Thursday, May 30, 2013

Lake Como Italy And Lugano Switzerland

Imagine if you were wealthy and you could have a house anywhere you'd like. Maybe you could have multiple houses in different places. Where would you go? Well, peeps like George Clooney and Madonna at some point decided that they liked the area known as Como enough to buy houses there. Como, Italy is less than an hour north of Milan and is almost on the border with Switzerland. Diana had been there before but I was curious why they'd chosen to have houses there so we went to check it out.

Como's a small town located on Lake Como. The old center was a walled city at one point and some of the towers and fortifications can still be seen around town.

The weather on the day we went was really crappy, complete with driving rain and even some hail. Still, there's something about walking around a medieval village when it's cold and rainy. I think it's much easier to imagine what it was like "back in the day" when sewage ran down the middle of the streets and people were dying of the black death...

...just kidding. But it is charming and filled with little cafes and shops like this one:

Like 100% of the cities and towns in Europe, Como's got a church at the center. Like 98% of the churches, it's nice, it's peaceful, and it's full of old art depicting people with spears through them or dismembered heads. But, even with my preconceptions of what I'd find in "another church", I happened across this diorama of hell, which I fell in love with. The detail, the imagery, the colors, the whole thing is beautifully well done and all in the space of a large fish tank:

Before we left town and against my better judgement, Diana got me on another boat for a one-hour tour of the lake. Remember how I said that the day was stormy? Yeah, the lake had white caps and there I was on a boat. Again. The reality was that it wasn't too bad and I got some nice pictures of the fresh falling snow on the hill tops (yes, it was cold out too).

From Como, we got back into the car and decided to drive up to Lugano, Switzerland, which is a lake-side town about 30 minutes northwest of Como. Crossing the border between Italy and Switzerland wasn't like crossing from Tijuana into San Diego but it's more involved than crossing between Spain and France for example - you actually have to stop at a checkpoint but they basically wave you through without saying a word.

If you haven't been to Switzerland, it's probably exactly as you imagine it. Expensive. Clean. Well organized. Lovely green mountains topped by snowy peaks:

When we got to Lugano, we parked the car and Diana immediately jumped out and ran over to this bus-stop advertisement with a picture of roasting corn on the cob. See, Diana's a big fan of corn on the cob and eats it whenever she gets the chance.

Towards the center of Lugano, Switzerland, from across Lake Lugano. Not too bad, right?

We hung out for about an hour and then drove around a little bit more before heading back to Italy. We decided to go check out some of the smaller towns outside of Como and stopped at Cernobbio. They were having a classic car rally sponsored by BMW so there were lots of flowers and decorations placed by BMW as well as lots of "well-off" folks walking around. I loved this building-sized map and distance list on the side of this house. The brownish-gold spot at the bottom center of the map is Como and below the map is a list of nearby places along with the distances:

Diana and I went to happy hour and got drinks at a place right next to the lake. It's worth mentioning how nice and cool the folks were at the place we went (sorry, I don't remember the name). They brought us a couple plates of snacks and made a special drink for Diana then charged us almost nothing. Combine that with the beautiful setting and it was a very cool way to end our visit. I think I can understand the appeal of the area. Next time, maybe we'll hang with Clooney!

Selfie at Lake Como, Italy:

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Milan And Bergamo Italy

Diana and I got to spend a whirlwind few days in Italy because of Diana's work. Our trip began in Milan the first morning after our arrival from Barcelona. After Diana's meeting and business lunch at the Politecnic University Of Milan (and, yes, lunch involved pizza), we spent a few hours exploring the center of Milan starting with a visit to the city's beautiful and highly-detailed cathedral (or Duomo in Italian):

One of the highlights of visiting the cathedral is being able to climb the stairs to the roof to check out the city's skyline. On the way up, you get to see the church details up close and the view's nice too.

About all I knew about Milan was that it's known for being a design hub and that it's often thrown in with the likes of Paris, New York, and Tokyo (no link, I went there before starting this blog but here's a link for all my Japan stories). I didn't really know what to expect in terms of the architecture but it ended up being surprisingly nice. Every city's got its must-see sights and Milan's no different. In addition to the cathedral, the glass-and-steel covered streets of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is another.

I probably could have posted about 20 different photos of beautiful buildings but the photos don't do them justice. I'll throw this one in as the huge statues out front are definitely unique and very cool:

Our first day ended with a fabulous Italian dinner (of course) at a restaurant in the nearby suburb of Bergamo, which served as our base for the first part of our trip. The next morning we headed over to the University of Bergamo where Diana led a seminar. It's always awesome when trips have a "sponsor". Diana leading the discussion:

After Diana's rockstar performance, we spent a couple of hours exploring the medieval-walled-town-on-a-hill Bergamo. I really ended up liking Bergamo as it's a lovely small town but still close enough to the big city of Milan (like 45 minutes) to be convenient.

Although the Italian surroundings were different, in a lot of ways it reminded me of other medieval towns that I've been to like Carcassonne (probably my favorite), Mont Saint Michel (in France), and Toledo (in Spain). The views of the "lower city" (downtown area) of Bergamo from the much-more-exclusive "high city":

Our second night in Italy ended uneventfully back at our rented apartment as we were both tired and had a busy next few days planned.

A quick note about the food in Italy. Yes, it's good. Yes, there's lots of pasta. And, finally, yes, almost every meal involves pizza or pasta or both. A friend in Barcelona said that I'd gain a few pounds in Italy and he may have been right. I'm not checking though.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

2013 Barça La Liga Champions Parade

This year hasn't been a particularly good one for Barça. They recently got their asses handed to them by lost to Munich dropping them from Champions' League competition. But it hasn't all been doom and gloom over at Camp Nou. Barça still managed to win (at least) one championship trophy, in this case in La Liga competition. La Liga is Spain's top soccer league, comparable to the NBA or other national sports league in the United States. To celebrate the victory, Barcelona held a parade last week.

The parade route near Carrer de Arago and La Rambla Catalunya:

Diana and I walked down to the parade route with Gema's dog Linda and met up with Pau and his cousin. It was kinda fun to be out with everyone waiting for the team bus to pass by. I spotted Barça's number one fan while we were waiting:

We only had to wait about 20 minutes or so for the bus to go by. It's funny but, as it approached, the bus seemed to be going verrrrry slowly but when I tried to take photos, it seems to have sped up to light speed or something. Oh, and folks waving their damn flags caused some problems too! La Liga trophy and Shakira's husband:

I only really got two half-way decent photos of the team while they passed by. In this one, Messi was kind enough to stand just above his large photo so he could be more easily identified:

I think the highlight of the parade is when a woman was walking by with a hand full of Barça flags and Diana asked her where she got them. She responded something like they were giving them out and then she handed us one. Woohoo! My first Barça-branded item! Pau and I representin':

And how could I not post a photo of Diana and I with lovely Linda? She's (Linda) is a bit of a scaredy cat dog so getting her to pose with us was somewhat of a challenge.

On a side note...I've never been much of a fan of pro sports but it's relatively easy to get sucked in to being a Barça fan as pretty much everyone and their mom's one. Anyway...I'd like to wish Barça better luck next year. You won't be able to keep up your reputation if you're only bringing home one championship per year!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Diada De Sant Jordi 2013

I wrote a couple of years ago about Barcelona's Saint George day, or as it's called here, Diada de Sant Jordi. If you don't remember, it's sort of like Catalunya's Valentine's day where guys buy their girls roses and, in a vain effort to make their men a little smarter, the girls buy their guys books.

A stand covering their bases selling both books and roses on La Rambla in Barcelona this year:

The short version of the tradition says that there once was a dragon that was eating the village's children (doesn't sound too tasty to me but then again, have you seen dogs go crazy for canned dog food?). George, being a studly chap, took charge and killed (or slayed) the dragon freeing the village from the austerity measures being imposed by the evil ECB Germans dragon.

Sant Jordi is honored as the patron saint of both Barcelona and of Catalyuna. He's so popular now that, in addition to having lots of images and statues of himself all over Europe AND getting a day named after him, he's also got a bread named in his honor. Pa de Sant Jordi (Saint George bread) is a very-slightly-sweet roll with the four bars of the flag of Catalunya on it. These were in a bakery where Diana and I had coffee that morning:

I had forgotten about how pretty much every organization in town sets up a table to sell roses to raise money for something or other. These are just two of the stands that are at the end of the street where we're living:

Diana and I met up with Carol and Juan to walk down La Rambla and check out this year's festivities along with probably all 1.6 million residents of Barcelona:

It really does seem like the whole city is out and about during the day. Everywhere is packed with folks out walking, looking at books, and checking out the crowds. Juan, Diana, Carol, and everyone from Barcelona just down from Plaza Catalunya and the Portal de l'Angel:

The four of us walked down La Rambla and through the Gothic area of the city before grabbing lunch together on the roof deck of the Hotel Espana. Me taking a photo of Diana taking a photo of Juan and Carol at one of the day's special events:

I wasn't a very good guy because I hadn't bought Diana any roses yet so I picked up these on La Rambla during our trip home. Diana's a good sport and pretended that it was sufficient for her. Thanks Diana!

Happy Diada Sant Jordi! May all your dragons be slayed, your roses fresh, and your books...hmmmm...!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Castellers At The Sagrada Familia

Now that we're back in Spain, I've started going to castellers again. If you don't remember, castellers are teams that build human towers. I've often said that being a casteller is when you're both the monkey and the monkey bars. It's a lot of fun to be part of a group that's so tight knit even if I do have a pretty severe language barrier (I don't speak Catalan). But, regardless, I go to practice every Tuesday and Friday night and often on Sundays we have exhibitions somewhere in the city.

This past Sunday we had an exhibition in front of the Sagrada Familia church. It was part of the neighborhood around the church's neighborhood celebration. These neighborhood festivals (or, "diadas" in Catalan) are common in Spain and they often involve music, food, booths set up to sell stuff, and, in the case of Catalunya, castellers exhibits.

The Castellers del Poble Sec in front of the Sagrada Familia during the Diada de la Sagrada Familia:

I really can't think of anything that's more "Catalan" than the castellers and probably no other structure that represents Barcelona more than the Sagrada Familia. I got goose bumps watching the other groups of castellers building towers in such an amazing location.

Super-good artsy photo taken by Diana (all the photos except the last one were taken by her - Thanks Diana!) of the Castellers del Poble Sec in front of the Sagrada Familia's Nativity Facade:

In this photo, you can see a Chinese couple that must have gotten married earlier in the day out taking photos. They had some damn good luck (just like Diana and I did) to have wedding photos like these:

And, yes, a final photo of the girl from Chiquinquira and the casteller from Philadelphia in front of Barcelona's Sagrada Familia:

If you haven't been to Barcelona and you ever get a chance to come, try to find a castellers' exhibition to check out. It's pretty amazing to watch and a definite cultural must-see/do. Many of the groups have at least a couple of practices during the week that you can go to (all welcome visitors) and on many Sundays at noon, there are exhibitions in plazas all over the area. And the best thing, it's all free!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Catalan Pyrenees

When Diana told me that her cousin Carol, who's also originally from Bogota, and her husband (from Spain) invited us to go with them to their mountain house in the Pyrenees, I couldn't wait. The two weeks seemed to take forever but the big Friday evening came and we made the two-plus-hour drive from Barcelona with them up towards the intersection of the French, Spanish, and Andorran border. If you're familiar with the southern California mountains, think of a drive like going to Baldy and not like Summit (in other words, nice and easy!).

We got there about 9pm, which was just in time for a finger-lickin'-good dinner over at their friends' place. I have more than a few stand-out memories from dinner that night (amazing food, cool folks, the husband used to live near Washington, DC) but what I probably will remember for a long time was...the water.

Yes, the water. 

I asked for a glass of water and they told me "to try the tap water". Let me just say that, after living in Germany, the tap water's got to be pretty damn good if it's gonna' compete. Well, the water that flowed out of the golden goose faucet was the best damn water I've ever had even when compared to the best bottled waters. They told me that it comes almost straight from the mountain behind the house, but it wasn't until the next morning when I woke up and saw this amazing scene from our friends' place that I understood:

Carol and Juan's place is located in a large valley area called the Cerdanya that's ringed by Spain, France, and Andorra. Their scenic little village sits down on the valley floor with snow-covered mountain peaks staring down.

(Um, can I just mention how f'n lucky I am to get to do some of this stuff? Look at these photos!)

Anyway, we went for a walk around the 'hood in the morning and I saw this guy turning the soil in front of his house. He must have been like 80 years old but he was workin' it. The scene with the old house, the old guy, the small farm, the valley out below, and the snowy peaks up above was amazing.

Like I said, the valley is shared mostly between France and Spain but a part of it touches the small country of Andorra. Although there's three different countries, you'd never know it as all you see is Catalan flags flying everywhere. Even when we went into Font Romeu, France, to do some food shopping (it's the closest town), there were 99% Catalan flags flying and almost no French flags. You can sort of see one at the left end of the building below (of course there was no wind when I was taking the photos):

The Catalan Pyrenees really comes alive during the winter, from what I've been told, as folks from the three countries go skiing on the weekends. During the summer, it's fairly quiet and kinda' nice to be able to explore a bunch of old and new tiny villages. On Saturday afternoon, we visited Bellver, which is on the Spanish side, and walked up and down the cobble streets and ate some of the best and cheapest ice cream that I've ever had while in Spain.

Note the Catalan-independence flag hanging off the third level of this building in the town of Bellver, Spain:

After another amazing dinner and wine-drinking session, we woke up Sunday morning and went to Puigcerda (pooj-sair-DA), which is also in Spain and is build up around a large lake in its center. Amazing view of the mountains beyond the lake and some of the town of Puigcerda:

On Sundays the town has a farmers market where there's all kinds of food, beverages, and "stuff" to buy. I like these types of things because it's a great place to people watch and I loved how there were the sounds of French, Spanish, and Catalan everywhere. (Yeah, that's another snowy mountain past the end of the street.)

The highlight of the market (for me) was this woman who was selling homemade vermouth. I got hooked on vermouth by our good friend Vladimir who used to take us to a local Poble Sec place for Sunday-morning vermouth drinking. Juan buying a couple of plastic jugs of homemade vermouth:

Probably the only disappointment of the whole trip, if you can call it that, was that we didn't have time to go to Andorra for a quick visit. It would have been another country for me to add to my growing travel map but, oh well, there's always next time!

A big-ole' thank you and hugs to Carol, Juan, Ana Maria, and Juan Camillo for taking us for an amazing Catalan Pyrenees adventure and opening their home to us (and a nice family shot):

I can't wait to go back up to that area again, hopefully next time for some snowboarding at the close-enough-to-throw-a-rock-at El Molino resort! Another reason to get that driver's license!