May 142007

St Josep Market, Barcelona, Spain St Josep Market, Barcelona, Spain St Josep Market, Barcelona, Spain
Photo album of St Josep Market, Barcelona, Spain

Gaudí's Barcelona, Spain Gaudí's Barcelona, Spain Gaudí's Barcelona, Spain
Photo album of Gaudí’s Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona, Spain Barcelona, Spain Barcelona, Spain
Photo album of Barcelona, Spain

March 22-24, 2007

Early in the morning we pile into the car and head north from Tarragona north to the Barcelona airport. Why the airport? Well, it seemed the easiest place to return the rental car and head into the city. Ahahahah, how wrong that was. In case you wanted to know, airport construction is going great. Also, don’t take the overpass near the new buildings unless you have a 4WD and can drive around the concrete blocking the perfectly good entrance to the terminals. I now know the business parks next to the airport far better than I should.

After that we took the airport bus into the city and joined the crowds hauling their bags down Rambla to their hotels. Checked in, got settled, and headed to the St Josep market. Though some things were ridiculously expensive (85 Euro per KG cherries anyone?), most offerings were fresh and cheap. Mmmm.. I could go for some agua de sandia right now.

So, it turns out I don’t like pig’s trotters. They aren’t horrible, but there is just something about a meal composed of 90% fat and skin that just doesn’t sit right. Such is the cost of adventurous ordering. After lunch we wandered around the city and checked out outside of Sagrada Família and toured Casa Batlló. I’m not always a fan of his constant curves, but the innovations in his designs were amazing for their day. In fact, many of the designs I like are quite derivative of his work. The audio tour at is worth it to see the roof, but the audio is laughable – “this is the most grand room you will ever enter”, “Gaudí was the most brilliant genius of all time”, “this design is the most modern of all time”. God, what a bunch of fat heads.

The next day we wandered over to Sagrada Família, saw the elevator wait times, and decided to climb up Montjuïc instead. A train ride later and we were climbing up through the gardens to the castle at the top, as the tram is under renovation. The views of the city and harbor are worth the climb.

From the south end of Montjuïc we walked east back into the city and rambled through the Gothic quarter for a while. We explored the roof, cloister, and coin operated tomb at Santa Eulàlia. Eventually running out of change, we spent the rest of the afternoon in Museo Picasso, before catching some tapas. On our way back to the hotel we picked up some late night gelato to go with a bottle of muscetta we still had from Valencia. That’s an excellent nightcap.

Our last day we rushed over to Sagrada Família to be some of the first in the church and up the lifts. It definitely made a difference, we had plenty of time to see the top without fighting our way through crowds. There is nothing better than leaving just as the giant tour buses start to show up.

After that it was time to say good bye to Anna (she will be in Spain for the next week and a bit exploring on her own), check out, then take the areobus to the airport to head to Rome. Walking through the airport I had to laugh that entire legs of jamon were available in duty-free type stores. Wonder if that’s carry-on? Temping…

Apr 302007

March 21, 2007

Morella, Spain Morella, Spain Morella, Spain
Photos of Morella, Spain

After visiting Peñíscola, we headed inland on some secondary roads to Morella. The winding roads brought us high into the hills. It was 15C on the coast, but 4C in the hills, with a lot of wind and a few snow flakes. The town, cathedral, aqueduct, city walls, and high perched castle made it all worth while. Though a small town now, it was definitely a very powerful place at one time. The fortress is a hike to the very top of town and around the rock formations and walls. The history and views will make the motivation for the climb very easy.

Tarragona, Spain Tarragona, Spain Tarragona, Spain
Photos of Tarragona, Spain

Frozen out, we headed back to the coast and up to Tarragona. It seemed like an interesting town, but we arrived just minutes too late in the day to go in many of the tour sites. Walking around at dusk we still had a good look at the plazas, churches, and the Roman amphitheater. We crashed at a hotel in town to head to Barcelona early the next day.

Apr 262007

March 20 & 21, 2007

Peñíscola, Spain Peñíscola, Spain Peñíscola, Spain
Photos of Peñíscola, Spain

After our mountain drive we headed up the coast for Peñíscola. Yes, Colan has run through every possible combination of joke on that one. We probably should have called ahead – a lot of the hotels were closed for the season. A bit of a ghost town now, but clearly this place is hopping in the summer. The and the number of cranes rivals that of downtown San Diego. We checked in to a generic hotel on the beach and admired the castle in between eye-fulls of blowing sand. There is a reason why the surrounding hills sometimes spot new white windmills.

The fortress and the old town were well worth the visit. We arrived before they opened (low season hours) and had a bit of time to have the place almost to ourselves before the tour groups started to show up. The views are amazing – definitely worth the tiny entrance fee.

Apr 232007

March 20th, 2007

CV-20 to Montanejos, Spain CV-20 to Montanejos, Spain CV-20 to Montanejos, Spain
Photos of CV-20 to Montanejos, Spain

We all wanted to see some of the coast from Valencia to Barcelona, and the only way to do that was to rent a car. Herz was nearby, and we picked up a little Skoda for an expensive price, but full insurance. We all fit, and it isn’t gutless, which seems to be very important driving here. Despite having three versions of road maps for Spain, none of them seem to have any of the names of the roads other than the major toll-ways in between the cities. This is less than helpful when you want to explore the countryside. We still managed, if with a few last minute decisions.

Driving in the city was a bit crazy, as the lanes are somewhat arbitrary. Outside the city it was a bit easier. As long as you were cool with the traffic circles, it was pretty easy driving. Though I felt like an old man on the freeway only doing 130 KM/h, everyone else was blowing by me at 180ish in their german bullets.

You could definitely see why they named the region Costa del Azahar – the orange blossom coast. We are here when the endless carpet of trees are heavy with oranges, but I’m sure the scent of this many trees in bloom would be almost overwhelming.

With Anna and Colan castle/fortress spotting, we headed up the coast. We headed inland at CV20 to Montanejos and drove the windy roads up the river valley through tiny towns as scattered rain showers dramatized the sky. It was a very nice drive, and certainly a different sort of environment compared to the coast. I managed to make Pete green from the roads and the funky sausage we had for lunch.

Montanejos itself wasn’t much grander than any of the little towns we passed along the way. Apparently it is a bit of a spa town that becomes a destination in the heat of summer. It also seems to be gaining in popularity for climbing and rafting, but it sure didn’t seem the season for it. It was hard just to find a place open for a simple sandwich and drink. Ultimately it the drive was still worth it, the hills were gorgeous.

Apr 212007

March 16th to 20th, 2007

We came out of the dry plains surrounding Madrid to gentile hills and fertile valleys. It felt a lot like California, actually. The crops are varied, but much like the rest of the coast, the focus is definitely citrus. There is a reason why the Valencia orange bears this region’s name. The farms seem to be a mix of family businesses and full time industry. There are a number of charming old houses and buildings that let you know this area has been producing food for a very long time.

Arriving in Valencia, we piled out of the train to visions of more oranges – in decoration around the train station’s reliefs, as well as orange trees lining streets and public areas. The city seems a bit disjointed at times. The old city core has great buildings and interesting streets. But venture far enough away from that core and you run into soviet era style bland apartment blocks. The cranes seem to suggest they are building more of them.

La Ciudad de las Artes y de las Ciencias La Ciudad de las Artes y de las Ciencias La Ciudad de las Artes y de las Ciencias
Photos of La Ciudad de las Artes y de las Ciencias

Mixed in with this bland architecture, the city has a wonderful park running through the middle of it, following the path of the old river. Near the south end of the park they have a number of new and stylish museum buildings called La Ciudad de las Artes y de las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences). Off in the distance you can see the port cranes that have brought wealth to the city for a very long time. Though pricey, I thought the clear tunnels in L’Oceanografic were worth seeing.

We came to Valencia primarily for the Fallas festival. Wiki does a much better job than I would explaining it:

Fallas (in Spanish) or Falles (in Valencian) are a Valencian tradition which celebrates Saint Joseph’s Day (19 March) in Valencia, Spain. The term Fallas refers to both the celebration and the monuments created during the celebration. Each neighborhood of the city has an organized group of people, the Casal faller, that works all year long holding fundraising parties and dinners, usually featuring the famous specialty paella, and of course much music and laughter. Each casal faller produces a construction known as a falla which is eventually burnt. A casal faller is also known as a comisión fallera. The name of the festival is thus the plural of falla.

Casa fallereo parades Casa fallereo parades Casa fallereo parades
Photos of Casa fallereo parades

Even then, it doesn’t really give you any sense of the scale of the event. It seems like everywhere you walk, you see a falla. Every local seems to be dressed up in traditional woven or gold threaded costumes and in a parade of some sort. When they aren’t doing that, the popular options seem to be a handkerchief around their necks or a blouse style shirt with the logo of their neighborhood. Once you have the outfit down, the only accessories you need are a smoldering rope in one hand, and a bag full of paper wrapped gunpowder in the other.

Valencia during Las Fallas celebration Valencia during Las Fallas celebration Valencia during Las Fallas celebration
Photos of Valencia during Las Fallas celebration

Everywhere in the city you will hear pops and booms, day and night. There are huge mascletà explosions during the day that shake your bones. Fireworks at night, and the ever present random bangs from people throwing firecrackers. The moment you relax for a second – BANG – one goes off beside you. This isn’t just kids either. Everyone gets in on the act. Surprisingly, everyone here seem to have all their fingers and hearing. I’ve got no idea how they manage it.

Ofrenda a la Virgen de los Desamparados Ofrenda a la Virgen de los Desamparados Ofrenda a la Virgen de los Desamparados
Photos of Ofrenda a la Virgen de los Desamparados

On the 17th and 18th each neighborhood takes turn dressing up, and marching with flowers to the virgin (Ofrenda a la Virgen de los Desamparados). There are two routes, and they are packed from about 4-10 pm for two days with different neighborhoods. The size of it all is staggering. The paper proclaimed 50,000 people in parade on one of the days, so I guess it would be 100k people in total from the different casals. Either way, that’s a pretty good turnout rate for the city. When they arrive at the virgin, they add their flowers to the creation, and leave a flower offering that some of the men have carried. By this time the kids have reached the end of their endurance and are starting to get a bit snarly.

Valencia's fallas Valencia's fallas Valencia's fallas
Photos of fallas (falles) monuments, and la cremà

The Fallas are wonderful, overwhelming, and at times, creepy. A few of the themes have writing in Valencian, so we weren’t able to get the full gist, but most were simple enough you didn’t need to read anything to figure them out. A few focused on local topics, like construction and politics. But there were more that picked country or worldwide topics like gay marriage, pollution, and fast food. They are all sculpted in a similar art style and color pallet, so the whole effort seems very coordinated. In fact, there is a whole section of the city that is dedicated to making fallas year round. I’m sure that even as they are constructing these, they are thinking about next year.

The last evening of Fallas started with the fire parade. We assumed it would be similar to the previous parades, with some torches thrown in the mix. The first few minutes of the parade were just that. But then we saw fireworks down the street, slowing moving towards us. A number of people dressed up in red overalls and hats were launching fireworks from sticks that they loaded new fireworks into. It is a good thing most of the buildings are glass and stone, because they were bouncing off the sides of buildings, patios, and roofs.

Cabalgata del fuego Cabalgata del fuego Cabalgata del fuego
Photos of Cabalgata del fuego (fire parade)

After that group came a number of different groups. All seemed to have different themes. Different costumes, props (like metal dragons), music, and pyrotechnics. They all put on a show that would have made an American fire chief run for the hills. The end result was some ember burns in our clothing, itchy eyes, and a lot of smiles.

After the fire parade, they start la cremà, the burning of the fallas. They start with the smaller children’s falla first, then the huge main ones. Each falla is packed with pyrotechnics, then ignited with a string of fire crackers. Fireworks go up, and the flames quickly curl around the falla producing intense heat and black smoke. The falla burns to its wood frame quickly once the fire starts. Besides the wood frame, most fallas these days are are built with polystyrene, rather than paper mache. This makes the structure much lighter and lets the builders be much more creative. But it also makes the flame much more intense, and packs the smoke full of toxins. Make sure you are standing upwind.

Many fallas are set up in street intersections. Some tower several stories, coming close to the six floor limit all of the buildings seem to follow. The intersections are not large, so with a large falla in the middle, the heat on people’s balconies around the falla must be quite intense. There are a few firemen on hand to hose down the buildings and other equipment near the fire, but generally they seem understaffed for the situation by North American standards. Considering they burn hundreds of these a year, I’d say they probably have it down to a science by now.

Mercado Central Mercado Central Mercado Central
Photos of Valencia’s Mercado Central

If you have a chance, the Mercado Central is worth a visit. This beautiful building of iron and glass houses everything you might have on your shopping list, and a whole lot you didn’t. The silk exchange next door is supposed to be amazing on the inside, but it was closed every time we wandered by.

We all really enjoyed our time in Valencia, and the fallas festival. I highly recommend going. Just make sure you book your hotel in advance, and bring ear plugs.

Mar 222007

After a nice drive up the coast and doing some close examinations of the airport construction, we are finally in Barcelona. We should be here for a few days before heading over to Rome. Will try to post more later if I can leech some espania wifi.

Mar 182007

A few days in Spain and I’ve already hit my meat and starch wall. I’ve been snarfing down the oranges from the hotel lobby, but I finally went to a supermercado last night and picked up a bunch of fruit. They had the largest fuji apples I’ve ever seen, I’m crunching one the size of a child’s head for breakfast.

We’ve been in Valencia for a couple days for Falles. It has been a hell of a party so far. It is amazing how many people participate in the festival. Will write and post photos later, there is more of the city to explore for now.

Mar 162007

March 16th, Alaris train

There are plenty of people on the street at six in the morning in Madrid. But they aren’t early risers, they just haven’t gone to bed yet. There is still a bit of a party atmosphere as people stumble onto the first metro trains running. Sloppy grins all around. The couple across from us makes out, and the guys to the other side proclaim just how much they want some jamón.

The train is similar to Amtrak at home inside, but is only one level, and a hell of a lot faster. Renfe’s Alaris train goes 220 KM/H. We speed out of the still dark city nibbling our breakfast pastries. We’ve gone through a few iterations of sterile housing, warehouses, and more warehouses. But now, peeking between those spurts of gray are some fields of green. Madrid needs water the stickers around the city say, but it seems clear that the dry landscape around Madrid also needs the water to be productive. The well used land and crops remind me of an older version of home with olive trees.

In between the bits of agriculture near Madrid there is also a lot of familiar growth. Little bits of ticky-tacky suburban developments cut into some hills. Your pick of two models, and one color. But a little bit further into the trip we start getting into the older parts. A lot of white-washed mud brick farm houses and walls are still standing around, but not many are in use.

The bar/cafe has opened and people are wandering into that section of the train for their morning breakfast, assuming they didn’t get it on the way in. Two girls walk by us. One mentions, “I just want to be a little bit drunk”. It is 7:17 AM. I’m going to have a hell of a time keeping up here.