and chat. The nights never flicked off, and the bar was still going as we took to the streets again.

A crustacean making a second appearence in two entries. Do I see a theme brewing?

We were a fair piece from the hotel, and the subway had stopped running an hour earlier. Thus we found ourselves contemplating a cryptic bus schedule on an empty street in Barcelona. I got frustrated with the sign and suggested we walk. I didn’t think it would take that long to cross town. I had forgotten I was in European mode, and was prepared to walk anywhere. The three visitors weren’t necessarily conditioned for trans-urban trips, and after walking for about twenty minutes, I could feel mutiny brewing. Next time, I’ll take the hint earlier and look into hailing a cab (this would be hammered home in Copenhagen, but stay tuned for that episode).

When we got to the hotel, James checked in for the evening. The Floridians had to check out at 5:30 AM the next morning. It was already going on 1 AM. The rest of us decided to just stay up through the night, but we needed a place to do so. Unfortunately, the streets around the hotel were dark and very closed. We asked the hotel desk for a bar recommendation. He pointed at a small restaurant across the road, saying it was one of his favorites.

We crossed and found a fluorescently lit restaurant with a row of surprised locals bellied up to the bar. We were shown a place to sit around a corner, out of sight of the regulars. Our waiter was an enthusiastic Korean man who was clearly eager to practice his English. We obliged, but only stayed for one drink, before taking to the street again in search of a place that had a little more…atmosphere. A club a few blocks away seemed promising until we discovered it was 10 Euro a head and wouldn’t offer much opportunity for chit-chat. Back to the street. Finally, glancing into every storefront, we started to lose hope and considered buying a can of beer from one of the hundreds of guys wandering the streets with six packs, ready to sell their wares for a Euro. This army of vendors had been confronting us for the previous night as well, a kind of zombie army of booze, and maybe something a little harder.

Just then we chanced by a Turkish fast-food joint run by Indian dudes. They still had the lights on and a table of Spanish hipsters gathered around a table in the back. This seemed like a place to stay for a bit. As we chatted, the staff enthusiastically offered us more rounds while also lowering their protective garage door partially over the entrance, indicating they were closing up shop. As we packed up, they protested, but we decided the door was a good indicator that it was time to get back to the hotel to pack up, get showers and begin a new day….

Stay tuned for a good-bye to Barcelona and hello to Madrid with a short tangle with the Spanish transport authority!


The photo album again.

Columbus, Lobsters, and Absinthe...I must be in Barcelona

Some photos illustrating my adventures in Barcelona. Also tacked onto the end.

After dropping off my newly acquired Belgian beer and chocolate, I re-packed my bag with damp clothing (apparently the dryer is broken) and caught the train for Cologne. My journey began at 12:20 AM. It wouldn’t be over until 10:00 AM. My evening was punctuated by getting on and off various modes of transportation. First the cab to the train, then train to the bus, then the bus to the plane, then the plane to the bus, then the bus to the city. I didn’t get a lot of R.E.M. sleep, but I did get to Barcelona on a sunny day (or at least on a sunny morning).

I survived my first Ryan Air experience and arrived at the Arc de Triomf near the center of town right on time. I admired the bat gargoyles on the arch which was constructed in 1888 for the Universal Exhibition held in the city that year. I didn’t know the history of the arch at the time and occupied myself pondering what event would be so immortalized with bats. Eventually Shane appeared with Rose and the three of us took a walk around the area, home of the zoological museum and city hall, while getting acquainted. You may recall Shane is a fellow Fulbrighter and Floridian who is studying chemistry. Rose is one of his best friends from middle school. They’ve stayed close through the years along with two other middle school friends who came to visit Shane: Kristen and James. The latter two had opted to hang out at the hotel until I arrived, exhausted (and a little sick) from tours of Munich and Berlin.

The area around the park and arch was decorated with palm trees, flower beds, and monumental statuary. The trees were waving their fronds in the wind, but the flowers hadn’t erupted from the soil quite yet, so we had to imagine what the fountains and statues would look like if they were surrounded by blooms. I can’t wait until spring fully arrives.

After wandering, we headed back to the hotel, picked up James, and set out into the street again. We headed towards the harbor, drawn on by an enormous statue of Christopher Columbus. The figure stands on a massive pillar, pointing emphatically towards the “Indies.” Of course we had to do some pointing of our own…

We walked by the waterfront admiring boats, and praying the clouds would roll away and the day would warm up a bit so we could hop in the Mediterranean. To bide our time, we checked the guidebook for a restaurant recommendation. Shane had picked up a guide to Barcelona (a very sound investment) that recommended a place near the docks called “Con Maños.” It took us a while to find it, as we wound through narrow alleys, laundry flapping over our heads. When we found the place, we were a little hesitant to enter. It seemed a little dingy, and probably not very popular with the tourists. But we had taken our time to find it so we dove in. A table opened up as soon as we entered, and we slid into position, taking in the construction workers on lunch break, and the ‘50s fans bolted to the ceiling. The menu was attached to the wall with hand-written additions and print-outs detailing combination platters.

After digesting our surroundings, we were suddenly offered a new place to sit. I should note that I speak about six words of Spanish. Not that it really mattered in Barcelona, a Catalonian city. Catalonia is a region of southeastern Spain and Southwestern France where the locals speak a linguistic hybrid of Spanish and France. Catalonians are fiercely proud of their regional identity, and are first Catalonian, then Spanish. This was a bummer for James, who is fluent in Spanish (he’s half Columbian). He was excited to be in Spain, but incredibly frustrated to be in the part that didn’t necessarily understand him. Despite this, he had more of clue what was going on than we did. Also, most people speak both Spanish and Catalonian (though their Spanish isn’t perfect, I’m told).

The waiter was able to move us after a brief debate with another customer who was trying to tackle our new table. After everyone settled in the second time, we got down to the business of ordering beer and all the weird seafood we could find on the menu. The table split grilled cuttlefish, calamari, some kind of fried fish, fries, artichokes…it was a feast, and really one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time.

After gorging ourselves, we naturally wanted to go for a swim. The day was cloudier and colder than it was when we began lunch, but if you’re near the Med, you need to hop in. After scouting a clean section of beach, we took turns holding up my little towel as we changed. Really, the desire for privacy was probably unnecessary. No one was on the beach except a lone dog enthusiastically digging in the sand.

With everyone changed we braced against the chilly wind and ran into the water. At some point I need to visit the Mediterranean during a warm month. March just isn’t doing it. Gasping and praying I wasn’t doing permanent damage to my chances at paternity I dove under the waves. My body kicked into action, flooding my extremities with warm to combat hypothermia. We stood in the surf and whooped, everything adjusting to the new, chilly conditions.

Eventually we triumphantly dried off, changed, waved at the curious bystanders who were a little befuddled by the Americans who didn’t understand the concept of “Beach weather”, and set off towards the hotel for a shower. Along the way we encountered what would soon become a familiar sight: a restaurant decked out with legs of salted pork. As the four of us tried to take in this new theory of interior design, the waiter came barreling out of the depths of the establishment, excitedly waving at us. I figured he was going to try to entice us to a table, but instead he headed for the lobster tank. Before the crustaceans knew the lid was open, one of their brethren was lifted out and triumphantly presented to Rose. She withdrew her hand, and the animal was plopped onto a crate where it waved its claws in defense. The waiter then took Rose’s hand and attached it to the lobster’s carapace. We took pictures said “Gracias” and started back down the alley, unsure how we managed to find the excitable lobster-man.

High above Barcelona harbor is a cable car system. We had eyed the contraption earlier, but now James was keen to ride high above the city. It struck us as a slightly cheesy way to spend an hour, but we didn’t know what else to do. We walked to a tower, only to be told we had to catch the bus to the next tower. We climbed the ancient structure, paying extra for a ride on the elevator up to the launch point. The city spread before us, blanketing itself over the hills and hemming the sea. A car rattled into its docking point and we were hustled aboard, the floor swinging slightly with each new passenger. As we drifted over the city, the sun set and the city lights began to wink on.
Unbeknownst to us, the cable car terminates at the top of a massive hill. It was near our hotel, but we had to walk down the steep road, sometimes turning to walk backwards to make the descent a little smoother. Kristen was still at the hotel, a little sick, and she needed something to eat. Unfortunately the restaurants of Barcelona usually don’t start serving food until 8 or 9, so we had to try several establishments before getting a sandwich. The restaurants only stay open until around 11 PM. In our two days in town, we never really figured out the best way to eat in the city.

After showers and regrouping, we (James, Shane, Kristen, Rose, and I) went back into the night in search of dinner and some historic sights. The others had arrived the previous day, and I had already seen La Rambla, a historic street cutting from the harbor to the heart of the city. It’s a place I need to see before I die. Unfortunately, the street, which is home to a bustling line of cafes and quaint shops during the day, becomes an avenue of aggressive prostitutes at night. Unprepared for this, we crossed the street searching for a restaurant. What had appeared to be a gaggle of chatting young women suddenly fragmented, the women attaching themselves to James, Shane, and myself. “You want to stay with me tonight?” asked the women attached to my arm. “No.” She gripped tighter. I shook my arm, finally breaking her vice. After that, we all walked a little tighter together.

The first restaurant we were aiming for closed its kitchen at 10 PM. The next place closed at 10:30. Finally, we found a place the guidebook recommended that served cheap diner-like food. It was open, but only until 11, leaving only about a half-hour to eat. Or waiter was not pleased with out last minute arrival. We tried to order quickly, but needed some help with the translation of the menu. When the food finally appeared, we only had about ten minutes to eat. As we finished up, the lights suddenly went out. We thought there was a power outage. Our waiter calmly walked to our table with the bill in his right hand and an electric lantern in his left. He left the lantern so we could divvy up the bill.

After paying, and walking into the street, we noticed the restaurant was the only place on the street that was dark. It’s a weird way to hustle customers out at closing time, but I guess it worked on us hungry Americans. The next destination was a bar. We found a place that looked suitably Art Nouveau –y. They had absinth posters on the wall, so it had some late 19th century credibility.

I’d never had the “Green Fairy”, but had heard plenty about it. We ordered a round out of curiosity and settled into a booth where we could hear the rest of the buzzing bar which buzzed with…American accents. This became a theme. Spain seemed to be overrun with Americans. Maybe it’s because trans-Atlantic flights are relatively cheap right now, and many Americans study or know someone who studies Spanish, so they flood the country on Spring Break. I perk up every time I hear an American accent I don’t recognize, so I was perking up a lot, despite the highly alcoholic beverage I was sipping.

Absinthe, according to Wikipedia, is 45% to 75% ABV. Thus, the anis-flavored, greenish spirit is diluted with water poured over a sugar cube. James showed us how the procedure, despite flinching every time he took a sip (licorice as a flavor has grown on me over the years. I guess James isn’t there yet). After a long walk back to the hotel (during which no one was assaulted by prostitutes) we set our alarms so we could explore the architectural riches of a city I was quickly warming to (though this may be a side effect of the absinthe) despite the chilling efforts of the Mediterranean.

Next time, I geek out on Gaudì then head to the heart of Spain: Madrid. Only a few weeks ‘til we’re all caught up.

Until then,


The photos (including some that go with tomorrow's post).

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Brush with Brussels

My faithful readers,

It has been a crazy couple of weeks, most of which found me without an internet connection. While I would normally relish the opportunity to divorce myself from technology for a few days, it means I've kept everyone a bit out of the loop. Hopefully I'll be able to update everyone on my travel itinerary in the coming two weeks. We'll see. Anyway, here's an entry about a trip I took three weekends ago. Enjoy!

Here are the illustrations. I'll also provide them at the end.

Erin and I, recently recovered from Karneval, caught the train to Brussels from Aachen. Aachen is a small city on the Dutch/Belgian/German border (the tri-country area, if you will) that you may or may not remember as home to the beautiful horses Ronja and Fleur. We explored the capital of Belgium by wandering the winding city streets with maps clutched in hand. My dad left Brigitte the GPS behind to help me navigate confusing city streets, but she can't be easily shoved into my back pocket or easily marked with interesting side trips and restaurants. It's also important to remember I am a paleontologist who also toyed with archeology. I like old stuff.

A view of city hall, one of the buildings lining the Grand Place, the heart of the old city.

Brussels is the capital of Belgium, a country divided linguistically. The French-speaking south is politically opposed to the Dutch-speaking north. Thus the capital is a bilingual city. This was especially convenient since Dutch, German, and English are all closely related. Throw in a Romance language and we could figure out most signage in the city.

Brussels is also the capital of the EU. The Belgians are a reserved, neutral people, making it a suitably developed city with few antagonistic political symbols. Really, Brussels is the perfect stage for the titans of European politics to meet and discuss bank-bailouts and Eastern European inclusion in the Union. As with most European cities, Brussels is a weird mix of old and new with Gothic guild halls cozying up to modern apartment high rises. New development is usually sparked when bombings by Napoleon and Hitler (among others) clear space for building projects throughout history. The Old English and the Royal palace roost on the same steep hill overlooking the city with modern and imperial facades.

A turn-of-the-last-century shopping mall. A lot of "Neo" going on.

Most importantly we sampled the tastes of Brussels and Belgium: Lambic top-fermented beer, chocolate, mussels, and waffles. I'm sorry I can't let you in on the flavors. Know that all are just as wonderful as you've heard, though maybe not as fully appreciated as they could have been. As far as I'm concerned, the chocolate of the European continent far exceeds the chocolate I normally get to savor in the States. This makes discerning the best of European chocolate a difficult process for a poorly refined palate. Same with the beer. I think I would need at least two weeks to begin to appreciate all the variety contained in Belgium.

What I tasted in Belgium was very different from German brew. The Belgians never instituted the German purity laws, so they can get a little more creative with their brewing ingredients (Germans can only use water, barley, yeast, and hops). The Trappist Brown Ale was incredibly smooth and creamy, the Delerium wheat light and maybe better suited for a warm summer day...Great stuff.

Mussels in Brussels, a key experience in the capitol of Belgium. This restaurant is one of the places you should go before you die. I think you can really pick any of the establishments in the old city and be just fine.

Other highlights include seeing Bosch, Rubens, Jordaens at the "Old Fine Art Museum." The Modern Fine Art Museum, which is connected to the Old one and houses art from the mid 19th century up to the present, was under renovation. I'll need to get my Impressionist and Expressionist fix somewhere else.

Bruegel the Elder gettin' trippy with it. (Fall of the Rebel Angles, 1562)

We also saw the city symbol of Brussels: The Manneken Pis. The small statue is near the Grand Place and depicts a little boy taking a wiz into the fountain below him. Apparently a statue taking a leak has been in place since the 14th century. Today he is an endless source of amusement to tourists and locals who belong to the organization "The Friends of the Menneken Pis" an organization responsible for dressing him up in costume. It's unclear to me why the statue is so famous, except maybe it appeals to the broad humor beloved by many a European. It is pretty funny, but should a figure the size of a Cabbage Patch doll really be featured on every postcard and key-chain in Brussels?

The more impressive symbol Erin and I visited was the Atomium. This is the national symbol of Belgium, in the same iconic vein as the Eifel Tower for France, or the Statue of Liberty for the U.S. Travel agencies love to make tableaux’s with monumental statuary in collage. The Atomium is featured if they want to highlight Belgium (an admittedly rare urge).

The Atomium was built for the 1956 World Fair and represents an iron crystal 102 meters tall. The atoms in the crystal house a restaurant, exhibit halls, and an impressive view of Brussels. Unfortunately, Erin and I arrived too late to climb into the towering crystal. Instead, we took out our Trappist beer and chocolate, bought from a grocery store in the metro station, and had a snack and wander around the Atomium park. Unfortunately, neither of us had a bottle opener, and a struggled to pop off the caps by using an iron railing. Instead of lifting off the cap, I succeeded in breaking the bottle at the neck, making for a slightly dangerous sampling experience.

Once we finally had our gastronomic symbols of the country ready to go, we headed into the park, suddenly skittish about open-container laws in Belgium (in Germany you can drink wherever/whenever you want to. We didn’t know if this was the case in Brussels). Again, I had to imagine what the hedge-lined amphitheater and meandering stream must look like with leaves and flowers. This is the real problem of only having one year to take in an entire continent. Every city will be heartbreakingly beautiful for May. Unfortunately, my stipend wouldn't support hitting every city on my list in such a brief time frame.

As the sun set, we took our final pictures of the Atomic Age cast in concrete and steel, and headed back into the city. Our destination was the Cinematek, a film museum that is currently under renovation. Fortunately the theaters are still open. Every day they show about six movies. Their specialty is silent film. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are accompanied by live piano for two Euro. We arrived at the box office when only one ticket remained for Buster. I still had a hankering to see something, and for two Euro, I was willing to see anything. Anything included their next showing, a 1980 movie entitled Heaven's Gate. My slightly older readers may recognize the title and may have just cringed.

I knew I had heard the name before and it seemed to have an incredible cast that included John Hurt, Jeff Bridges, and Christopher Walken. Plus it was a Western with French and Dutch subtitles. It didn’t seem like a bad way to spend the early evening. We grabbed a dinner of Pommes Frites (French Fries, did I mention thinly sliced, fried potatoes call Belgium home?) and Frikadella (fried sausage). I had the fries and sausage on the same bun along with a salad topping of lettuce, tomato and corn kernels all tucked away under the traditional glob of mayo, the condiment of choice for the fry-eating European populace.

The movie was awful. Apparently it was Michael Cimino’s post-Deer Hunter movie. After winning an Oscar, the studio (United Artists) gave him a blank check to make his next one. Bad plan. His anti-western ran way over budget and over time, bankrupting the studio. The original cut was five hours. Then Cimino whittled it down to 3.5 hours. The foreign cut is 2.3 hours. If it was once a decent movie, the severe reduction must have cut out a ton of character development. Even at half the size it was supposed to be, the movie dragged.

The story involves cattle barons taking advantage of the new European immigrants in 1890’s Wyoming. All the elements that would be important to a foreign audience were left in. The sweeping Western panorama, rousing nationalistic speeches in German, epic gun battles, and gratuitous sex. Of course none of it related to each other. The most interesting aspect of the experience was the subtitles in French and Dutch. When the characters launched into German, my head nearly exploded with the effort of keeping all the translations straight.

About halfway through the movie, I was ready to cut my losses and go back into the Brusselian night, but we had hemmed ourselves in by sitting in the middle of the aisle, and no one else was moving. I had already delayed the movie with a last minute bathroom break (the projectionist literally waited for me to take a seat before rolling) so I didn’t want to disturb anybody by rudely leaving what the museum deems an important movie.

The next step was a visit to Delerium, home of 2,000 types of beer. Erin and I only sampled two before heading back to the hostel, leaving a gaggle of Spanish tourists to snap up our table.

The next morning was chilly, but clear. We first wended towards the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, a massive Gothic structure built between the 12th and 15th centuries. Belgian royals have been getting hitched in the cathedral since the 11th century. The mass was in French which meant I occupied myself by admiring a baroque, wooden lectionary, and the stained glass. I had a moment of communion with the Brusselers when we got to the Our Father. Everything had been proceeding in the peculiar, guttural accent of southern Belgium when the prayer started “Pater noster qui es in caelis…” Yeah, Latin!

I feel like Catholics get really bad pre-Reformation wrap for using Latin. Even at St. X we were taught about the vulgate with a kind of derision as if to say, “Can you believe we used this dead language when everyone else was switching to the language of the people? Luther was right on with getting rid of the stuff.” I think we forget how different the world was before the printed word was readily available. Dialects of German, English, Spanish, you name it, were so variable before Guttenberg started churning out cheap printed paper. Luthur’s translation of the Bible is directly responsible for standardizing German, just as the King James Bible standardized English. Before things were cheap, monks sat at their desks and copied manuscripts. The bibles they copied and illuminated might be made in southern France, but eventually enter bishop’s library in Warsaw. Latin was a common language for Europe. Back in the 14th century, if I was new to town, I wouldn’t be able to speak to anyone, but I would be able to participate in the Mass. The church offered stability in a tumultuous time…anyway, as a modern visitor to a new city/country, it felt good to participate in the service, if only for 35 seconds.

After speaking the Pater Noster as Latin Jack taught me, I was given an approving nod from the older gentlemen in the next row. Thanks again LJ.

From there, we continued exploring churches as a way of guiding our trek up the hills of Brussels. We finally arrived at the massive parliament building with its soaring dome (it was under construction, of course) and took in the full scope of the city while eating Belgian waffles purchased off a truck (Info point sign: “Don’t ask us for the best waffles in town. They all taste the same”. I would then add: “They all taste delicious”.).

The other problem with scaffolding, besides that it blocks the view, is my urge to climb it whenever I see it. I don't think the Brusslers would approve of my clamoring over their parliament buildings, so I wrestle my vertical urges into the back of my mind.

Our guide-map (picked up form the snarky Info point) suggested the “Africa Museum” as an interesting spot. We didn’t have any other ideas, so we caught the tram from the city center, way into the fringe of the city after wandering by the glass and steel EU campus where a summit was underway. The Royal Museum for Central Africa was built by King Leopold II for the world exhibition in 1897 as a showcase for the Belgian Congo, a region that is still screwed up, due largely to the imperial legacy of the country.

The King built the museum to show his subjects what they were up to on the Dark Continent. He failed to mention the horrendous conditions on the rubber plantations, but that’s part of what made the museum interesting. Since the 1960s, the curators and directors have tried to create an ethnological and zoological museum, but the statues - such as a white female figure cradling two African children - speak to the more dubious history of the museum. The building is an artifact of another time and mindset. Many of the displays haven’t been updated since the 1960’s, adding another layer of history to think about as tapeworms bob in formaldehyde and threadbare, stuffed lions leer at reconstructed rhinos.

The ethnographic material is mostly contained in one hall and bears little to no explanation, making the masks, musical instruments, and cooking pots seem especially alien to a western viewer. The final exhibit in the museum is a recently installed display addressing the history of the Belgian Congo. It was relatively small and didn’t fully address the current civil war that plagues the Central African country. Several visitors pointed this out in the guestbook with varying degrees of exasperation.

Our final destination before leaving Belgium was dinner Le Grande Café, where we hoped to get a final round of traditional Belgian cuisine and beer. Unfortunately, they messed up my order, bringing open-faced chicken shepherds pie instead of less English fare. I didn’t want to argue about the mix-up though because we had a train to catch. When Erin and I had finished our cherry flavored beer, we tried to pay. Emphasis on try.

There had been a staff change, and our new waiter was determined to ignore us. European waiters are generally less attentive than their American counterparts. I think this is partially due to the European idea of a lingering meal. When the waiter comes to check up on your progress, you might feel you should hurry along. I think this is also due to the drink policy. Free refills are unheard of on the continent, a situation I have fully adapted to. This means the waiter doesn’t need to keep an eye on your water or iced tea levels to ensure a tip. But the new guy at Le Grande Café had neglectful habits that went beyond the traditions of his profession.

Erin and I were practically doing jumping jacks trying to catch his eye, but he was determined not to look our way. We didn’t know he French for “Excuse me” so we would mumble an “Entschuldigung” or “excuse me” whenever he got within ear-shot. Finally, with our train’s departure bearing down on us, I got up and cornered him at the server’s stand with a wad of cash in my hand. I hope I didn’t come off as a pushy American as I explained we really needed to leave and would like to get the bill taken care of.

Regardless, we finally left the premises and struck out for the station, grabbing a few bars of chocolate and Belgian beers from a grocery store in the station. The ride back to Deutschland was especially pleasant because we rode first-class (it was cheaper to ride as a student in first than as a regular passenger in second. Weird, I know). Apparently you are served fish or chicken in first-class along with free wine. Erin and I had just eaten, but it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up.

Erin hopped off in Aachen and I rode on to Cologne, despite a ticket that directed me to get off in Aachen as well. The next couple of minutes were a little tense as I tried to lay low every time a staff person walked down the aisle. That’s right, schwartzfahren on the train again. But this time I got lucky, and made it home in half the time it would have taken if I had caught a train from Aachen.

Thus ends the Belgian journey. I didn’t feel like I would need to eat or drink again for a couple of days. Those fries can carry you a long way. I hope your week is going well and you manage to thank the Belgians as you sample the greasy snacks they sent our way (think about using Mayo instead of ketchup for the full experience).


The photos again.