Sunday, July 14, 2013

Castellers Road Trip To Montpellier France

A mere three days after our whirlwind two-week-plus tour of Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands, I was on a corner in Poble Sec waiting to get on a tour bus. The castellers were going on a road trip - to Montpellier, France!

The two buses left Barcelona on Friday afternoon and made the four-hour drive north to Montpellier to participate as representatives of Barcelona at the Uni Cities Festival, which is a sister-city event held there each year. Look at all those blue-shirted castellers!

Montpellier is located in the south of France about 120 miles or so north of the Spanish-French, which is about 100 miles from Barcelona. The sister-city event had representatives from many of the cities but our group was by far the largest. The Louisville (Kentucky, United States) booth:

We did two demonstrations on Saturday with the first at noon in the town's main plaza followed by another at 5pm in the middle of the sister-city event. In between, the sponsors fed us a very nice catered lunch that included all-you-can-drink wine and beer, which, when thinking about it now, may not be the best plan when you're going to be building human towers later in the day, but whatever...Vive la France!!!

After lunch I had about an hour-and-a-half to walk around and check out the center of Montpellier. The historic core is full of medieval-style winding streets but, with a French flavor, of course. There were a bunch of events taking place at the same time as the sister-city one. This one was some sort of 1920's-themed fashion show or something:

I didn't have a map or really any idea where I was headed while wandering around but I ended up coming across this exceptionally cool and beautiful Roman aqueduct. Those Romans were crafty and seemed to have been everywhere!

The group performing just before our 5pm demonstration was a western-style line-dancing group from Montpellier. Even as I write this I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of French people doing the two-step dressed as and imitating cowboys. The castellers were very good sports and probably about 40-or-so joined in during group-participation. Of course, I got pushed in because, as far as I know, I was the sole representative of the U.S. I'll save you the awkward photos of me trying to dance and put this very nice one of a bunch of castellers being adventurous...

The event organizers also had dinner planned for us but we had about two hours to kill before we could eat. The group went out to explore the town and get some adult beverages to celebrate. The group I was with walked around for about an hour until we arrived at this corner where a bunch of castellers were hanging out. What's funny about this photo is the group seated at one of the tables. They could be straight out of 500 years ago!

Getting the chance to visit Montepellier FOR FREE was awesome. The city was fun especially for a quick trip. Every trip that I've taken to France has been great and this one to the south of France was no exception. Montpellier's main plaza at about 10pm on a Saturday night:

The group (approximately 120 people) was able to stay together at what seemed to me to be part of a school located across the street from the beach about 15 minutes outside of Montpellier. We slept five to a room, which was an interesting experience for me as I've never, if you can believe it, stayed at a youth hostel or other communal-style lodging place. It and the small town we stayed in were surprisingly nice. Getting to walk across the street to sit on the beach after breakfast was a great bonus. Palavas les Flots beach scene for my dad. Sorta' looks like Wildwood, doesn't it? Or is it that all beach towns look the same???

But our work wasn't done. We left France about noon on Sunday and headed straight to the small village of Sant Climent de Llobregat, which is not far from the Barcelona airport, for a demonstration at the town's annual cherry festival. There were two other groups of castellers and it lasted about two hours after which the organizers served a light dinner of more sandwiches just like the ones we made in the rest-stop's parking lot earlier in the day. Still, definitely not bad for FREE! The Sant Climent de Llobregat cherry festival:

I was talking to one of the other castellers about the weekend and he, being a fellow engineer, commented that it was cheaper for him to go away for the weekend than it was to stay in Barcelona. I have to agree as I splurged for 6 euros ($8 U.S.) on some fresh-100%-pure-French croissants and a coffee from a bakery near where we stayed. That was it for the entire weekend. Eight dollars. What a great three-day adventure for $8! Who says travel and adventure have to cost a lot???

Monday, July 8, 2013

Zaanse Schans Holland

Located a few short metro stops but hundreds of years away from the Amsterdam train station is Zaanse Schans, a village that's definitely THE image of Holland I had in my mind (old windmills, green fields, surround by water, you know...) before I arrived:

But wait, what's the deal with the whole Holland versus the Netherlands thing? Turns out that the Netherlands is what the whole country is called while Holland is (just/only) a region of western Netherlands made up of two provinces (North and South Holland). Most of the larger cities (Amsterdam, the Hague, and Rotterdam) and a majority of the population lives in the Hollands so it's somewhat understandable why people refer to the whole country as Holland. The problem is that the non-Holland folks get bummed when you refer to the whole country as Holland sort of like the rest of north and south America when you refer to only people from the United States as Americans.

Visiting Zaanse Schans is basically the Disney equivalent of a historic Holland-ish village, but it's real. And in some cases, the windmills are still producing product for sale like this one that grinds spices and makes oils using only the wind and honkin'-big stones:

The area around Zaanse Schans was home to many many mills but, over time, they started to close down as wind power was replaced with fossil fuels and electricity. Lots of the mills fell into disrepair or burned down and the ones that remain are reconstructions. Something about the old mills appealed to me. Thinking back, I think that it is a combination of the location (beautiful), the intersection of architecture and engineering, and the mini-businesses that operate inside each one. The mill owner/operator must have been (is still?) a Renaissance-style person where they could maintain the building and all the equipment as well as plan and run the business. I could definitely see myself in a role like that!

A couple of the mills allow you up on their decks (for a fee, of course) where you can check out the spinning blades up close. Diana's less than ten feet away from the rapidly whooshing-by blades. Between the sound of the (natural) wind and the sound that the blades make, it's quite noisy but in a nice, white-noise kinda' way. And, yes, again, Diana in her winter coat, and, no, it's not really that cold but we're "warm blooded" peeps!

As with all touristy spots, Zaanse Schans has some shops selling local goods. In this case, it was locally-milled spices, different cheeses, knick-knacks, and other food items. Diana did a good job sampling everything and we picked up some cookies to take back with us to Barcelona.

On our way back to the train station, we had just gotten about half-way across the bridge when a siren sounded and traffic came to a stop. We quickly figured out that the bridge was about to open to allow a boat to pass by. It took less than a minute for the road surface to go completely vertical right before our eyes. There was something Escher-esque about seeing the road, railings, signs, and lights in a vertical position. It's as if we got to see those scenes in Inception in person! (The road wasn't all the way up yet in this photo but it did end up completely vertical.)

Of course we stopped to take a selfie with the town and its windmills in the background:

One other note about the town. Zaanse Schans is also known as being a cacao-roasting area. There is at least one factory-roaster that was working the day we went. As soon as I stepped off the metro, I told Diana that I could smell chocolate roasting. She didn't smell it, or maybe recognize it, at first but as we walked past the factory, the smell was very obvious. There are a few smells that really make me happy and roasting cacao is one of them. (Another's roasting coffee.) I'm not sure how I'd feel living next to a chocolate factory or even a roaster but I'd be happy to give it a try while working my windmill!

Thursday, July 4, 2013


When Diana and I were planning our trip to Brussels, she said that we should also visit Amsterdam  for a couple of days since it's only about two hours from Brussels and then fly back from there directly to Barcelona. Of course I said yes as Amsterdam's one of those places that I've heard about all my life and never thought I'd get to visit. And, hey, the Netherlands is another country to add to the growing list!

Me (and two people from China) at the Amsterdam sign in the park behind the Rijksmuseum of art. And yes, that's my WINTER jacket on! Does it ever get warm in northern Europe?

I really ended up liking Amsterdam for a lot of the same reasons that I really like Barcelona. The city's relatively small and very dense, you can walk almost everywhere, the architecture is lovely, and there are a ton of things to see and do. On the down side, walking around the city seems DANGEROUS!

How many different types of road users can you find in this one intersection in Amsterdam?

 Yes, they say that Amsterdam is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world but, guess what, the combination of trams, buses, pedestrians, mopeds, cars, and bicyclists makes you take your life into your hands crossing every intersection. The problem is that the town is set up to favor bicycles (too much in my opinion), which makes being a pedestrian a little nerve wracking. I'd have to imagine that at least one person a day gets severely injured crossing the street. Crazy!

But, except for that one criticism, Amsterdam's a pretty amazing city. The combination of small streets, lots of shops and restaurants, and the signature canals makes for some great sightseeing and photos. (Note how it's virtually impossible to take a photo anywhere in Amsterdam without having at least one bicycle in the photo.)

The Heineken Brewery and Experience building, which we didn't go in but I figured that my dad, brother, and sister would enjoy seeing/visiting.

There's an odd combination of, for lack of a better way to say it, lifestyles in Amsterdam. The city seems very family friendly as I saw many walking and bicycling around, in the parks, and just hanging out. On the other hand, is the "other side" of the city where it's known for its red-light district. Yes, you can find "coffee shops" on many corners (like this one below) where you can smoke some hash/marijuana or even buy some hallucinogenic mushrooms.

The red-light district is also full of store-display windows like those in almost any town in the world with the exception of what the shops are selling. It was a very weird experience walking down the street and being "called over" to the shops by girls in their (small) underwear "on display" in the shop windows. Unlike when we were in Brussels, we didn't take the time to sample anything that the shops were selling. Maybe next time, right?

Diana enjoying a corn-on-the-cob that she found in the red-light district. She's got an unnatural ability to find it anywhere in the world!

One of the most interesting things that I saw in Amsterdam were bicycles built for family use. As anyone who's spent more than a short time in Europe would know, Europeans see bicycles as a form of transportation while people in the United States tend to see bicycles as something you use for recreation. Lots of bikes that I saw have modifications for use to transport goods and people. My favorites were the bikes that had three or more seats or the ones that combined both utility and people-carrying like this baby-seat-and-utility-basket one below. Oh, and almost no one has a helmet on!

So, what's the local food specialty? We asked our (airbnb) host what she'd recommend we eat that's verrrrry "Amsterdam-ish" and she said that we should find some herring sandwiches. Well, it just so happened that there was a newspaper-stand-style shop that sold herring and other sandwiches a couple of blocks from where we stayed. We asked the guy what he'd suggest we try and he served up a (raw) herring-pickle-and-onion sandwich on a hot dog roll called a "broodje haring". Other than the onions, which I could leave off, it was excellent and not-at-all scary like you might think. It's definitely up my dad's alley. Highly recommended!

We visited two museums while in Amsterdam. The first was one that Diana wanted to see, the Van Gogh Museum, which, if you're a big fan like she is, is impressive and a must-see. If, like me, you've got a passing interest, it's an art museum with a lot of people in it.

The second "museum" we went to was one that I wanted to experience, the Anne Frank House and Museum. Anne Frank, as I'm sure you already know, was a young Jewish girl that spent two years hiding out from the Nazis during World War II with a small group of other people in a hidden-and-windowless apartment above her father's business. She's most famous for writing about her experiences in her diary (you know, whereisannenow), of which the museum has on display.

The Anne Frank Museum (center) and House (second building to the left of the museum - the one to the right of the one with the red awning in this photo):

Let's think about this for a moment. You know when you're with your family, like maybe on vacation, and you need to spend extended times together in small spaces like your hotel room? Yeah? Now imagine doing that for two years with not only members of your family but with a couple randoms as well. Oh, and you can't really move during the day as people in the company's offices below, who don't know you're there, might hear you and could tell someone! Not really my idea of fun but you have to admire what the family was able to endure during that time. The space is not very big and knowing what could happen if you were found out must have been tough.

The only photo I took in the museum before a burly and not-so-friendly guard told me that I couldn't take any photos:

I'd say that the Anne Frank house was probably the highlight of Amsterdam for me. It was very cool to see Anne's handwriting in her actual diaries at the museum. While looking over them, I thought back to reading the book during high school and how, being in the building where it took place, made it so much more real (sort of like the bible). When you read the book, yeah, life seems not too great but when you're actually standing there in the dark and cramped space looking around, well, yeah. Respect.

One last (random) photo that I wanted to share from our trip was this one I took of Diana at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. Schiphol, which is pronounced sort of like "ski pole", has a rooftop viewing platform where you can walk around and look out over the entire airport including the runways and lots of planes loading and unloading. They've got a place to eat and get drinks they've also got an old Fokker airplane (gotta' love that name!) that you can check out up close (but not nearly as close or cool as this). Diana asked me to take a photo of her with her models in the first-class section (note that all the folks behind her are actually in a photo). It looks real at first glance.

Anyway, I was very impressed with Amsterdam and would highly recommend that you visit one day if you get the chance. Good food, fun people, great architecture, and very walkable. What's not to like? Well, other than the fact that everyone on the road is trying to kill you, maybe???