Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Rockin' Thanksgiving With Victor!

I can't believe another year's gone by and it's Thanksgiving time again. Last Thanksgiving, I was lucky enough to be back with the family in Philadelphia but this year it was Thanksgiving Barcelona style!

But wait, Thanksgiving's a purely American holiday you say? What's a gringo to do when it's time for turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and most importantly, pumpkin pie when he's in the land of sangria and tapas? Get yourself invited to Thanksgiving the local HARDROCK CAFE (!!!) your friend Victor who spent his formative years in Florida.

Yep, the Barcelona Hard Rock Cafe offers a special "Thanksgiving Dinner" fixed-price meal that includes turkey with gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, string beans, cranberry sauce, and wine (we are in Spain after all):

Even if it wasn't my picture-perfect venue for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, the food (and the company too!) was surprisingly good, especially since we were at least 3500 miles from the United States. The highlight for me, though, was that they served what they called pumpkin pie but what I'd call a dense pumpkin cake. It was a bit sweet and not really too pie-like but it was really good. Diana was even kind enough to let me eat about a third of hers too. Pumpkin pie has to be one of my biggest addictions! Yum!!!

Thanks to Victor for taking us to Thanksgiving dinner this year. It was a rockin' good time!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Do You Want To Touch The Sky? (Castellers)

Vols tocar el cel?

Yeah, my Catalan is a bit rough too. It translates to "Do you want to touch the sky?"

About 150 years ago or so people in the Tarragona region of Catalunya (not far from Barcelona) started engaging in Michael-Jackson-style street battles like in his Beat It video. But instead of tying their hands together with a silk ribbon and dancing in circles with knives, they built human "castles". The Castellers (pronounced "cass-tay-yehrz" and meaning "castle builder"), continue the tradition to this day. This past Sunday, after over a year of waiting, I finally got my chance to see it for myself.

The event took place as part of a festival in the Gracia neighborhood of Barcelona. Over the course of the year, each neighborhood has a big festival kinda' like a street fair that we'd have in the U.S. There's food, music, and lots of other stuff too. Finding the plaza where the Castellers were going to "perform" wasn't difficult as spotting them on the Metro in their tell-tale white pants and colored shirts was, umm, really easy. The Plaza del Sol was jam-packed with different groups each getting ready.

Each Casteller wraps a wide strip of cloth around their waist to provide support for building the castles. I noticed that each group was very tight-knit and that everyone was talking with everyone else while helping each other wrap up their waists.

Just before noon, the Colles (groups) started leaving the Plaza del Sol and walking down a nearby street on their way to the Plaza de la Vila de Gracia where the main event would take place. On the way, each group built their first castle in the tightly-packed side street. My first official Castellers event!!!

During the construction, each Colle's musical group would play a tune. They're sort of like a minstrel band and they play flute-like instruments and drums. I later found out that they are playing a sort-of Casteller's theme song called the "toc de castels" (castle song) and that they begin to play the tune as the castle construction reaches a certain level, which depends on the castle design and overall height, and continue until the castle is disassembled. There's also apparently a "toc de vermut" that's played at the end of the event that signifies that it's time to go have a vermouth...on Sunday morning!

Once the procession to the other plaza was done, the Colles each took turns building castles. When you look at the photos and videos below, keep in mind how tall these things really are and how much all those people must weigh! This was a three-people-by-seven-level castle built by the Castellers de Barcelona, a Colle from near the center of town:

Diana and I met up with our friend Bea who is an awesome photographer. She was kind enough to let me use a couple of her pictures. I like her photos because they have a very different composition from my typical photos. I particularly like this close up of the connection between the first and second levels of a castle showing how many people and the type of teamwork involved in building them:

The castles were...WOW! Watching how the structures are assembled and how the folks who climb up the outside to the upper levels move is pretty amazing. At the base, called the "piƱa" (pineapple), are lots of "regular" folks who form the support for the upper levels. The next couple of levels were mostly burly dudes. After that, it was mostly women and then younger girls.

The whole thing is topped off by a small child wearing a helmet called a Enxaneta (pronounced "en-sha-net-ta"). He or she, upon arriving at the top of the castle, extends their hand towards the sky to salute the other words..."Tocando el cel" (touching the sky)!

The photo above is another one of Bea's.

I know I'm a bit crazy here but...I'm addicted! I want to be a Casteller! I don't know why...I just do. Let's see what happens!

And finally, I took some video that really shows what's going on. The first is the Colle de Poble Sec who are from the neighborhood where I live.

The next video is the Colle from Granollers, which is located about a half-hour north of Barcelona:

And finally, yes, the castles do fall. It's rare for serious injuries to occur but there were definitely some (relatively) minor injuries this week. This video shows the collapse of the one of the castles of the Castellers de Barcelona:

It was super fun hanging out with Diana, Bea, Lena, and Toni for the day. See if you can find everyone in this photo:

After we left the Castellers, we went for a great lunch at La Paradeta seafood restaurant. I took my family there when they came to Barcelona for the wedding. Thanks to Bea for letting me use the photos and everyone make sure to keep an eye out for a gringo Casteller trying to tocar el cel!

Monday, November 21, 2011


Okay, so you're about to travel to somewhere that you've never been before. It could be for a day or two or even forever. You don't know anyone and you don't know anything about the place. You have no idea even where to start. What do you do?

What if I told you that there was a website where you can find somewhere to sleep (for free), learn about places to eat, make a friend or two to hang out with while you're there, and get a bunch of recommendations on what to do? Yes. Something like this really does exist. It's called and it's MAGICAL!!!

I've had an account for about a two years now and I love it. The first time I used it was when Diana and I went to China last year and we were looking for some locals to meet up with while we there. We ended up hanging out at a comedy club with a Colombian expat living in Beijing and had a fabulous dinner with an Australian woman and her Chinese husband when we were visiting the Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an. Both "dates" were a ton of fun and we did things and met people we wouldn't have ever been able to do otherwise. This is us with Natalia in Beijing last year:

In case you're not familiar with CouchSurfing, it's a website where you create a profile and let people know if you have a couch or spare room they can use when visiting your town. You also have the option to set your profile to "Coffee or a drink" if you're not crazy about the idea of having people you don't know sleeping on your couch. They do have a eBay-like feedback system where people have the chance to give others the thumbs-up or thumbs-down, which, along with a detailed profile that users fill out, helps to reduce the likelihood of a really bad experience. The website is used by all types of folks--from low-budget backpacker types to people just looking to have a more "locals" experience. Diana and I are registered as "several people", which shows that we are a couple when you do a search for places to stay or people to meet up with.

The reason I'm finally writing about CouchSurfing is that just this past week we had another great CouchSurfing experience. This time it was with a couple (Toni and Lena) from northern Sweden that are staying in Barcelona for about two months while attending Spanish-language school. We had exchanged a few emails and finally met up to wander around Poble Sec (our neighborhood) for a bit and then come back to the apartment for tapas and wine. They're here learning Spanish so we made them speak mostly in Spanish with us even though their English is also really good.

During the course of the night, they told us about their hometown and about how they can see the northern lights, especially when it's really cold out. I think the scariest thing that they told us though was that the record low temperature for their town was something like -42 degrees Celsius (-44 degrees Fahrenheit!!!). I'm sure that when it's only like, oh, I don't know, 0 degrees, that people are out in their summer clothes... And, as with everyone that I know from Sweden (three people now), the conversation eventually turned to IKEA and Lingonberry jam!!! We even pulled out the recent catalog and talked about all the product names being places in Sweden. Too funny!

It was a fun time and definitely makes me want to do even more CouchSurfing.

Muchas gracias Lena y Toni! Let's do it again soon!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

48 Hour Open House Barcelona - Day 2

Day 2 of the 48 Hour Open House Barcelona (48H) started out a bit earlier than Day 1 because we wanted to see even more buildings if possible. At about 11am we were out in front of the Antiga Fabrica de Estrella Damm (Old Estrella Damm Factory) where they used to brew Estrella Damm beer before moving production to a more modern facility. The buildings now seem to mostly serve as offices and an on-site museum.

I've been to a ton of different factories all over the world and I love visiting them. The Damm factory was built in 1905 and is brick on the outside with traditional Catalan architectural features inside. The highlight of the building is just inside the main entry area where they have some of the old stills on display. It reminds me of the whiskey factories I've visited in Scotland and Ireland. Oh, and yes, that's Vladimir with a "sample" 11:30am. Gotta' love drinking on Sunday mornings!!!

The area under the stills has been turned into an industrial-themed museum and visitors' center. They've left the plumbing in place that was used in the brewing process, which is very cool to see.

One of my favorite parts of the museum is an area where they have the original artwork for their old advertisements. The ads are from waaaay before the days of computers and you can see the pen and ink work of the artists along with the pre-production (camera ready) cut-and-paste artwork. By far my favorite ad was this one with some Castellers drinking Estrella Damm while watching other Castellers building a human castle. The ad says "The beer of our land".

On the way out of the Damm factory, I spotted this beer-bottle chandelier hanging in one of the rooms. For some reason, it reminded of when I was a kid and my dad had a hat that was made from pieces of Budweiser beer cans that were crocheted together (sorry, no picture). The 70s must have been a crazy time!

Our next stop was at Casa Perez Samanillo, which is also known as the Circulo Ecuestre (Equestrian Circle club). Originally built in 1910 as a single-family home, it was converted into a businessman's social club in 1948. It's a combination of French and Modernist architectural styles and is impressive especially when viewed from Avinguda Diagonal. If you look at the photo closely, you'll see a very large mushroom shaped window on the first floor of the left side of the building, which is probably its signature feature.

Inside, the original rooms off the living room have been turned into a bar/cafe, meeting rooms, and a couple of libraries. Everything is ornate and highly detailed.

There are lots of interesting architectural details on the inside but the most striking are the grand curved staircase and a large stained-glass window, both shown in the photo below (although I couldn't manage to get the lighting right to be able to see the stained glass).

The Perez Samanillo house is an example of one of the buildings open during the 48H that's not normally open to the public during the rest of the year. The line to get in was a little over an hour long but it was worth it. We ran into Pau's parents in the line who were going to let us cut in with them but we were afraid that we'd get strung up by the 150 potentially angry Catalans behind them so we politely declined and went to the back of the line...and waited...and waited... One last photo shows the former living room taken from the top of the winding stair case.

Diana headed back to the house after we left the Perez Samanillo house and Vladimir and I decided to make our last stop of the tour the Parc De Recerca Biomedica De Barcelona (PRBB - Barcelona Biomedical Research Park). This modern steel research building is notable for its Pac-Man shape and its wooden facade. Seen from the side, it reminds me a little of the Jawa transport vehicle from Star Wars.

The tour covered only the exterior of the building since the inside is an active R&D center. It's designed to make use of lots of natural light and to have spaces to gather outside. There's even an outdoor conference "room" area at the end of one of the floors complete with tables, chairs, and a whiteboard.

While we were there, Vladimir borrowed my camera to take some photos of the architectural details of the building. I was checking out the views when he got this photo unbeknownst to me. I'm going to include it as part of my modeling portfolio! :-D

The whole building is very impressive and I like the way that they've taken advantage the building's location (right next to the Mediterranean) by having the center "hallway", complete with a large reflecting pool, open towards the sea. The bonus of getting to see a rainbow while there was just icing on the cake for a great weekend of architectural site seeing.

The tours and the event overall were a lot of fun. I've already made a mental list of the buildings I want to visit next year. Thanks to Pau for the heads up and to Diana and Vladimir for humoring me by going along!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

48 Hour Open House Barcelona - Day 1

Barcelona's known world-wide as being a fairly tourist-friendly city but sometimes, as a local (I can say that now!), it can feel like almost everything here is overrun with tourists. I think that "the powers that be" understand this and they regularly schedule events and other things for the locals. One of the recent ones was the 48 Hour Open House Barcelona (48H).

The Open House Worldwide organization's goal is to make architecture approachable for the general public and it currently holds events in twelve different cities around the world. Barcelona's is in its second year and is an opportunity for the public to get to explore FOR FREE 160 different local landmarks, which include some private buildings that are not open to the public the rest of the year and others that normally charge to get in.

Because of each building having different opening hours some really long lines, it was only possible to visit three or four each day. Although I could have written a complete story for each of the buildings that I ended up visiting, I decided to just do two quickie stories, one for each day.

Saturday was Day 1 and the tour began at Teatro El Molino, which you may remember is right in front of where I'm living now. El Molino is about 110 years old with the facade having more-or-less its current wind-mill-style form for about 80 of those years. The theater has been used for Spanish-influenced French-style cabaret (whatever that is) since 1908.

(On a side note, the Parallel/Poble Sec neighborhood where I live has a whole bunch of live-performance theaters. I keep telling myself that I need to look into them one day and maybe do a story about the whole lot of them.)

At each stop of the 48H the organizers had at least one person to lead the tours and give the history of the building. At El Molino, they had both the architect and the designer who were responsible for the most recent renovations. The only downside (for me) was that all the tours were done in Catalan, which just reinforced for me that it was definitely a for-locals event and that I need to learn more Catalan!

What I did understand, and from what Diana and Vladimir told me (both speak and understand the language), the tours and tour guides were excellent. After the guided part of the tour was over, we hung out for a little while on the terrace that overlooks the building we live in (the pinkish-red one in the back):

The El Molino is a very interesting looking building during the day but it really "shines" at night when its entire facade is turned into a giant video screen that we can see from the apartment. The images change about every 30-60 seconds and this moon-set (or is it a moon-rise?) over water being my favorite:

The second stop for the day was about two blocks from the apartment at the Sant Pau del Camp church. This Romanesque building is the oldest church in Barcelona dating from the 10th century (stuff's old here!). It's in surprisingly good shape with some artistic exterior features from the 13th century, like the carvings over the door, surviving to today:

The interior is fairly plain (simple?) but beautiful nonetheless. Our guide was awesome as he not only shared the history of the church, but also demonstrated some of its acoustics by doing some singing. The sound quality is amazing!

The church has a cloister that is accessible from a chapel off the main worship area. It's not the Alhambra but its 12th-century Moorish architecture is definitely a must-see:

We spent about an hour at each of the first two stops when Diana and I left to meet up with some friends for lunch. Vladimir continued on to some more buildings without us. After our lunch date, Diana and I tried to squeeze in two more stops even though it was getting late in the day.

Our first post-lunch stop was at the Torre D'Aigues (Water Tower) at the Catalan Gas Company's grounds near the waterfront. The tower is unusual not only for its shape but also for the exposed brickwork that gives it the red color. Unfortunately, we arrived about three minutes too late to get to scale the stairs to the top to check out the view. (I'll add it to the must-do list for next year's 48H.)

Just around the corner from the Torre is La Fabrica del Sol, which is the former Catalan Gas Company building. This brick modernist building, which has been renovated into a hands-on sustainable-energy demonstration museum/site, is very interesting looking both inside and out. We checked out the displays and went up to the roof to take in the view right around sunset. On the way out, I managed to get a photo of Miss Colombia who just happened to be hanging outside the building that day. What luck!

I mentioned it above but the folks who organized the 48H event did a great job putting together an exceptionally good website and catalog and making sure that there was an excellent tour guide at each building. If I were to make just one recommendation, it'd be nice if the buildings were open for more hours during the two days as many were only open for a few hours one day or the other, which makes it hard to see more than just a couple. But, it was a lot of fun, very educational, and I can't wait for next year's version!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


I've been feeling more and more "at home" here in Spain and in Europe in general. I don't miss having a car. Exceptionally small-sized coffees don't confound me anymore. Light-weight "track-style" sneakers are looking ever more fashionable. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not quite ready for a man purse or anything, but, who knows, maybe someday I will. Actually, I do carry my backpack a lot more than I used to and it is a little big... :-0

Soccer's another one of those things that I'm paying more attention to than ever. Obviously, with living in Barcelona, the F.C.Barcelona is a part of everyday life much like a local pro baseball or football team is in the United States. Still, I don't think that I'll ever be the biggest soccer watcher in the world...but...could I be a big soccer player???

A few weeks ago Vladimir was going to his weekly soccer game and told me that they needed an extra person and asked if I'd like to play. I had a bit of a cold so I wasn't up to the challenge but I went along anyway to check it out. Well, other than the massive soaking I got on the way there on Bicing, I thought that it seemed like a great group of guys and that I wanted to play. Two weeks later on a Friday night at 8pm, there I was, out playing soccer for the first time in probably 30 years (that's me on the right side of the photo):

It turned out to be a ton of fun. The guys who play are all about the same age as me and pretty much everyone has a few more pounds and a few less hairs on our heads than we used to. One of the things that I was super stoked on was the number of countries represented by the twelve guys that night. We had British, Scottish, Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, Uruguayan, Bolivian, American (me), and possibly more! (Side note: I'm continuously amazed at how "international" my experiences have been these past bunch of years. The world is definitely getting smaller.)

The weekly games are played at a rec center's outdoor field in the Port Olimpic area of the city. They've taken one full-sized soccer field and put three smaller fields separated by nets across it. This allows for three games at the same time. The fields are in great shape and have artificial turf with loose black rubber pellets that makes it a fairly forgiving surface for an old guy like me to fall on.

Like I said, I haven't played soccer for more than 30 seconds since I was a little kid. It's hard for people here to believe it when I tell them that soccer in the U.S. is mostly a kids' sport. The few exceptions are universities, the pro leagues, or adult immigrants to the U.S. that continue to play. They can't even fathom that most people don't watch the games on television...

Back when I did play, I was probably not very good at offensive positions (based on what I remember and how I played last week) so I ended up playing goalie a lot. Well, after about 15 minutes of non-all-star play, I found myself back in goal (again). It felt strangely familiar, like an old pair of shoes. After letting two shots into the net, I started getting into the groove of the position. The hardest part was making myself not be afraid of the ball coming at me at such high speeds. I think that I did better as the game went on and a couple of folks even said that I seemed (more) natural in goal. That's me on the left about to stop the ball from going into the net:

I can't express how much fun I had playing. I know I was terrible (at least one guy told me so!) but they didn't tell me to not come back. I can't wait to play again and maybe, just maybe, next time I'll hear GOOOOOOOOOOAL!!!

Thanks Vladi (with me in the photo above) for the invite and to Diana for taking the photos!