Friday, October 28, 2011

Bicing: Barcelona's Bicycle Sharing Program

While in California this past August and September I spent some time looking to buy a new (or used via Craigslist) bicycle to bring back to Spain with me. The last bike I had was a very fun Cannondale mountain bike, which I sold to a friend from Calgary about four years ago, and I've wanted another one ever since but never really felt like spending the money. I love the idea of being able to cruise around Barcelona on a bike rather than taking the bus/metro everywhere and my past roommate David has a mountain bike and it'd be fun to hit the hills around surrounding the city with him. The city has built an extensive network of separated bike lanes like the ones in the photo below that make getting around on bike relatively safe considering the amount of traffic on the roads.

Buying a new bike in Spain is pretty much out of the question since, like most things here, they are very expensive. The same bike costs at least 30 percent more (as do lots of things) in Spain than in the United States so that's why I was keeping my eye out for something while I was back. I came close during September when I was up in Los Angeles visiting my friends John John and Stacey because I saw pretty much the bike that I wanted in a store right across the street from Stacey's brand new office near Manhattan Beach. But, since I've been trying to spend money only on food, housing, and travel, a couple-of-thousand-dollar bike just didn't fit with the having to carry it around the world...

Fast forward about a month or so and I'm getting settled in to the new apartment when Vladimir offers to let me use his extra membership for Bicing (pronounced: bee-sing), Barcelona's publicly-supported bicycle-sharing program. I was stoked to say the least to finally be able to get out and around on a bike again!

Bicing is an alternative transit system for people from Barcelona (as opposed to a tourist-type bike rental program). You register online, pay 30 euros per year (approximately $42 U.S.), and receive a card in the mail that gives you almost unlimited access to the system. Spread throughout the city at strategic locations, near metro stations for example, you find metal racks with around 20 red bicycles attached to them. Taking a bike is as easy as waving your membership card in front of the sensor below the information screen (the blue LCD on the left in the photo below). The system assigns you one of the bikes on the rack and automatically unlocks it allowing you to remove it for use.

Your 30 euros per year gets you access to any available bike for one-half hour "for free". After that half hour, you pay about a euro per hour up to two hours. Because the system is really meant for short trips around town, I find it difficult to keep a bike for more than like 20 minutes and that's when I ride home from the gym. The map below shows where all the Bicing stations are. There are a ton!

The downside of the system is that it's popular :-) and sometimes the stands have no bikes available. I've only run into this problem a couple of times but all I had to do was just walk a couple of blocks to another stand. They have an app for your smartphone that shows you nearby locations with bikes available as well as available space to return bikes, which helps cut down on having to "look" for a bike.

The other problem that I've run into is occasional mechanical problems with the bikes but it's been maybe 10% so far and only once did it make the bike unusable. Maintenance of the system is done by technicians in roving vans pulling trailers full of bikes. They apparently get automatically notified of stations that are full, stations that are empty (or nearing empty), and bikes that have problems. The techs then move the bikes around and make repairs as needed.

A view of the bike lanes out front of my apartment:

Overall, I've been super impressed with the system. In a way, Bicing reminds me of the public book kiosks that I saw in Frankfort Germany earlier this year in that it's a cool system that's success depends greatly on the "maturity" of the people using it. Combined with the nice separated bike lanes, getting around via Bicing has been great. I love that it's uber cheap, very convenient, and that I am able to check out the city "above ground" for a change. And, the best part about cruising around on Bicing? It didn't cost me like two grand!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

At The Vermouth Bar With Vladimir...And Why Drinking On Sunday Morning Is Good

I mentioned in my last story about moving to a new apartment and how I love the new neighborhood that I live in. Everything that a person could need is probably located within a five-block radius. It makes me begin to understand how people can live in a place like New York City, which I wouldn't have even considered in the past. But this story's not about NYC but rather about how some things just give you that little kick once in a while.

So last Sunday morning the three of us were up early just hanging out eating our (new) customary Sunday-croissant-and-coffee breakfast when Vladimir asked me if I wanted to go for a vermouth. What? A vermouth? On Sunday morning??? Actually, I didn't even question it because my first reaction when someone asks me to do something is to say "YES!!!" no matter what it is (like when my friend Ruma asked me to go to with her and her daughter to Israel for her brother's wedding last year--an unexpectedly amazing time!!!) . I've learned that the best things happen when you least expect them and one way to make sure that more unexpected things happen is to say yes when someone asks you to do something. And off we went to a vermouth bar about two blocks away to have my first-ever vermouth:

I didn't know it at the time but going for a Sunday-morning vermouth is a tradition in Spain. If someone asks you to go get a vermouth, it's really an invitation to spend some time together just hanging out and talking. Family members and/or friends will go enjoy an aperitif before lunch at a local bar or restaurant (remember that lunch is usually 2pm or later here). I also didn't ever think of having "straight-up" vermouth as a drink because I've always thought of it as something that you wet a martini glass with before adding the vodka. (My dad has always said that the best martinis are when the glass is only wetted - is that a word? - down with the vermouth before you add the vodka; no more or you ruin the drink.) Anyway, at my local vermouth bar, they drink their vermouth on the rocks with a couple of olives and an orange twist:

The pub/bar/restaurant is called the Gran Bodego Elkano No. 45 (the 45 is the address - not at all like Roberto's or the other Mexican restaurants in California where they number them sequentially) and it's for sure an interesting place. It's decorated in what I'd call "early Spanish garage sale" in that every square inch of the place has pictures and knick-knacks (and maybe some junk...) hung on it:

Vladimir's a bit of a local in the place, which is truly amazing when you consider that it's a hardcore SPANISH bar, not Catalan but actual Spanish as in everyone there was speaking Spanish. I know that might sound a bit strange being that we're in Spain but, in case you're not familiar with Barcelona, the local language here is Catalan and it's verrrry rare to go to a place where the locals are NOT speaking Catalan (for background, go back to my stories about the Catalan language and/or Catalan independence movement). Everyone there was from central or southern Spain and we were definitely the only foreigners so, like I said, Vladimir fitting in is quite the compliment to his style and personality. Here's everyone's favorite Bolivian enjoying the Charcuteria (meat and cheese) platter with his vermouth under the watchful eye of Franco (!!!) (top, left-hand corner):

I'm a pretty lucky guy, I know. I'm having quite the adventure. Experiences and days like this one give me a nice little reminder of how lucky I am. I could have never, in a million years, thought that I'd find myself with a way-too-smart Bolivian somewhere in a traditional (Spanish) bar in Catalunya Spain eating a plate full of processed meats and a bunch of cheeses drinking vermouth on the rocks on a Sunday morning:

Whoever believes that drinking on a Sunday morning isn't a good thing probably hasn't had the adventure I'm having. For this, and a few other reasons, I think it's good to occasionally drink on a Sunday morning. SALUD!!!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Moving On Up...To A Deluxe Apartment In The Sky

Getting married hasn't been the only recent major change in my life. Just a few days after the wedding and my family went back to the U.S., Diana and I moved from our old apartment in the Vall d'Hebron area of Barcelona to a new place over in Poble Sec. We'll definitely miss living with our good friend David, who's one of the best roommates that you could ever wish for, but the landlord decided that she wanted to move back in to the apartment so we had to go.

Our old place was on the far northwestern edge of the city right up against the mountains that separate Barcelona city from the suburbs beyond. As far as the crow flies, it's not far from the center of the city-maybe just a few miles-but in terms of super-dense Barcelona, it might as well be the moon. Our new place, on the other hand, is only about a five minute walk from both the Mediterranean and La Rambla. This map shows the relative location of both apartments:

The old place was nice and affordable. We had great metro access right in front of our building, which meant that we could get almost anywhere in the city in about 20 minutes. Another positive was that the area was quiet. But...if you were to guess that being in a "nice and affordable" apartment "on the edge of the city" in a "quiet area" probably isn't the coolest place in the city to live, you'd be correct. This is what the street in front of our building looked like about 99% of the time (cue the crickets):

Not much there but it was a great place to live, believe it or not. A note on the construction you see in the photo. The metro station at Vall d'Hebron has been under construction for about 350 years now according to local legend. I wrote a story about it in July of 2010 and they're still working on it!

Anyway, the timing couldn't have been more perfect as it turns out. It just so happens that Diana's past roommate and long-time friend Vladimir heard that we needed a place and offered us the extra bedroom in his recently remodeled apartment. The only's a sixth-floor apartment in an old building that doesn't have an elevator. Yep, moving our stuff in would require us To.Carry.Every.Single.Thing.We.Own.Up.Six.Flights.Of.Stairs:

But, as with most things you have to work a bit for, you appreciate the climb once you're on Vladimir's rooftop patio. Like the theme song from the 70's television show The Jeffersons, we're moving on a deluxe apartment in the sky:

The patio is huge and has a great view of the city. In the photo below you can see in the distance Tibidabo mountain and Collserola tower to the left and the Sagrada Familia to the right:

Right out front of the building is the Plaza del Molina (unofficially) named for the Teatro El Molino (The Windmill Theater), which is a local landmark:

It's a nice little park that was recently built when the city blocked off part of the street and turned the area into a pedestrian plaza (Note the difference in the number of people walking around the neighborhood as compared to the photo in front of our old building above.):

Vladimir's apartment is located in the middle of an area that is called Parallel (for the main street that runs through the area) on one side and Poble Sec (which means "dry area" or "dry town" since water wasn't plumbed in for many years) on the other. The area was one of the parts of the city that was originally developed after the defensive wall surrounding Barcelona started to be knocked down in the mid-1800s. I personally think they should change the area's name to "Internet Sec" since they still haven't plumbed in high-speed internet yet. We're still on DSL here folks!!! :-)

Most of the population was made up of the working class people of the city and it still seems to be that way today with working-class immigrants from all over the world. From what I've seen and experienced, you can hear almost every language spoken today if you wait long enough outside our building. Just this past Sunday, through a bit of good timing, Diana, Vladimir, and I ended up out front of the building at the same time and decided to do a little "comiendo pueblo" (a expression from Colombia meaning "to watch and talk about the people in the area"). Yep, we were people watching for about 30 minutes and loving it...

I absolutely love the neighborhood. Everything that we might need is within a couple of blocks. I can't even begin to count the number of restaurants that are on our block alone much less within walking distance. I'm guessing that there are four different hardware stores and maybe 25 fruit and vegetable stores within one block. It's a huge change from our old place where we only had a couple of supermarkets nearby. I really like the variety and have set a personal goal (it's good to have goals...) to try at least one new local restaurant each week.

Did I mention the patio? One of the things that I wasn't happy with in our old apartment was that there was no outdoor space. We had a small balcony that was mostly taken up by laundry and storage but there were still windows and it never really felt like you were outside. Our new patio, on the other hand, is huge and lovely. In this view, you can (just barely) see the water, which is only about five blocks away, right in the center of the photo:

We're definitely enjoying both the apartment and all the outdoor space and have been using it as much as possible. In the couple of weeks that we've lived here, I think there have been three barbecues and at least two other dinner parties. Thanks Vladimir for inviting us into your home and making us feel welcome!

(Thanks Pau for the local history info.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Hanging With The Family In Barcelona

A side benefit of the wedding was that I got to spend time with some of my family here in Spain. My dad and Ginny, who were here in the spring were able to come back. This time, my sister Jackie, brother Kevin, brother-in-law Larry, and sister-in-law Zahra also came. Say hola to our fearless world travelers on the airport-to-city bus right after their early-morning arrival into the Barcelona airport:

Because the apartment we rented wouldn't be available until around 3pm, we all headed to our place in Vall d'Hebron. We hung out there for a few hours while everyone took showers and some much needed naps. Diana made us lunch before we went out to see some of the city. Unfortunately, it was raining a little bit that day but we still managed to make our way around. We stopped at the Barcelona cathedral and then took a walk over to the Santa Maria Del Mar church, which is one of my faves:

After seeing the inside of both churches, we took a walk through Parc de la Ciutadella and stopped to take a photo in front of one of Gaudi's first public-works projects:

From there, we went back to Vall d'Hebron to pick up the luggage and go check in at the apartment. Later that night, Pau and Vladimir met up with us for some tapas at Sagardi:

Note that my dad, Larry, and Diana aren't in the photo above. Diana was able to score some tickets for the three of them to see Barça play Athletico de Madrid that night. Lucky them!

Pau was nice enough to take Kevin, Zahra, Jackie, and Larry over to Princesa 23, one of our favorite adult-beverage establishments, so that Diana and I could go back to the apartment and do some last-minute wedding prep. I'm not sure what time they got back to the apartment but they apparently had a great time.

The next day was Friday and we had wedding stuff to do pretty much all day. Later that night, after the reception, we did have a chance to go out for a round of drinks near to the apartment. Here are the newlyweds on their first night out on the town:

I was super excited that everyone would be here during the last weekend of September for Barcelona's Merce festival. I wasn't here for it last year so I was really looking forward to it this year. The Merce is the celebration of the city's patron saint during which Los Gigantes (the giants) make appearances on the streets of the city:

The weekend's festivities also include displays by the Castellers, which are teams of people who build "multistory" columns of humans. Unfortunately, some of the events were rained out this year so we missed seeing the Castellers. (Stay tuned for a "real" story about the Merce next year...)

Sunday's weather was much more cooperative so we decided to take a walk from the apartment over to see the incredible Casa Batllo:

From there, we walked down Passeig de Gracia and then down La Rambla to experience some local Barcelona flavor. Passeig de Gracia is Barcelona's high-end-shopping street while the nearby Rambla reminds me a lot of Venice Beach in California because you see a good cross section of the local population along with a ton of tourists. There are always a lot of street performers, people watching, and other stuff to check out.

On La Rambla, one of the most popular street performances is the "human statue" where people dress up in some kind of costume and pose for long periods of time to look like a statue. They only move when someone deposits some money into their cup (or to yell at folks taking photos and not putting money in...). I'm guessing that part of the popularity is due to the low barrier to entry...

After lunch on La Rambla, we took the metro back up to La Pedrera where we had taken our wedding photos just two days prior. This is Jackie and Larry up on the roof:

...and Zahra and Kevin near the first-floor entry:

We finished up the weekend by attending a fireworks show in Plaza Espana along with 140,000 of our closest friends. It was quite a show:

The short weekend was bittersweet for me. Of course I got married and the wedding and everything else was great. It was so nice that some of my family could make it for the big event. The bummer was that they were only able to be here for a few days. Oh well, I'll take all the time I can get and enjoy every minute of it! Thanks guys for making the trip over. I love you all so much and I can't wait to have you visit again. See you again soon!

(Thanks also to Diana who took most of the group shots.)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Reception

I can't believe that I've been posting stories about the wedding for almost a month now! Maybe you can't either...but's story is probably the last in the "series" since it's about the reception. That's good because I'm ready to get back to posting about food, wine, or some other critically important idea... :-)

Like the wedding itself, we wanted to keep the reception simple. I originally wanted to have the wedding mass out at the church at Colonia Guell, a Gaudi-designed building that's my favorite of his. We could have done it there but it would have introduced a whole bunch of logistical challenges to the day since Colonia Guell itself is about a half hour from Barcelona's city center via car. It would have required renting at least one bus to take everyone out there for the ceremony and then back for the reception. Yuck...too much just didn't fit with the K.I.S.S. goal we had. So, in the end, we decided to hold the wedding and reception on La Rambla Catalunya within a couple of blocks of each other.

Diana and I chose to do the reception at El Glop restaurant, which is one of our favorites here in Barcelona. (El Glop means "a gulp" in Catalan.) When you arrive, it doesn't look like much; just another bar-style place, which there seem to be maybe ten on each block. Nope. The magic happens when you go down the steps to the basement where traditional Catalan architecture and (great) food can be found.

A funny side story... Diana and I, on the Monday following the Saturday we got engaged, met with Xavi the priest, the priest at San Ramon de Penyafort (the church where we did the wedding), and the manager of the restaurant and had all three coordinated/arranged within about an hour of each other. All part of the K.I.S.S. program!

Diana and I got to the restaurant about 30 minutes later than planned due to our long stop at La Pedrera for the wedding photos. Right after we arrived, we did a cava (Spanish sparkling wine) toast:

...with our family and friends in attendance:

This one's not during the toast but it shows the guests on the other side of the room along with some of the architecture of the space:

Dinner was a set-menu choice of a barbecued-meat combo or a salmon steak. I loved the barbecue combination and never got to try the fish. Lots of wine and cava were drunk and people seemed to have a good time. (A plug for El gotta' go there and get the arroz negro for lunch one day...yum!)

Right after the main course was cleared, Victor got up and read the three poems (one each in English, Spanish, and Catalan) that he had written for Diana:

Diana then did the bouquet toss. There were about eight young ladies vying for the flowers with Paula, one of Diana's friends who is also from Colombia, getting the prize. I love this photo because she seems so happy and her boyfriend seems a bit terrified at the sight of the flowers:

Later in the evening, Diana's friend (and our wedding priest) Xavi led everyone in a sing along while he played guitar. He did about ten songs in all, everything from Mariachi to traditional rock 'n' roll.

What wedding reception would be complete without the official cutting of the cake? Obviously not ours!

Everyone's been to enough weddings to know that there are good tables and not so good tables to be at. Our reception had "sleeper" (in a good way) tables like the one where folks from Diana's church sat with Gema, Olga, and their sigots (significant others) but the award for the table that looked to be the most fun definitely goes to this one. Congrats to Victor, Vladimir, Nadia, Marcos, and Leiris for killing at least a bottle of wine each and for showing us all a thing or two on how to have an awesome time at a wedding and reception!

Wow. I can't believe it. I'm married. Whoda' guessed? Certainly not me. But, it's good so far and I'm confident that it'll continue that way. Thanks to my family who came over from Philadelphia, our friends here in Barcelona, Diana's family back in Colombia, our extended families and friends in the United States and Colombia, Xavi, the mystery guy who got us into La Pedrera for our photos, and the gracious folks at El Glop.

Thanks also to my beautiful bride Diana. I love you very much! Here's to a long, happy, and, very importantly, fun life together!!!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Lucky Break: Getting Our Gaudi On

After the wedding and taking some photos out in front of the church, we decided to take a walk over to the nearby Passeig de Gracia and La Pedrera to take some more "trad" wedding photos. Diana and I were just having a bunch of fun but David, our official photographer and good friend, along with the videographer were working away snapping pictures and shooting video as we went. I liked this Abbey Road style one with the Barcelona tourist bus in the background:

A common wedding photo spot is to stop at the Pere Falques designed benches that run along the avenue (no, they weren't designed by Gaudi). This Catalan modernist architect also designed the similarly cool lamps that run along Avenida Gaudi near the Sagrada Familia. Anyway, this is our version...

...and a lovely sweet:

I wanted this one where we were "waiting for a bus" at this stop:

So, what about the lucky break that I mention in the title? The original plan when we left the church was to walk around Passeig de Gracia and maybe stop out front of La Pedrera. When we got over to La Pedrera, Diana asked the person at the door if we could go inside the ground-floor courtyard to get a couple of pictures. The girl said that there was a special event going on so we couldn't go in.

Oh well, we thought. We walked over to the side of the building to take some photos when a man in a suit approached us and asked if we wanted to go in. It turns out that he must have been someone fairly important as he guided us right past security, into a private elevator, and up to his huge office that overlooks Passeig de Gracia! SCORE!!! Not only did we get in, we got the VIP treatment along the way. Taking advantage of the situation (of course), we took a bunch of photos inside his office including this one sitting on one of Gaudi's two-person benches:

The guy's office was pretty amazing but it wasn't until he showed us the door to his private balcony (!!!) that we knew how truly lucky we were. This is one of those cases where I have maybe 10 different photos that I'd like to put in this post but knew that I had to choose just one. I liked this one because it shows the facade of the building, the iron railing, a little view of the street beyond, and, surprise, a small statue of the La Moreneta (that chick is everywhere) along with Diana's bouquet:

After what seemed like about three minutes to me and probably like a half-hour for the man who was super nice to us that day, he took us up a back stairway to the attic, which is probably my favorite part of the building. The only thing that makes Gaudi's undulating brick catenary arches look even better is the happy newlyweds under them! :-)

We spent probably ten or 15 minutes taking photos in the attic before going up to the roof. If you've ever visited La Pedrera, you know that the space looks like something out of Star Wars:

While up the roof, the wind picked up a bit at one point and made Diana's veil fly around. For some reason that I'll probably never be able to explain, it made me think of the plastic-bag scene in the movie American Beauty. Watching her veil in the wind was very beautiful and I think this photo captures the moment:

Like I said, our friend David did a great job making us pose for some "traditional" types of photos that we probably wouldn't have done. I liked this one in front of who-knows-what-it-is:

It looks like we're dancing or something in this photo but I can promise you we're not. I like it because it shows a bit of the roof, some of the other buildings in the area, the pretty sky, the video guy, and our former roommate David:

I like how he framed this one and how you can see the scale of Gaudi's crazy chimneys:

And finally, a nice happy-couple shot with the Sagrada Familia in the background:

How lucky is that? Not only getting in to La Pedrera but also getting the private tour and the opportunity to hang out there for about an hour taking photos. Sorry again to all the guests who had to wait at the restaurant for us to get back but the photos and the experience were definitely worth it!