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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Belfast And Northern Ireland

Belfast is one of those places that's always been a bit mysterious for me. I didn't really know what to expect when Diana and I arrived at the central bus station after our ride up from Dublin. Would it be just another town? Would there be bombed-out buildings? Would it be like London or like Dublin? I had no idea but I was looking forward to seeing it all firsthand and to learn more about "The Troubles".

A friend of mine from Dublin recommended that we take a Black-Cab Tour where you get driven around Belfast while the driver gives you a political history lesson as well as lots of social commentary.


Our extremely-knowledgeable driver took us to various neighborhoods, both Catholic and Protestant, and showed us a bunch of political murals that are painted on houses, businesses, and walls all around the city. Some of the murals are still highly-charged, like the one above, showing one side or the other but many now feature unification/peace themes.

He did a great job patiently explaining The Troubles, the fighting between the loyalists and independents, and the Protestant versus Catholic factions. What was, or even still is at times, a civil-war-type fight between neighbor and neighbor seems to be fading according to our driver. But, he said, some of the large gates between parts of the city still get closed each night...just in case...


There were a bunch of things that I found interesting (and unexpected) during our visit. It seems that many Belfast folks, regardless of which side they come from, want to move on. Our driver must have said ten times how "that was the past" and that they didn't want to dwell on it. Even though he gives tours to out-of-town folks, even our driver and others we talked to were still somewhat amazed that so many people want to come to Belfast. Oh, and one other thing, the locals may or may not like each other, but they still like tourists!

Diana and I in front of one section of the "Peace Wall":


We again used airbnb to find accommodations and were super lucky to get to stay with a local family complete with mom, dad, two kids, and a dog. When we arrived at the house our first afternoon, the family had just found out their rabbit, who they thought was male, recently had babies and had just brought them into the house for the first time. Mom made a pot of tea and we hung out for the next two hours drinking tea, eating biscuits, and talking about all sorts of topics, including traveling, The Troubles, the family's experience living in Northern Ireland, and, of course, bunnies! What a great experience!

On day two of our visit, we walked the length of the city staring out in the city's central market where, we were told, people, regardless of background, worked and interacted. Yes, the people in Belfast are still acutely aware of divisions but they also seem motivated to continue moving towards the future. From the market, we walked up to the university area and stopped at the city's botanical gardens before heading back towards the center of town.


Belfast seems to be developing a tourist infrastructure with things like the Black-Cab tours and their newly built Titanic Experience center, which is the silver, angular building in the photo below:


Yes, the story without end got its start in the Belfast shipyards where the Titanic was built. We didn't take the almost-thirty-dollar-per-person (!!!) tour but we did hang out in the visitors' center, got some afternoon tea, and checked out the gift shop.

The building's design is based on four, full-sized Titanic bows with the museum in the center. The ship was built out behind where the building is now. The dry dock has been filled in but there are lines where the ship was positioned as it was built. They've even shown where the lifeboats were...


Diana couldn't resist having a Kate Winslet moment:


Diana and I wanted to go up to Giant's Causeway and maybe stop on the way at the nearby Bushmills distillery. (You know I can't resist a factory visit!) I wasn't dying to drive on the wrong other side so we signed for a tour I happened to find that went to those exact places.

The first stop was a quick 30-minute side trip to the Bushmills' whiskey factory in the town of Bushmills.


There wasn't enough time to do the full tour but we did get to wander around a bit and even got a free tasting.


The next stop was two hours at the Giant's Causeway, which is waaaay up on the northern coast of Ireland. The bus drops you off at the parking lot up top and you need to either take the shuttle bus or walk down the hill. We chose to walk and, when we came around the bend, we could see what seemed like a thousand brightly-colored spiders moving around on a large rock formation that stretched out into the sea.


The (not-so) Giant's Causeway is an unusual formation made up of millions (?) of hexagon-shaped rocks. The story goes that a giant named Finn McCool, who used to live up in these parts, built a bridge so he could walk (without getting his feet wet) to Scotland to fight another giant. The story is actually even more complex than that if you can believe it. Whatever, the rocks were cool and the place and accompanying legend had a sort-of Lord-Of-The-Rings feel to them.


Giant's Causeway yoga in effect:


On the way back down to Belfast, we stopped at the original Irish tax dodge, the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge. Fishermen (or maybe some tax lawyers?) built this rope bridge from the mainland out to an island because fish brought ashore on the mainland were taxed but fish carried from an island were not. The views down to the water and to the surrounding cliffs from this loophole were quite spectacular.


But, the highlight of our visit to Northern Ireland wasn't the cool history lessons, staying with an awesome family, eating great Irish food, walking on McCool's causeway, or even learning about Irish tax law, nope, it was passing by this Irish giant-panda farm:


I'm sorry for that one but I couldn't resist. Anyway, I have a much better understanding of the history of Belfast and we both really enjoyed our visit. Another great, extremely-lucky-to-have, experience!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

2014 Festa Major de Gracia

Late summer means vacation time!!!

Most countries in Europe require employers by law to provide vacation, in most cases four or five weeks(!). Back in the good-ole' U.S. of A., there's no mandated vacation time. For the most part, if you get two weeks vacation you count yourself lucky as something like 25% of employees get none.

Having grown up and worked in the United States for many years, I'm still confused when it comes to Euro vacations. Although Diana and I live in the center with its daily throngs of tourists, a lot of Barcelona is closed for a big part of August. Signs like this one (Closed For Vacation From the 15th to the 31st of August and Closed Saturdays in August) are on so many businesses you'd be amazed. I've even seen signs like this on places Americans would never imagine like car dealerships.


Even though a lot's closed, there's still tons for the tourists to do. For locals, not so much. One of the major exceptions is the Festa Major de Gracia (Gracia Festival), which takes place for about a week each year in mid-to-late August.


Almost every neighborhood in Barcelona has its own festival at some point during the year. They're kinda' like a big block party (and cultural celebration) but in the case of Gracia, the party's spread over more-than 160 square blocks!


Although some tourists find their way to these festivals, they tend to dominated by locals. Food and drink are everywhere and many of the streets and plazas are decorated according to a theme that's chosen by each block's residents. The plaza below had an Asian-inspired theme and, the evening we were there, they were having a wine-tasting festival. Woo-hoo!


The crowds on hand in Gracia are surprising when compared to the relative-emptiness of many other neighborhoods. It's nice to be able to get out, meet up with friends, get some food and drink, see the decorations, and watch a couple of bands play.


Diana and I lucked out and were able to do a guided tour of one of Barcelona's left-over Spanish-civil-war-era bomb shelters located below Gracia's Placa Diamant.


These shelters were built in the late 1930s to protect locals during air raids. When the sirens would sound, anyone who had paid their monthly membership fee (yes, membership has its privileges) hid out in the shelters around 50 feet below ground. The guide told us that residents were prohibited from bringing food or drink into the shelters during raids. Apparently this was a big cause of issues between residents. The shelters are austere but functional and definitely worth a visit if you get the chance.


Of course there's bragging rights to be had. Each year, the neighborhood association awards prizes to the different blocks based on things like theme, creativity, execution, and so on. The winning street this year was Carrer Progres with their zombie theme:


So marks the end of lazy summer afternoons, beach days, and sunburns. For most of the world it's back to work and school. But, don't despair, most Europeans still have one or two weeks of vacation to use up before the end of the year! :-)



Sunday, August 31, 2014

Soria Spain

Sometimes life gets in the way. Or at least it feels that way when you wonder what took so long to get around to something you've been wanting to do.

Diana and I have been wanting visit Paco and Alicia for a couple of years. Well, actually, it's been almost exactly two years as their daughter just turned two and we hadn't yet met her. How's that possible?

It was finally time. They were spending the summer in Paco's hometown of Soria and wanted us to come. We picked a good weekend, rented a car for the trip, and started making plans.

When I asked a friend about the best route to Soria he responded "You're going to see the painting, right?" I had no idea what he was talking about but I could sense from his posture and tone that it must be important. "Yes, the painting" he said again almost starting to do that laughing-crying thing like when you tell a joke and start to laugh uncontrollably when you get to the punchline. "You have to go. We've been trying to see it and it's been closed every time."

What the heck? Finally, between giggles, he googled "Ecce Homo" and showed me the first image result. It was a painting that looked sort of half-man, half-monkey. I knew it somehow. I was drawn to it.


You may know it too but, if not, it's a painting on a church wall in tiny Borja, Spain, which is located about 230 miles (370 km) from Barcelona and right on the way to Soria. The painting wasn't anything to write home about until a local 80-year-old woman took it upon herself to "restore" it in 2012. The results became, for some reason no one can explain, an internet sensation. She had transformed Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) into Ecce Mono (Behold the Monkey)!

I can imagine poor Cecilia Gemenez had the best of intentions when she went to work. Understandably, the people responsible for the church were pissed. They even considered getting someone to re-restore the painting but, before they could, the internet got a hold of it and people started showing up. Lots of them. If you look at the photo below, you'll see maps on the wall with thousands of toothpick-flags with the visitors' names and hometowns.


Yes, Cecilia managed to put Borja and its Santuario de Misericordia on the map. A modern-day pilgrimage site. The town's turned proud and the church even put up a glass panel to protect (?) the painting! Thank you so much Pablo for telling me. I would have missed it for sure.

Oh, wait, this story's supposed to be about Soria and Paco and Alicia and Violeta. I wrote about Paco and Alicia (pre-Violeta) when we visited them in Aranjuez back in 2010 and they were nice enough to come to the wedding but it had still been way too long. Looking back on that trip, I fondly remember their love of conversation, good food, and nice wine. Well, it didn't take long to rekindle those memories.

Within about 30 minutes of our arrival, we were already on our way to one of their favorite restaurants to have an amazing Sorian lunch. When I told friends about our plans to go to Soria, every single one of them said "the food's really good there". I can now confirm this to be true. We enjoyed many good meals with these guys.


Soria's a small town located about half way between Pamplona and Madrid in north-central Spain. It's not too far from the Monastario de Piedra where Diana and I went back in January. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the small towns near Stuttgart, like Tübingen for example, that we enjoyed so much. It sits along the Duero river, which begins nearby, and is at a surprisingly high 3,500 foot elevation. I hadn't even bothered to look at the weather before we went and ended up feeling cold at times with its dry ~60 degree temperatures, which was a nice break from hot-and-humid Barcelona.

One of the small plazas in central Soria:


Although an entire vacation of good food, good wine, and good company sounds pretty, well, good to me, Paco and Alicia had planned a bunch of activities for us including taking us to search for the creature from the Laguna Negra (Black Lagoon). Unfortunately, we didn't see him but we enjoyed being out in the scenic natural setting.


We also explored Calatanazor, which is a medieval-style village built on top of a village-sized rock.


It reminded me of Garrigas near the Costa Brava. If you're interested living here, this fixer is available. My friend Jim, who's an agent, says real estate's all about location, which must be true in this case.


Near the center of the village, I saw this pole and went over to find out what it was. There was a small sign that said it was called a "rollo" (roy-yo). What I, at first, thought was some sort of religious art turned out to be a punishment pole. When someone in the village did something bad, they were tied to the rollo. Suddenly, I remembered the Spanish expression "todo es un rollo" (everything is a rollo), which is used like we use "pain in the ass" in English. I couldn't stop laughing at finding out what the expression was based on.


Diana outstanding in her field across the road from Calatanazor:


And, again, enjoying what's good in life:


A couple random notes from the trip.

Lots of cars in Spain have stickers showing where the owner's from. In Catalunya, it's a donkey. In Madrid, oftentimes it's an Osborne bull. In Soria, it's Numantian horse, which represents hard-fought freedom for the Sorians. Back in 134 B.C., villagers from Numancia put up a heck of a fight against 30,000 soldiers from the mighty Roman empire. After an eight-month siege, the villagers decided it would be better to die than surrender and almost the entire town killed themselves. It's a very similar to Masada in Israel.


If you look up while you're in Soria, you'll often see giant bird's nests topping many tall buildings. These wooden marvels are the work of the local stork population. The town not only tolerates the nests, they celebrate their neighbors by helping secure them in place if they start to shift. It's tough to tell from this photo but the nests are probably three feet (1m) tall and are quite the architectural marvel.


Finally, on our last day in town, there was kids' festival where large, costumed characters with giant heads chased children through the streets and beat them with balls tied to strings. Yes, you read that correctly. What might get you arrested in many places was a popular event in Soria. Hmm...I can imagine the marketing for this. Come to Soria for the food. Stay for the beatings.


Thanks to Paco and Alicia for the fantastic weekend. And an extra-big thank you and hug to Violeta for teaching me the differences between goat and cow cheese. Next time we meet up I'm counting on learning the difference between torrezno and chicharron. Oh, and when you're old enough, the different wines too.

We can't wait to see you again. We promise life won't get in the way!