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Friday, April 30, 2010

Gibraltar

Umm...I never knew that you could visit London if you happen to be in southern Spain.

On Monday I was driving south from Cordoba to Cadiz in my rented Citroen C4 (thanks Pau for the hook-up!) when, pretty much at the last second, I saw the sign for Gibraltar and went straight instead of turning. About an hour later, in the distance, I could see a giant rock sticking up out of the water.


What followed was something completely different than I thought it'd be. I figured that I'd get to Gibraltar, walk around a little bit, and take some photos...but, no, there's a BORDER CROSSING that you drive through to get to it. Gibraltar is an "British Overseas Territory" (not colony). I never knew. This must be the fault of some geography teacher I had at some point!

It was kinda' like the first time I drove into Mexico. I thought for sure that I'd be stopped, arrested, kidnapped, whatever. But wait, everything's in English...and there's a Union Jack flying on that pole. Wow. I left Cordoba to go to Cadiz and arrived in London on the way. Ha!

Here's one non-Brit white guy in the classic-Brit pic:


At least you still drive on the right so no stress there. There's a lookout point and museum complex that you have to pay something like 11 pounds (as in Pounds Sterling - £) to enter so I stopped on the side of the road at a spot where you can see both Spain and Africa. In the photo below, past the light house and under the clouds, you can make out Africa in the distance. Very cool!


But wait...on the way there, you pass by something out of the Planet of the Apes. THERE ARE MONKEYS ROAMING THE STREETS!!! Here are some on the side of the road:


and more hanging out on one of the buildings near the light house:


All in all, a pretty lucky chance encounter with a neat place. I would have never expected it when setting out that morning. Oh yeah, I did have fish and chips for lunch. So bad. So good.

Cheers!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Another Church???

Okay, so if you know me even a little bit you know that I'm not big on visiting churches or museums. I can definitely appreciate the architecture and the amount of work in them but they both tend to be a little too quiet and slow for me. I did the Egyptian museum in Cairo with my awesome guide in less than an hour and saw tons of amazing stuff. Unfortunately, Europe's full of both museums and old churches and you can't throw a stick without hitting one. Fortunately, I visited one cathedral in Cordoba that was very different and worthwhile to see.

Before this visit to Cordoba, which is located in the Andalusian province of southern Spain, all I knew of the place was Ricardo Montalban and his "Soft Corinthian Leather" commercials from when I was a kid. Well, Cordoba's a pretty cool small town with lots of history. It's been around for quite a while; first as a Roman city then later as the headquarters of the Islamic Caliphate. As with pretty much every town in Spain, Cordoba's centered around it's cathedral. What makes this one different is that is was an important mezquita (Spanish for mosque) originally built during the Caliphate that was later converted to a church. (Technically, there have always been temples or churches on the site but they were torn down to build the current building.) If it wasn't for the Christian imagery, crosses, and various Gothic touches, you'd think that you were in a mosque with beautiful Islamic architectural details.

Church tower? Check. Nothing too special here.


But wait, is this the typical door for your classic European Gothic cathedral? I think not...


So, once I got inside, I was truly surprised. The place has a layout like the mosques I had seen in Israel and Egypt but the styling is amazing. There are hundreds of columns topped with arches that are made from white and red stone.


It's only when you dig farther that you find Christian imagery like this cross:


In this photo, you can see the intersection of styles...the columns and arches from the Islamic mosque and the chapel and ceiling from the Gothic church:


You do eventually come to an alter that is in the same style as all other churches, but it's definitely not the highlight. Finally, here's another exterior photo of one of the doors to the building. You can clearly see the Arabic writing along with the Islamic styling, but above it all, you can see three "classic" Christian paintings.


With this great experience, you'd think that I'd be ready to visit the next 100 cathedrals/churches/chapels (just on the next block alone) but, alas, probably not. Well, actually, who knows. As with everything else, I'll keep my eyes open and see what happens.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Random Items From Granada

On Saturday I came across three random things that I wanted to share.

The first is a statue that I saw at the La Cartuja monastery that reminded me of the famous painting "The Scream" by Eduard Munch. An image of the painting is below followed by the photo of the statue. You decide if Munch owes someone royalty money...



Next was a somewhat disturbing (to me) piece of Catholic art. If you're not aware, Catholic art can be at times, well, fairly dark and violent. I've seen plenty of paintings and sculptures of martyrs that show the means of their death such as spears through the chest or axes in the head. With all of that, what I saw in the main cathedral of Grananda managed to surprise even me. Here's a photo of a sculpture of the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter:


Finally, I'm not 100% what this next image is. These guys were walking through the streets singing and yelling and generally having a good time. Since I saw a few different groups of young-ish guys (and one group of girls) in various types of dress, my guess is that it's some sort of bachelor party prank and looks like it was a lot of fun.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Alhambra (Granada, Spain)

This week finds our intrepid world traveler in the south of Spain starting with a visit to Granada to see the Alhambra and the Generalife.


The Alhambra is fortress/palace complex and the Generalife (hen-er-ul-lee-fee) is a series of royal gardens that are both on the top of a hill overlooking the town. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, as such, is rich in history and splendor that I didn't read about before I arrived... This didn't change the fact that I was wowed by what I saw. The place is silly with Islamic and Moorish architectural details along with pretty views.

Your first part of the visit is to the Generalife gardens. Here's a view from the Alhambra side:


The gardens are full of great plants and flowers along with some impressive water features. Here's a central fountain:


and my favorite, the handrail fountains that run down both sides of these stairs:


The Alhambra, on the other hand, is set up as a series of military fortifications, official-reception-style buildings, and a palace and associated grounds. This is an overview shot taken from one of the observation towers. The palace complex includes the smaller building on the left and extends behind it.


This is a shot of one of the reception areas that shows some of the details that are present in the complex. The entire wall is a series of tiny plaster sculptures, which you can see on the nearby column, along with beautiful tile work. The roof overhangs are very detailed as well.


Here's a shot of a central courtyard with another water feature. The place is full of both of them.


After walking through the palace buildings and grounds, you can climb up onto one of the towers (with the flags) to have a look over Granada. This is a shot of the tower and the next couple of photos were taken from there:


This is central Granada with the cathedral in the middle:

Here's part of the town that climbs up the hillside. I'm guessing that the local paint store doesn't have to carry too many different colors...


And here's a photo of one of the palace buildings just because I think it's nice...


On the way out of the grounds, I came across these ranunculus and thought of Carlsbad and the annual display.


Overall, the Alhambra is very impressive. It's funny but when I write about places like this, I find that I put in a ton of photos. As they say, photos don't do something like this justice. The architecture and details are amazing. If you're in the area, you need to stop by... :-)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Formula1 Street-Performance Art

I was out running some errands on Monday afternoon near the Sants train station in Barcelona when I came across some street-performance art for the upcoming Formula1 race.

As you may or may not know, Formula1 is fairly popular in Europe and Asia and the next race is in Barcelona in three weeks. I became a light-weight fan of Formula1 this past year and I'm planning on attending the race. Telefónica, the Spanish version of AT&T, is one of the main sponsors and they apparently paid for this performance.

The attached video shows two cars in a mock F1 race. The entire thing takes place during a single, one-minute-long red light at a fairly busy intersection. I saw them do the same performance three times while I was there and this is the best video I got:

video

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Things You See In A Japanese Airport

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This is a story from my trip to Japan in late December 2009...

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There are many things that you’ll encounter during your time in a Japanese airport that are interesting. Here are a few that I saw in the three airports that I was in over the course of two days.

Tokyo has two airports. The first is Narita and it's the main international airport that most people coming to Japan will go through. The second airport is Haneda and it serves mostly domestic flights. They are about one-and-a-half hours apart and you need to take a bus or train to get from one to the other.

The below picture shows the baggage claim area at Narita. What I find most interesting is that everyone is standing back to allow everyone else to see what luggage is coming around. When each person’s luggage gets to where they are, they step forward and pull their bag out. I compare this to the baggage claim area at pretty much every other airport in the world that I’ve ever been to and I’ve never seen one with such polite people. Gotta’ love ‘em!

In the Haneda airport, I was in the snack shop and saw these kids' Pikachu bento boxes. It’s the equivalent of a McDonald’s Happy Meal. This one contains corn and rice in an egg omelette, curry fried rice, fried chicken, and pizza-flavored fried bread. I think the “surprise” is some sort of fish cake. Yum! What I thought was cool is how it is wrapped in a Pikachu cloth.

After arrival at Nagasaki’s airport, I came across this giant bowl of Chanpon. Chanpon is a type of soup or stew that this area of Japan is known for. Chanpon roughly means "a mixture of all different things". In this case, it’s a combination of things like vegetables, pork, and seafood. It made me super hungry and I wasn’t satisfied until two days later when I finally had an amazing Chanpon in downtown Nagasaki at a mom-and-pop-style restaurant. I wish you all could have been there to enjoy it!

This last photo isn’t really that “Japanese-y” but I thought that it was an interesting and cool piece of sculpture. It was suspended from the ceiling in Haneda over the check-in area and is about 30 feet long and constructed of clear plastic.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Girona, Spain

I made a quick day-trip up to Girona, Spain this past Wednesday. It's located approximately half-way between Barcelona and the Spanish border with France. The train ride takes about one-and-one-half hours and has lovely scenery.

Girona is fairly small (~95,000 people) but has a few must-see sites including some restored Roman baths and a Gothic cathedral considered to be the finest example of that style in Spain. Several rivers flow through the town and there are lots of pretty bridge scenes like this one:


The "old city" is typical Euro-fare, stone-based buildings with cool architecture. There's an old Jewish neighborhood that has some neat shops and restaurants.


At the "central park", called Parc de la Devesa, you can see some nice installations, gardens, and the first signs of spring...


One of the cooler things in Girona is a bridge that was designed by Gustave Eiffel and built just before the Eiffel Tower:


Finally, some have asked me about where I'm living while in Spain. I took this shot on my way to the train station. It's a close approximation to my room in my apartment.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Six Weeks - Three Weeks - A Whole New World

It's been just over six weeks since I left California and three weeks since I left Philadelphia (and the U.S.). Wow--what a trip it's been!

Hmmm... What do I miss? As always, people are the first thing on the list. My family. My friends in California and Philadelphia. Second? Probably the food. Mexican from CA and the variety of pork products in PA. Oh yeah, pretzels and butter cake are in there too. Next, definitely driving the MINI! Oh I miss that crazy little car--the one I hate to love. After that, probably the weather in San Diego. You honestly can't beat it anywhere in the world (as far as I know).

So what am I grateful for here in Spain? The people (funny how that's always first). I've met some amazing, kind, and generous people during my short time in Barcelona. I've gotten invites to birthday parties, lunches/dinners, the next Formula1 race, a Barça (Barcelona's team) soccer game, a bull fight, and various other things. I'm amazed at how willing people have been to help me get adjusted and fit in. I am super indebted and eternally grateful!

Next? The opportunity to start fresh in a new place. I've learned over time that no matter where I go I'm still the same person but there's something nice about arriving in a new place with no baggage. "Learning the ropes" as they say has been great. Figuring out the bus and subways; where to buy stuff; where the good places are to eat; it's an amazing thing that I have. Once again, life's pretty good.

Remember that Ferris Bueller quote--"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it"? Well, I wouldn't have guessed that I'd be here, at this point, in this place, if you'd have asked me two months ago. I can't wait to see what the world holds for me in another two months, two years, and/or two decades. Until then, I'll continue to live life to the fullest, stop to look around regularly, and to be exceedingly grateful for the opportunity that I have.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Supermarket Run

Today's post isn't nearly as interesting as writing about the visiting the pyramids, checking out an Arab market, or seeing some Antoni Gaudi masterpiece. Rather, it's a mundane account of my trip to the supermarket and the lessons learned. Why in the heck would I write a nail-biter like this? Thanks for asking. I'll tell you.

I have a non-U.S.-born friend who told me this past year that I need to live outside the U.S. so that I can truly appreciate how the world is. (Note: I did spend two years living in Mexico but I came back to the U.S. regularly so my friend, and I, regard it as a part-time experience.) I think my friend was right but the reality is that living in Barcelona is probably akin to living in New York or any other large city in an apartment and without a car; just add in the complexity of a foreign language and a general unfamiliarity and you're pretty close to my new daily life. Wait, that probably applies to New York as well but...

So, yesterday morning I decided to head out to the local Mercadona supermarket. As the crow flies, it's maybe three-or-four miles from where I live. In California, I'd jump in the MINI and head to the local Vons market that was about the same distance away. It'd take me about four-to-five minutes to get there. I'd go in and shop for about 20-t0-30 minutes then head home. All in all, about a 40 minute trip at most; probably much less.

Here's an way-too-much-detail recount of my trip...

1:30pm: Grab grocery cart/bag and leave apartment. See photo below but I definitely feel like an old lady toting the cart/bag with me. To counteract this perceived defect, I tried to dress sporty and nice in a lame, middle-aged attempt to deflect attention from it. I'm sure I failed but...
1:42pm: Catch #27 bus out front of my apartment building.
2:03pm: Exit bus and walk four blocks to the market.
2:08pm: Arrive market.
2:10pm: Dig out 0.50 Euro coin and lock up shopping cart/bag. The cart/bag thing is so popular that they have a spot in the store where you can lock them. Yes, that's my stud machine right there...


2:11pm: Dig out 1 Euro coin and unlock shopping cart. Quick review--you need to have a 0.50 Euro coin and a 1 Euro coin with you when you arrive at the store.


From here, I took my list and went through the store to find all the items. Granted, it took a long time mostly because I had to go up and down each aisle at least twice to find what I was looking for. I'll probably cut at least 10 minutes off my next trip with my new-found knowledge of the store layout and a store-layout-optimized shopping list.

**Bonus** I found rebranded Jif peanut butter! Not the best in my opinion (transfat-loaded, if you must know) but I was happy to find this all-American-food staple at my local market. Now, if they'd carry Laura Scudder's (crunchy of course) I'd be in heaven.


I purchased about 20 items and it cost about 33 Euros ($45 U.S.). The food prices are definitely higher here in Spain than in the U.S. (FYI: the rebranded Jif was the most expensive item I purchased - approximately $5 for the "half-jar" size - Wow!)


2:50pm: Transfer food to my studly shopping cart/bag thingy and unlock. Get 0.50 Euro coin back. Return and re-lock shopping cart. Get 1 Euro coin back.
2:54pm: Walk five blocks to the bus stop. If you're paying attention, the bus goes "down" a one-way street and back "up" another in the other direction.

Oh yeah, it started raining at this point. Yum.

3:03pm: #27 Bus arrives at stop.
3:21pm: I get off the bus outside of my apartment building.
3:29pm: Back in the apartment and start unloading my cart/bag.

It took me 1 hour and 59 minutes round trip to buy $45 worth of food items. Note in the picture above that there's almost no over-sized or heavy stuff; just the basics. Fortunately, my roomie David loads up the family wagon once every other week to make the trip to the local Carrefour mega market so we can get all that stuff.

So, to my friend that told me to live outside the U.S. to experience how life is, here's my review:

Everything takes longer outside the U.S. than we're used to and it costs more with less selection.

Yes, I've truly appreciated living in the U.S. ever since my Mexico days but I definitely treasure the chance to have this experience. I hope it ends up making me a better person. If nothing else, I'm learning something new every day. Thanks!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Discúlpame, pero...habla español?

Excuse me, but...do you speak Spanish?

So I move to Barcelona thinking I can be all that and a bag of chips because I speak Spanish. Well, it seems that speaking Spanish doesn't really get you into the locals-only club since Catalan is the real locals language here. Actually, I knew this before I got here but I was surprised that almost all of daily life is conducted in Catalan and not in Spanish.

What is Catalan? To you and me in the English-speaking world, it's sort of a mash-up of Spanish and French words with a sort of Italian-esque sound. In language geek-speak, according to what is an unquestionably-accurate source (linky), there are around 7 million speakers of the language, it's based on Vulgar Latin (whatever that is), and was pretty much fully formed as a language around the 10th century. It's widely used in Catalunya, of which, Barcelona is a part. Catalunya also extends into southern France and the language can be heard there as well.

Interestingly enough, Catalan is just one of four official languages used in Spain. The others are:

Euskara--a very unusual language spoken by the Basque people on the norther border of Spain where it meets France.

Galician--roughly a combination of Portuguese and Spanish from the border area of Spain and Portugal

and, of course, Castilian--the widely recognized language of Spain.

Having daily interactions in a combination of Spanish and Catalan reminds me of when I first moved down to Merida, Mexico. At the time, when I was learning what I thought was Spanish, I was actually learning Spanish with a whole-buncha' Mayan language words mixed in. I didn't know until later which was which. I'm assuming it'll be the same this time.

Until then...discúlpame, solo hablo español y ingles... (forgive me, I only speak Spanish and English...)

(A big gracias to Marcos, a Catalan local and new friend, for the language education.)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Montserrat

Saturday marked my first official compañero-del-piso (roommate) road trip. We loaded up David's car around 10am, stopped on the way for Ana Lucia--a good friend of Diana's, and were off to visit Montserrat.



The famous mountain, for which the Caribbean island is named, is located about 45 minutes north of Barcelona. Driving on the road towards the mountain, and the mountain itself, remind me very much of the foothills of inland Santa Barbara county in California (complete with a bunch of wineries too). Montserrat, which means "jagged mountain" in Catalan, is strikingly rugged looking from a distance and gets even prettier as you get closer.


Parking was challenging since it was a holiday weekend but David's off-road skills were well polished. We walked around the grounds of the old abbey including into the church for about an hour or so. The architecture and views are quite a sight.


As a HUGE fan of Monty Python's The Holy Grail, I was excited to visit one of the sites believed by some to be the location of the holy grail itself:


We then went and ate lunch at the restaurant where we enjoyed what ended up being a really good paella and bottle of wine for a great price. To work off the lunch largess, we decided to go for a hike up the mountain to a look-out point. About 30 minutes later, we stopped for some photos at a spot where, in the center of the photo below (in the opening between the two mountains), you can see Barcelona.


As we were leaving I must have felt a little tired because, to me at that point, the symbol of Montserrat on the sign below looks suspiciously like when someone gives you the middle finger. Of course, maybe it's just meant for Americans as the monks' way of saying goodbye? :-)

Monday, April 5, 2010

Semana Santa

Semana Santa, known as Holy Week in the U.S., is a pretty big deal here in Spain. Lots of people are on vacation and everything is closed on the Friday before and the Monday after Easter. There are parades and celebrations of varying sizes all over the country to remember the death and rising-from-the-dead of Jesus. Barcelona seems to be more secular than other Spanish cities so there are fewer large-scale festivities to see but I did get to go to one smallish event on Friday that took place at the Barcelona Cathedral.

El Sermón de las Siete Palabras (The Sermon of the Seven Words) is done on every Good Friday. It starts with a team of people carrying a platform that has a crucifix mounted on top. They walk about a block to the front of the cathedral where a large crowd has gathered.


A series of priests do readings from the various bible passages that quote the seven different things it is believed that Jesus said while on the cross before his death. These include (in summary): why don't they understand what they've done, I'm thirsty, and into your hands I commend my spirit. (yes, I had to look it up...)


Other cities in Spain, as I mentioned, and around the world have much larger events that take place. Maybe I'll try to hit one of the bigger ones somewhere else next year. :-)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Conveyor-Belt Sushi

This past Wednesday I went for lunch at a local Japanese restaurant here in Barcelona that offers both traditional (order from a menu) seating as well as sitting at a table served by a conveyor belt. I decided to try out the conveyor option.

If you've never been to conveyor-served sushi place, they're kinda' fun. The food usually isn't that good (think buffet quality) but it's entertaining to make a selection as it passes by your seat. I liken it to being a hunter out in the field where you get to shoot whatever passes by your hide. In most places, your bill is totaled from the quantity and color of plates you've selected where each color represents a different price level. In this case, it was an all-you-can-eat, buffet-style price.


I've been to conveyor places in the U.S., Japan, and now Spain. The best one that I've gone to, believe it or not, was not in Japan but rather at Kura Sushi in Costa Mesa, California. I think this was the case partly because it was always busy, which meant that the food was fresher. I do remember going to one while in Nagasaki that was particularly good and I definitely want to try out one of the bigger ones in Tokyo if I'm ever there again.

As with pretty much all the "sushi" places that I've been to in the U.S., the Barcelona one was owned and operated by Koreans. It was funny to be an American in a Japanese restaurant operated by Koreans while in Spain. Domo arigato Señor Roboto anyone?