Friday, February 24, 2012

Codorniu Cava Factory Tour

About 30 minutes or so via train outside of Barcelona is a wine-growing region that's famous for Spain's version of Champagne, which is called Cava. I've wanted to go since I first came here about two years ago but just really haven't had the chance. It wasn't until my friends Lena and Toni, who I met on CouchSurfing, went to visit the Codorniu Cava factory with their Spanish class a couple of months ago that I decided that I had to go.

The small town of Sant Sadurni d'Anoia is a quick train ride from the city and is home to not only Codorniu but also the world-famous Freixenet Cava factory among others. The Freixenet factory is right next to the train station and, I imagine, the most popular to visit. (Side note: growing up in Philadelphia, we'd buy Freixenet "champagne" each New Years to celebrate.) This is the bus stop across from the train station and just outside the door of Freixenet. I like that the bus and directional signs have images of corks on them.

To get to Codorniu, you have to walk about 20 minutes or so through the town. Even though it's still late winter, I could see people starting to get the fields ready for this year's crop:

When Lena and Toni went to visit Codorniu, they had told me about how beautiful the buildings and grounds were. You can read about their visit here (in Swedish but way better than my version). The reception building at Codorniu was designed by a contemporary of Antoni Gaudi named Josep Puig i Cadafalch. Cadafalch is another famous Catalan architect who designed many beautiful Modernist-style buildings in and around Barcelona including the Amateller house and the Casaramona factory (now known as the CaixaForum), which is similar in style to the Codorniu building:

The photo above doesn't really do the building justice because of the crappy, late-afternoon and cloudy-day lighting. The inside photo of the waiting area is a little bit better and, I think, shows the amazing architecture:

One of the things that I like to do when I visit and/or audit factories is see their bathrooms. I believe that you can learn a lot about how a company treats its employees and customers by how they take care of the bathrooms. Well, not only was this probably the most beautiful bathroom I've ever been in but you could eat off the floor:

The tour started with a quick ten-or-15 minute video about the company and its history. I was surprised to learn that they've been around since 1551! After the movie, the small group walked over to see the main production, processing, and storage buildings. We didn't get to go inside this one but it's worth showing because of how nice looking it is:

The next building houses a small museum and the access to the underground area where the Cava is stored:

Inside the museum area of the building:

After a brief visit to the museum area, we went down about four flights of stairs to the first below-ground level of the wine-cave structure. It was here that I saw the modern method of how they store the bottles. The bottles are packed tightly on pallets and stored in the multi-level underground structure:

The scale of the spaces is difficult to communicate. The storage space resembled a very-large under-gound parking structure. It's tough to see in this photo but Cava bottles are stored off into the distance as far as the eye can see:

The tour was very informative and our guide was really great. The only bummer is that you don't get to visit the production facility during the tour. It'd have been super interesting to see them making the Cava and filling the bottles but oh well...

The final part of the tour involved getting on a small, open-air, train-like vehicle and getting pulled through some of the older parts of the wine caves. In this area, the bottles are still stored using the old method where they are stuck through holes in sheets of wood, which allows the bottles to be turned regularly (in the modern method, the pallets are turned by machines). I tried to take some photos during the ride but almost everyone of them were so blurry that they could have qualified for excellent big-foot photos. The only photo that turned out half decently was this one, which reminds me of the scene in Star Wars where they make the jump to light speed in the Millennium Falcon:

After our trip through hyperspace, we were led to the combined tasting area and shop. Of course, I took advantage of the generous "tastings" and managed to buy a couple of bottles to take home. Yummy, yummy, yummy!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Paradise Found: Wine Vending Machine

I was outside of Barcelona this past weekend on a roommate road trip and we stopped by an all-you-can-eat buffet place that looked like a truck stop. It was one of those grill-your-own-meat style of places and cost like 5 euros ($7.00 U.S.). The food was just okay but, for the price, I guess it wasn't that bad. The limiting factor on how much you could eat, besides the so-so food, was the lack of available grilling surfaces for the mob of people waiting. Very smart on their part. Anyway, as you can probably guess, I won't be rushing back.

So, it wasn't the truck-stop styling, mediocre food, or DIY cooking that I'll remember. It was a damn wine-bottle vending machine that did it:

I didn't end up "ordering" a bottle but I was tempted. How could I go wrong ordering wine from a machine? Sommeliers of the world, be very afraid!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Feast Of Santa Eulalia

As I always say, "another day, another festival here in Spain! This time it was the feast of Santa Eulalia, one of the co-patron saints of Barcelona (the other is Sant Jordi). Eulalia was martyred as a young girl so she's also become the patron saint of Barcelona's children (her body is interred in Barcelona's cathedral). The official city website for the event says that this year's Barcelona festival of Santa Eulalia celebrates a child's fantasy view of life in the city to include visits by the famous gigants (giants) and light shows on some of the city's landmarks. On Saturday night in Plaza Sant Jaume there were both:
Santa Eulalia is well represented in Catalunya as her image and name appears many places throughout the area. The main Barcelona-city-government building held an open house over the weekend, which was a bonus, probably (in part) because of the amount of her imagery that is present in the building. The Adjuntament building is really deserving of its own story but I'll show just a couple of pictures including this one of one of the meeting rooms where you can see a statue of Santa Eulalia on the far left side:

The building had a definite castle-feel to it. It was full of amazing artwork and decorations including some especially cool original artwork in the mayor's office, which was included in the tour. The photo below shows another meeting room with a giant Catalan flag and a statue of Sant Jordi slaying the dragon:

Like I said, it's a pretty impressive building and I was lucky to get to visit because it's rarely open to the public. I can't imagine what it costs to maintain the place because it's chock-full of rooms that look like this one:

On Sunday, as part of the weekend's festivities, there was a sculpture dedication just outside of the Adjuntament building (above). The sculpture, which looks like giant chicken wire twisted into a large tower, is supposedly representative of, and dedicated to, the castellers of Catalunya. Having recently gotten involved with a group of castellers, I'm not really sure how I feel about it:

I can say for certain that it wasn't well received by the locals, some of which live nearby, who object to its styling and its (supposed) 700,000 euro (almost a million U.S. dollars) price tag. There was a full-on protest during the dedication where folks made so much noise that it was almost impossible to hear the people speaking. The neighbors hung signs on their buildings stating their displeasure. I liked this one that said "we need bread not scrap metal":
Since the sculpture was dedicated to the castellers, four groups of castellers were invited to participate including my group, the Castellers del Poble Sec. It marked my first city-wide casteller activity and the first one where I was officially "uniformed". This is me practicing biting my collar like a true casteller:

Castellers bite their collars to keep it in place to help protect their necks while other folks are standing on their shoulders. Actually, it's surprising to me that there isn't some sort of special shoulder and neck protection marketed to casteller groups. Hmm...maybe a new business idea... This is a photo of our first castle of the day, a four-level pillar:
One of the highlights of the day for our group was this three-person-by-seven-level castle that's still under construction (you can just make out my head sticking up at the left-side of the base):
The casteller part of the festival of Santa Eulalia ended with the tradition of passing the enxañeta (en-sha-neta), the little girl that is the top of a completed castle, from her position up to the balcony overlooking the plaza. It's a pretty crazy idea and it's even crazier seeing it in person:
It was another interesting weekend and a fun casteller debut for me. Can I just say again how much I love learning about and experiencing all of this stuff?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Celestial Seasonings Factory Tour

Before going to Denver, I had posted to facebook requesting ideas for what to do with the half day that I had available. Different friends posted or emailed me different things such as to check out a restaurant or the wine scene among other serious and not-so-serious ideas. To cover all my bases I did lots of in-depth research ( = I googled: "things to do in Denver") and one of the first things I found was factory tours at the tea-making company Celestial Seasonings. Wow! Denver, Boulder, AND a factory tour? Some people love a parade. Me? I love a factory tour so off I went to watch them teabagging!

The Celestial Seasonings' facility is in the middle of a suburban neighborhood on the edge of Boulder. I'm guessing that they bought the property before there were a bunch of houses in the area because I can't imagine them being able to build a factory there now. Regardless, their facility is very nice when you're outside and it kinda' looks like a school in a lot of ways. Stepping inside, you're greeted at the door and given a small sample pack of peppermint tea as your tour "ticket". The tours start about every hour so you get to hang out and sample some of their teas while you wait.

The waiting area has a few tables to sit at while you drink your tea. They also have a collection of the original artwork that's used for their packaging and a bunch of photos of the founders and employees over the years. This display case holds a prom-looking dress that's made out of individual tea bag packages:

The factory tour starts with a 20-minute video that talks about how the hippy founders started collecting "herbs" near Boulder and selling them to health-food stores in the area. Seeing some of the photos, I can imagine that they may have offered a few "special blends" back in the day...

The original Celestial Seasonings company was purchased by Kraft in the 80s, sold back to the local management after a failed merger with the tea-company Bigelow, and merged with the natural-foods Hain Group in 2002. The company is probably best known for it's line teas with funky names like Red Zinger and Morning Thunder but their best sellers are still their mint teas. During the tour, they take you through the raw-materials' storage area (shown below) including a visit to the room where the various mint raw materials are stored. As soon as I went into the room my eyes started to water from the strength of the mint. It was pretty amazing actually.

The factory is highly automated with conveyors all over the place. Unfortunately, I visited on a Saturday so production wasn't running. All I got to experience was some maintenance guys blasting heavy metal over the PA system while they were repairing equipment. Overall, I'd give the factory a grade of a B compared to other factories I've been to due to large quantities of raw materials, unclear process flows, and lots and lots of conveyor belts (rather than cellular setups) but what do I know. God help the factory manager that needs to depend on all those conveyors to make his half-millon-bags-per-day target. On the positive side, the facility was relatively clean, it appeared safe, I saw almost no finished-goods inventory, and it seems like it's probably a nice place to work.

The tour ends in true Disneyland fashion through an exit into their gift shop. They had a little of every possible gift and souvenir along with the entire Hain product line of foods and beverages. I was surprised at the variety of products they had on hand that I recognized and wasn't aware were all under the same relatively-small corporate umbrella.

Like I said, I'm biased. Even a bad factory tour is really fun for me. This one was by no means bad. You should stop by if you get the chance. The guide was good and the tea was flowing! If you do go visit, one tip that you'd be smart to take is that you NEED to stop by the restroom before going into the factory because all those free tea samples WILL come back quicker than you expect!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Denver And Boulder Colorado

After a fun long weekend in Philadelphia, it was back to Spain for just four days. Due to a schedule change, I needed to go to Colorado for a couple of days the following weekend. I flew from Barcelona to Denver through Newark but while I was in Newark, the news was showing that Denver's airport had been shut down during the morning because of one of the biggest snow storms to hit the area in a bunch of years. Amazingly enough, my flight out of Newark left on time and the pilot said that we'd arrive just a little bit late but that there was no problem.

When I arrived into the airport in Denver, I was amazed at how hard it was snowing and how windy it was. I managed to get my bags and went to the rental car bus without any issues. Unfortunately, I rented from a super-discount company (live and learn...) and ended up having to wait in line at the agency for just under an hour. The guy at the counter was apologetic and gave me an upgraded car, which was nice. And I got to drive in the snow for the first time in at least four years to the hotel in nearby Aurora!

On Saturday I got up at like 5am due to the time difference and went to the local IHOP for some good ole' fashioned American breakfast. After that, I had my meeting, which went very well, and the rest of the day was mine to enjoy before my flight back to Barcelona Sunday morning. I decided to go to Boulder, which is about a 40 minute drive from Aurora, for a factory tour at Celestial Seasonings. All the way there you watch the mountains rising up in the distance as you get closer and with the fresh snow they were exceptionally beautiful:

Denver's located pretty much in the center of the state of Colorado right up against the start of the Rocky Mountains. If you drive east from the base of the Rockies, it's about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) before you start to see some hills again. It's amazing how flat and boring that part of the country is when you're driving through it. But west of Denver it's spectacular as you go up through the mountains and towns along the way towards California. One of the coolest local features is what are called The Flatirons, which is a series of rock formations right outside of Boulder:

Boulder is a beautiful small college town that's basically an independent suburb of Denver. I had first heard of it about 1,000,000 years ago when the show Mork & Mindy, which was set there, was on TV. I first visited the town when I was in Colorado in the late 1980s to go white water rafting and I've loved it ever since.

The town surrounds the University of Colorado campus at Boulder and has a very collegiate feel to it. Even though the weather can sometime be rough, people are always out and about walking or riding bikes. The center of the town has a shopping district that has a bunch of independent-types of stores that cater to the locals. The housing stock is a lot like those in coastal California, such as in Oceanside, which are from the 1920s to the 1950s. It's got a great feel and would be I think a great place to live with scenery like this in its back yard:

Driving around Boulder at sunset was a little rough because the day was warm and the snow from the day before started to melt. The melt resulted in some icy spots on the road, which made me do a little bit of sliding around but nothing too bad. I stopped to take this photo of a lovely residential street not too far from the university:

Right after sunset I decided to drive back towards Denver and check out downtown. I went to the 16th Street Mall to walk around. It reminded me a little of the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, which is near Los Angeles. By the time I got there it had gotten pretty cold so I didn't stay too long before I went back to my hotel to get to bed early.

The next morning it was off to the airport for my flight home. Denver's airport is a fabric-covered structure that's designed to appear like you're looking at the Rocky Mountains. I think they've done a good job with the design as it definitely does give the impression of mountain peaks in the distance:

For a one-hour lunch meeting, it was quite a long trip but it was nice getting to go back to Colorado for the first time in a bunch of years. Hopefully the next time that I'm there, I'll be able to get up into the mountains to do some snowboarding again...perhaps back in Steamboat where the best tree skiing I've ever experienced is found.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Army Of Tiny Humans Invades the U.S.

Every year around this time an army of small warriors invades the United States. Like Starbucks (or Japanese tourists if you're outside the U.S.), they're everywhere you turn. At the supermarket. In front of Target. At the office. Outside our churches. At your birthday party. It's not Al Qaeda or some other foreign group. No, this army is from within. This photo, which my sister took recently, shows two of the tiny foot soldiers in attack formation:

That's right! It's Girl Scout cookie season again! They will hunt you down and they will capture you. The more aggressive variety will yell out to you when you try to enter a store. The more reserved will get your sympathy by their feigned shyness. Even if you do manage to avoid them, which is doubtful, this army is so clever that when its members are receiving tactical training at a Girl Scout meeting or perhaps even learning dogma at school, their parents are out in the offices, shops, and factories of America trying to get you to buy You can run but you can't hide.

Yes, this army can be very cute. And very convincing. After all, the cookies cost just $4 per box. And they are really yummy. And it's a fund raiser. How can you say no to this:

If this seems even a bit scary, you probably need some background. The Girl Scouts and their little-sister version the Brownies are girls youth groups that got their start in 1912 in Georgia (United States). The idea was to get girls out of the house to "develop mentally, physically, and socially" by doing things like playing sports, going camping, and doing community service. In other words, the founder wanted an army to sell her surplus cookies. (Just kidding about that last part. I think.) To help finance all the activities, the girls, with the help of their parents, started baking cookies to sell as early as 1917. The tradition continues to this day with eight varieties of cookies for sale during (roughly) the first quarter of the year. So much for New Year's resolutions.

All I can say is be very afraid. Resisting this tiny army is impossible. You will buy cookies and you will eat them and you will like them. Then you will buy more. And eat those too. After all, it's just one box...right?

By the way, if you'd like to buy some Girl Scout cookies, my niece, who's one of the girls in the top photo, can hook you up. Just let me know which is your poison. Thin Mints? Caramel Delites? Thanks-A-Lots? Or, better yet, one of each???

Saturday, February 4, 2012

University Reunion And A Reminder

Because of chance overlap of several things (both good and not so good), I went back to Philadelphia for a quick weekend. The biggest reason was that friends from my university days were going to get together for a mini reunion. Our plans were to barbecue on Saturday night at Victor's house but some of the group met for a warm up Friday night at Barcade, which is in the up-and-coming Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia just north of Center City.

Barcade's old wood-and-brick industrial building could easily be converted into a country-and-western bar by just changing the music and throwing some straw on the floor. But in this case, the bar appeals to the early-20s hipsters who either live in the neighborhood or wish they lived there instead of with their parents. Inside, they have a bar with about 20 beers on tap and a whole collection of 1980s video game machines. I saw classics like Donkey Kong among the machines.

We only hung out there for about an hour before going to a smoke-filled biker bar down the street. I wasn't as crazy about that place because there were fewer patrons to people watch and it's one of the rare bars that still allows smoking. Regardless, it was fun to hang out with friends, some of whom I haven't seen in over 20 years. The photo below shows us in the early 90s when the group we founded became officially recognized. I'm one of the three people holding the flag (right side):

Saturday night we met and hung out, ate, drank, and caught up. It was so much fun and so amazing to be back with this group of good friends. The photo below shows eleven of us as we look today:

On the way home from the barbecue, some of the party people went to the Frankford House in the same Northern Liberties neighborhood. The bar has a large German-style outdoor beer garden complete with heaters and fire pits. It's a really nice place and somewhat upscale, especially for the neighborhood. It wasn't until a couple of days later that I learned that it had been created by one of Philadelphia's restaurant magnates, which explained why it seemed so upscale. It's hard to tell in this tiny cellphone photo, but it was f'n cold outside. The whole time we were hanging out, I couldn't believe that we were sitting outside in Philadelphia in January...

Something that I knew before but really came back into focus for me over the weekend is that life is both fragile and short. As I sat and talked with my friends, I couldn't believe how short 20 years looks in the rear-view mirror. Life goes by really fast. The other thing is that we never know what's going to happen to us or the world around us. We (I) need to make sure to continue to try to live each and every day like it could be our last because, as Steve Jobs said in the now-famous Stanford commencement speech, (I've paraphrased it here) "someday it certainly will be".

I'm recommitting to myself to live an amazing life -- to live each day like it's my last. I do it for those who are unable to and for those who have chosen not to.

Oh, and to my friends, muchas gracias and let's not wait another 20 years.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Diada Sant Antoni

Living in Spain has been super interesting for me. Not only is there a bunch cool things to see, do, and eat, they've always got a festival or holiday or something going on to celebrate something or other. I think that it must be in the Spanish constitution that there will be a holiday every week of the year -- or at least it feels that way. (Don't get me started on "puentes!") On the off weeks (all two or three of them) when there's no national holiday, Barcelona does its festive part by holding individual neighborhood parties. I wrote about the Diada de Gracia (Gracia Day) festival, which is one of the last neighborhood festivals each year, back in November when I got to watch castellers (kass-tay-yair) for the first time.

Well, new year, new series of neighborhood festivals. One of the first "Diadas" each year is the Diada Sant Antoni, which takes place in mid-January in the next neighborhood over from where I live. The various neighborhood festivals are usually weekend-long events that involve various street fairs, music events, and parades that celebrate the local area. What was different this time was that I was a part of the parade AS A CASTELLER!

The parade groups took shape in a small park near the Sant Antoni market. Of course no self-respecting Spanish parade would be without the world-famous "gigantes" (giants):

In general, the "gigantes" (giant characters) confuse me. I have to be honest. I still don't understand what they're all about. I might need to check with my local-expert-in-all-things-Catalan Pau. Anyway, this giant has sausages hanging around its neck. I don't know what it means but I do like sausage so I like this one:

The following group was made up of young folks with flames on their pants and devil-like T-shirts. What I liked most is that they brought with them a huge pig that shot liquid out its nipples, which is pretty unusual, right? Well, for the first 15 minutes after they arrived, all I could think about is where they store that damn pig. I don't know anyone here with an apartment big enough to store a giant rolling pig with water-shooting nipples. My only guess is that one of these folks actually has a job and at that job they actually have space to store a giant wet-nippled rolling pig.

Just before the parade started, the casteller group "suited" up. The Castellers del Poble Sec wear blue shirts with the logo of the group, white pants, and a long fabric back support called a "faixa" (fie-sha). Getting the faixa fitted is a two-person operation. In this photo, I'm helping Dan who's one of the leaders of the group with his faixa (Yes, I know, I need to buy some white pants. Have you ever tried to find white pants in January?):

The parade was kicked off by the Trabucs de Sant Antoni, which is a local group of folks who have funny costumes, silly hats, and big guns with huge tips that produce a very loud bang when fired. I'm guessing that guns are used to "protect" against anyone who'd make fun of their outfits... The guy on the right was part of the Trabucs while the guy on the left looks like a Caganer with his pants pulled up:

The parade wound it's way around the neighborhood for an hour or so. We stopped about five times to build castles of varying configurations. In this photo, you can see me on the right under the girl who's on her way up to the top:

Did I mention how much of a kick I get out of the castellers? Now if I could just speak some Catalan so I can understand what the hell they're saying! :-)

Diana took this video of us building one of the structures:

And finally, this is a group shot at the end of the parade. What a happy bunch:

I've never been involved in a group that's done parades before. The closest I've ever been is during my super-model career a bunch of years ago when I'd walk the catwalk. Diana says (as she rolls her eyes) that being a part of the castellers ensures that "we'll never miss another neighborhood festival". Oh well, no me importa! I'm ready for every single event that Spain can throw at me! Bring it on!