Saturday, July 31, 2010

Eating Churros Con Chocolate

Yummy! There's something about fried bread that makes it sooooo tasty. Well, actually, you could pretty much fry anything and it'd probably taste good. Add a chocolate beverage along side and you've really got something. Located across from the Teatre Liceu in a relatively non-descript (on the outside) building on what is the busiest tourist-visited street in Barcelona, La Rambla, the Cafe de L'Opera has been dishing out churros and chocolate since 1929.

If you haven't been fortunate enough to eat churros in the past, you don't know what you're missing. They are essentially a Spanish doughnut made from dough that's been deep-fried and dusted with a little sugar. The closest equivalent that I can think of in the US is funnel cake. Think funnel cake but crispier.

I used to eat churros (that weren't nearly as delish) in Tijuana when I worked in Mexico. You could even get them while waiting in your car in the line at the border. They'd sell you like five or six small churros in a little paper bag for a dollar. It was a nice treat when you were sitting in the line for a couple of hours.

But wait, what makes the churros at Cafe de L'Opera even better is that you eat them with an incredibly thick and rich hot chocolate drink. The chocolate seems basically like a milk-chocolate bar that's been melted down. It's RICH and DELICIOUS! This combo is a breakfast tradition in many parts of Spain (especially in Madrid) and is popular with the post-bar, 5am crowd.

When I visited Paris a couple of years ago, on the recommendation of a former coworker, I went to Angelina, which is a cafe near the Louvre and is known for its chocolate drinks. I think their chocolate is just as good but you don't get churros with it. Here's the Angelina spread:

Being that Angelina is pretty far away from Barcelona and the chocolate at Cafe de L'Opera is really good, I'm sticking with my local dealer. If you're in the area, look for me eating one of my new favorites!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Vall d'Hebron Metro Station

I've lived in Barcelona now for about four months and so far it's been super fun. I've met great people, seen beautiful things, had some amazing experiences, and eaten some tasty food. Overall, it's a great place. One of the things that I've been really impressed by is the Barcelona public-transportation system and I thought that I'd write a little about it and my personal experience living near the Vall d'Hebron Metro Station.

The public-transportation system is operated by the Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona (TMB). The system is made up of eight different Metro train lines, over 100 bus routes, the Tourist bus, and a couple of other smaller transportation options. It's very good and covers the city well. Having lived in southern California for 20 years, I can appreciate what they've built and love that you can basically get anywhere in the city in less than 30 minutes. It is worth noting, though, that the area covered is MUCH smaller and much more population-dense than say San Diego for example.

I currently live in a high-rise apartment building in the Vall d'Hebron (buy day bron) area of Barcelona. It's not the most centrally located area of the city and it's actually pretty devoid of local attractions and restaurants--we lovingly refer to it as the Vall d'Bronx... There are a couple of things going for it though. It's a relatively cheap area in a fairly expensive city; it's next to the Parc de Collserola recreation area, which has hiking and biking trails all over it; it's one of the quietest places in what is considered one of the noisiest cities in Europe; and it has a Metro stop on what I consider the best Metro line in the city (L3- Green Line) which allows me to get most places quickly.

What's been a drag about living here recently is all the construction that's going on to extend the L5 (Blue Line) to its new terminus at the Vall d'Hebron station. The station's been torn up since before I moved here and, recently, construction's really gotten noisy as they are rushing to catch up for the opening, which happens very soon. Construction has been going 24 hours a day, seven days per week and it's dusty, inconvenient, and loud. Walking through the station under construction exposes you to exceptional noise levels, high amounts of god-knows-what-type of dust, and lots of smoke. I do understand though that, when it's done soon, we'll have even better access to the city than before. This is the view of the construction from the window of my apartment:

Watching the construction has been entertaining at times. Recently, I saw them construct two sections of walkways over the course of two days, which they then completely ripped out the following day. You can see the two areas in this photo. The first is the walkway (which has been redone) between the two white barriers and the other is the area that is still torn up in front of the backhoe:

For about a week straight, there were teams of about 50 guys on each of three shifts that did nothing but carry raw materials from street level down a very large flight of steps to the metro level only to emerge several minutes later carrying construction waste. It was like watching those leaf-cutter ants that carry the pieces of leaves on their backs.

The construction has had other, more-severe problems than this. In January 2005 near the El Carmel station being built on the L5 line, there were a series of collapses that led to the destruction of several apartment complexes in the area. It was a bad time for the area and it ended up causing serious delays to the whole project.

I love stuff like this - it's fun for me to watch the construction. It'll be a little sad when the area no longer has so much action right out in front of the building though it will be nice to sleep without the jack hammers and other equipment going all night. Hopefully the rest of the construction will go off without a hitch and it'll be nice to have another route into and out of our beloved Vall d'Bronx. I can't wait... :-)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Checking Out Castles In Southern France

Recently, I went with a bunch of friends to check out some castles in France. This area of southern France is in Catalunya as is Barcelona. It definitely felt more Catalan than French, which was interesting, and it's awe inspiring driving through the Pyrenees. During the trip, we got to see three different sites and almost got to a fourth if we hadn't almost run out of gas...but first...

Since there were six of us, we needed a big car. My friend Pau was nice enough to get us a great deal on a rental minivan and he even picked me up at the house to go get it! Thanks again Pau! I owe you another Japanese-food lunch.

We packed up the car on Saturday morning and headed out for the three-hour trip to our first stop in Salses-Le-Chateau to see the Salses Fortress. This fortress originally marked the border between France and Spain but was lost to France in the Thirty-Years War. The border was moved south to it's current location and the fortress basically became an albatross. It's partially built below ground level and has a very interesting combination of architectural styles:

It was super hot the day we visited so most of my photos were taken from shady spots up against the walls. As I mentioned, there seems to be many different styles present in the fortress. One of the things I found most interesting was the clock-tower detail that you can see towards the right side of this photo. It seems fairly out of place in the utilitarian fortress. I guess it was someone's pet project:

The fortress was originally built along the main road, which was an old Roman road that pretty much ran where the train runs by today:

After our guided tour ended, we loaded up for a one-hour ride to our next stop, the town and castle of Carcassonne (カルカツソンヌ if my three weeks of Japanese serves me well...yes...I'm showing off). We arrived fairly late in the day so we really didn't have time to see too much. After about an hour of walking around, we headed to our apartment-style hotel room for the night. A couple of bottles of wine and some Salvador-prepared Mexican food hit the spot. It was early to bed, early to rise for our intrepid travelers.

On Sunday morning, we packed up and headed back over to the castle, which looks just like what you'd think a castle should look like. Here's a cool shot from a distance that shows the whole thing (very cool):

Carcassonne has been around for about 2,500 years, first as a Roman site. During the middle ages, it also sat on the border between France and Spain. As with Salses, it was lost to France in the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees. It was restored by the architect Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century who took pains to ensure that it was as faithful as possible to the design found during the middle ages. The site was later added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

Before heading in for our tour, and since it was already hot, I took a quick couple of passes through the sprinklers out front:

As with pretty much all of Carcassone, the front entrance looks like something that you would draw when you were a kid; pretty "typical" castle stuff... Moat? Check. Big front door? Check. Big stone towers with spots to shoot arrows from? Check. Yep, it's got it all.

Part of the self-guided tour includes being able to walk along the ramparts surrounding the city. It's a great way to see a lot of the city's buildings and the surrounding area. Here's a shot from one that shows some of the original Roman walls on the outside, the newer, middle-ages interior walls and towers, and the mandatory Gothic church on the inside:

The town has been beautifully restored to its Middle-Ages grandeur. Fortunately for today's visitor, they've left out the raw sewage running down the streets and the plague-infested rats. In their place, they've made nice restaurants, shops, and places to hang out. We came across another bachelor party that day (I think they are verrrrrrrrry popular in Europe). These guys also seemed like a lot of fun. They chose a medieval-knight theme and I think the groom-to-be is seated on the far left based on his accessories choices:

I spent some time shopping for new clothes while I was in Carcassonne. Unfortunately, the best I could do just wasn't good enough. Why, oh why, don't they sell these things in adult sizes? I guess I'll have to join a bachelor party to get mine...

At the last minute, all of us manly-men decided to re-enact the cabaret scene from Monty Python's The Holy Grail (one of my all-time favorites):

Once our dance number was over, we got into the van to go to our next stop, the Chateau d' Arques. This site defines what I call a walled compound! The chateau is basically a fortress-style house that seems to be built to withstand attack. The property is surrounded by a tall wall and the house itself has no openings on the first couple of floors other than the front door and various spots to shoot from. It's very impressive and I bet it made its inhabitants feel safe inside.

This photo shows the house part of the property. Notice how the first window you see is small and up on the second floor. The house has a total of four floors with lots of living and storage space. I'm guessing you could stock up and survive for quite a while inside this place. Oh yeah, if you click on the photo and view the larger version, you'll see me in the top-center window...

What castle story would be complete without a little Harry Potter? Pug, here's my best attempt at a Harry-Potter version of the classic "here I am" photo:

As I mentioned earlier, we almost ran out of gas. As the driver, I take full responsibility for this. It cost us being able to visit one last castle (sorry Gema) and it was a nail-biter for a little bit while driving up and down each mountain with the gas light on. We made it to a gas station and filled up at which point we headed back towards Spain.

We ended up stopping in Perpignan, France, to watch the World Cup final. Yes, I along with a bunch of people from Spain watched Spain beat Holland while in France. It was interesting and actually ended up being lots of fun. By the time we arrived back to Barcelona, it was after 2am but the city was still crazy. We got to see riot police and all.

Thanks to Salvador, Diana, Bernar, Gema, and Victor for being great company on a very fun weekend. Also, un abrazo grande a Gema por organizar todo.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Learning Socially-Acceptable Behavior

There's a new series of public-service announcements that have been popping up around Barcelona lately. They're posted at bus stops and metro stations and are pretty funny. The odd thing is that the ads are about topics that you really shouldn't have to teach people about but what can I say. They sort of remind me of those anti-littering ads with the crying "indian" (now: "Native American") that appeared in the 70s in the U.S. I guess everyone needs to learn everything at some point and if you're doing or not doing the things in these ads well then I hope they're effective.

The ads, which are in either Catalon or Spanish, basically say that in Barcelona everything is possible but not everything is acceptable. This one says that running into people with your bicycle is wrong and has a fine that starts at 30 Euros:

Next is an ad that suggests that you pick up your dog's droppings or you may be fined between 300 and 600 Euros:

In Barcelona it's also a problem if you like to destroy public property. Doing so can cost you between 375 and 2,250 Euros:

Finally, and this is my favorite, urinating in a public place will set you back between 180 and 1,125 Euros:

It's interesting that urinating in the street can cost less than not picking up your dog's droppings but who am I to say what things should or shouldn't cost. So, as a review, if you're going to act in a non-socially-acceptable way, pick your poison based on your budget. Also, if you're caught urinating in a public place, make sure your dog is with you and tell the officer that it was the dog (just like you do at home when you have gas)...

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Japanese Classes

Yes, I know what you'll say...why is he taking Japanese classes while living in Spain? I've already been asked. A bunch.

Well, I figured that I really wanted to learn Japanese and I have the time to devote to it now. Why not take a Spanish class? To be honest, my whole day is filled with Spanish and I figured it'd be a good break, something new, and a little bit challenging. The reality is that I'm learning a lot of Spanish grammar in the process of studying the Japanese. Remember, the classes are being taught in Spanish...I'm learning Japanese in Spanish (and Spanish in my Japanese class).

Oh yeah, did I mention that I'm actually taking two Japanese classes at the same time??? I originally wanted to take the Intro to Japanese at the Escola Oficial de Idiomes (Drassanes) here in Barcelona but they didn't have any space the day I went to register. I ended up registering for another Intro to Japanese class being held at the Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya (U.P.C.). The E.O.I. class later had an opening and I decided to go for it and do both. Can you say full-immersion opportunity? :-)

The Escola Oficial de Idiomes is located near the Barcelona water front and port (Drassanes) and is in a fairly boring-looking building...but at least it has somewhat-functioning air conditioning in the classroom:

U.P.C. is located towards the airport but still well in town. The building (Industrial Engineering) where the class is being held also houses the gym that I go to. Unfortunately, there's no air conditioner in the classrooms (or gym for that matter)...

The two-classes thing has actually worked out pretty well as my four-and-a-half hour morning class at U.P.C. is fairly technical and most of the time is spent doing grammar while the two-hour evening class at E.O.I. is more casual and conversational. I've definitely got my hands full though. I'm at the same time proud of how much I've learned in a week-and-a-half but frustrated that I can't get more stuffed into what's left of my brain.

Even though I can't remember all my Katakana and Hiragana, I am picking up quite a bit. I'm actually at the point where I can say things like:

わたしわ ダレン です。

にほんご を べんきようすます。

Pretty cool, huh? Let's see how it looks after four weeks of six-plus hours per day.

Anyway, off to study my kana cards...

あ い う え お か き く け こ さ 。。。

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Colonia Guell Church

As I mentioned in my last post, I got to see another Antoni Gaudi-designed church during a visit to Colonia Guell near Barcelona.

Industrialist Eusubi Guell developed Colonia Guell as a company town where his workers could have a good life. Part of his dream was to provide cultural opportunities including religious facilities. In 1898, Guell asked Gaudi to design and build a church for Colonia Guell. Gaudi worked on various designs and models until construction began in 1908.

The church was designed to have both a lower and an upper nave. Only the lower nave had been constructed by the time the Guell family informed Gaudi in 1914 that they would no longer be financially supporting the project. This photo shows the entrance area of what is the lower nave:

In subsequent years, an alternative roof covering was added to protect the space. This photo shows what would have been the floor of the upper nave as well as the stones that mark the entry to space:

In this photo, you can see where the walls of the lower space would have extended up to the second level as well as the roof that was added later:

Interestingly enough, the grade school that I attended in Philadelphia had a church that, I was told when I was younger, was never completed..only the "basement" had been finished. I was unable to find any evidence of this while google searching but I know that during the years I was at the school, the roof was famous for leaking and, after all, who intentionally builds a church partially under ground with a flat roof? :-) Here's a photo of the side of the church that I took recently that shows just how unfinished the building looks:

Even though the church at Colonia Guell was left unfinished, it represents almost all of Gaudi's architectural innovations in one building. As with the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi used a system of suspended chains and weights (a [poly] funicular model) to create the catenary arches for which he is famous. As I am in nooooooo way an expert on any of this, from what I can tell, he hung chains from a board, joined them together at various points, and then hung a series of weights from them. The resulting shapes are the curved surfaces that we see when we look at his work. Here's a photo I took of what the church would have looked like (note the bottom half shows the suspended chains and weights):

The inside and the outside of the church are spectacular. Gaudi's use of a wide variety of materials is evident everywhere. This is a photo of the roof that covers the entrance area to the lower nave, which shows some of the cool architecture and materials:

This shot shows the side of the church and bell tower. I love how the windows look (to me) like eyes:

I really like the level of details that you can find. Here's a close-up of one the windows and a vent on the side of the church:

Inside, Gaudi was no slouch either. The arches that he creates with his architectural style are truly a work of art. This photo was taken from the entrance area towards the altar. Note, once again, the wide variety of materials, surfaces, and non-straight lines:

As with the Sagrada Familia, one of my favorite Gaudi features is his non-straight, non-uniform columns:

Seeing this church, along with all the other Gaudi works, is amazing. His obvious genius blows me away. I am in awe at the way that he approached his work, solved problems creatively, and used such a variety of raw materials. It doesn't surprise me that people come from all over the world just to look at these buildings. The church at Colonia Guell is a special treat and should definitely be on your Gaudi list if you find yourself in Catalunya one day.