Wednesday, December 30, 2015

General Observations and Barcelona

Streets of Barcelona.We’ve come back from yet another one of our European trips and I wanted to share (mostly with myself) some thoughts and impressions of our travels through Spain and a little bit of Portugal. I think it makes sense to go through some general thoughts and feelings at first and dive a little deeper into each city we have visited later on.

Overall the best part was just spending some “us” time with my wife. We love our kids dearly, but they are always a handful and it’s hard to really relax with them being around. During these fall vacations of ours we can really enjoy each other’s company while exploring new locations and cuisines of those locations. We can just wonder the streets of an unfamiliar city for hours upon hours. In fact during this particular trip we have averaged about 8 miles of walking per day, including the days when we took the trains from one city to the next.

La Rambla.Of course we have to say a huge thanks to our parents who stayed with our kids, allowing us to take the longest “alone” vacation since Arosha was born. We spent 3 nights in 3 cities and 2 nights in one city. On our previous vacation to Germany it was only 3 nights for 3 cities, meaning that we could have to drop Madrid from this trip — which frankly wouldn’t be a huge loss though.

Alёna’s mom stayed with Anюta and my dad took care of Arosha. My mom helped on both fronts, but she didn’t have to spend her own vacation on us. Again, we’re extremely grateful for having this opportunity to take some time for ourselves every year.

La Rambla.With respect to the cities we visited — Barcelona, Madrid, Seville and Lisbon — if I had to pick my favorite I would have a hard time choosing between Barcelona and Lisbon. I can easily pick my least favorite by far — Madrid. Seville also was very likable. But more on all of that later.

Spanish cuisine has surprised us. We have tried quite a number of places relying on some random choices or TripAdvisor ratings and various other guides and recommendation — which never failed us before — and ended up with a quite unremarkable impression of it all. Not that it was bad, it was just very unmemorable and not special as during our previews trips. Granted, it is possible that we in fact did end up with a bad selection of eateries, but nevertheless that’s what we have taken away from it all.

Streets of Barcelona.We did try numerous tapas, we tried paella and other things guides recommend. My most favorite entries from the tapas selection ended up being Ensaladilla Rusa and a selection of Iberian Acorn Ham (Jamón [xaˈmon] Ibérico) served on a bread with various tomato pastes.

As far as Ensaladilla Rusa goes — it turned out to be a dish commonly present on our holiday dinner tables at home — variations between what we call Olivier and Mimosa salads. For the Jamon — I was never really a big fan of these kind of food — but the Spanish version was quite tasty. And it really has very very little in common with the thing that is called ham in America.

Barcelona.Another surprising thing for us was a complete and utter lack of English in Spain. Nobody speaks it with very few exceptions. For example for our anniversary dinner we ended up in a highly rated places of Spanish Cuisine which didn’t have any menus in English. However we were provided with an English expert that would help us out with anything we needed. The only problem with that concept was the fact that this English expert’s English was only slightly better than my Spanish which is saying quite a lot — I don’t speak any Spanish.

At one time we tried to buy a bus pass which took about 15 minutes instead of 30 seconds. Or our lunch where we basically just somehow managed to get our waiter to pick four tapas for us. Portugal on the other hand was a complete opposite — everyone had great English — like every other European country we visited before. Or Japan.

Barcelona


Avinguda Diagona.Barcelona was the first stop of our trip. Our plane got in quite early and we were by our hotel at around 10am — way to early to normally get a room. But we haven’t slept for the most of the night and I got really motion sick (normally never happens) during the flight for some reason. Very luckily for us they saw our Diamond status with Hilton and gave us a nice room right away. That really saved the day for us. We took a two hour nap and decided to explore the city around the hotel — that actually helped me off walk off my motion sickness as well.

The hotel itself wasn’t exactly in the center, but it was located on a pretty big street called Avinguda Diagonal. We decided to walk towards the center as far as we would feel like. On a sidenote I’ve read through a number of guides of Barclona and for some reason all of them mentioned that you have to be real careful around another famous street called La Rambla because chances are you are going to get robed. So I was thinking to avoid that place altogether.

Streets of Barcelona. Not La Rambla.Funnily enough after talking quite far along Diagonal we saw another big street mostly closed off to traffic. There was a good number of people walking around and a whole bunch of open air restaurants in the middle of it. So we decided that it looked like a nice place to explore so we turned into it. After walking for a couple of blocks we noticed the name of the street. You guessed it, La Rambla.

And I have to say that not a single time throughout our whole trip we felt threatened or uncomfortable in any way. We walked through a lot of touristy places, used public transportation in multiple places and not a single time we didn’t feel as comfortable as we feel at home. So indeed, if you act with common sense nothing will happen. We kept our documents in Alёna steel mesh purse just in case, but I carried my cell phone in my front pocket — as I always do. We did see some people walking around with 1/3 of their phones sticking out of a back pocket — that’s like asking for it to be stolen. Anywhere.

Gothic district.Anyhow — we ended up at the old gothic district — one of the places that we planned to explore. So on the very first evening we saw the main cathedral of Barcelona — another one of our objectives. There was a number of street musicians playing Spanish music and it created a really nice, special atmosphere. We wondered around for quite a bit through the old tiny streets.

Barcelona Subway.It was already getting dark, and we were feeling pretty tired, so we decided to take subway back home. Luckily for as all of the stations are equipped with vending machines which could be operated in English. It was quite easy to figure out and we did easily get back to our hotel.

Streets of Barcelona.We ate our first Spanish dinner in a place right by our hotel called Piscolabis — not the best sounding name for Russian or even English speakers. What they had going for them was a menu with pictures for all the tapas. It was a decent dinner, but as I’ve said before — nothing really stood out. If after Japan or Italy we wanted to find good places specializing in those cuisines in Brooklyn we got no drive to find anything Spanish here.

On the roof at Park Güell.Another thing that stood out for us in Barcelona was how clean it was. A really pleasant city to walk through. It was also covered in Catalan flags. Felt very much like the good old US of A. We really do love our flag over here and so do Catalan people. After all, Catalonia did vote to split off from Spain in a very recent referendum. Not sure it’s going to go anywhere, but they sure do wish it.

Park Güell.On our second day we took a taxi to Park Güell. The most interesting part about this park was the fact that it was designed by Gaudi. Although you need to buy tickets to get into the architectural part of the park, the park itself is pretty big and has a lot of free zones. You can actually rise quite high above the city for some good views, but the sun was shining right in our faces, so no good pictures came out of that. And as far the the Gaudi buildings themselves — they are as visible from outside as they are from the inside for the gated section — as became apparent after we got in. So we’re not quite sure why we paid to get inside after all.

Inside Sagrada Familia.And from there we set course to Sagrada Família — a massive cathedral designed by Gaudi that is still under construction, but it is open to the public. The thing is that we’ve been to a lot of cathedrals all over Europe now. And most of them look very similar, especially inside. Sagrada Familia is nothing like any of them. Gaudi really was an architectural genius. We also had to buy tickets to get inside, but thanks to this being November, lines everywhere were quite short. Also we didn’t get a chance to get onto the top of the towers because the day was windy and they were closed off.

Sagrada Familia.And after that we set course to the gothic district again to wonder the old streets. We did a really nice dinner here this night — thank you TripAdvisor. We walked all the way over to the water with a huge monument to Columbus. Not everyone likes Columbus on this side of the pond, but they sure love him in Spain. And by this time we were spent. Over 10 miles of walking. We jumped onto a train again to get back home for our mandatory 12 hours of sleep.

On the roof at Casa Mila.One the last day of our stay in Barcelona with all our main goals met we decided to knock off a pair of other famous buildings designed by Gaudi. Both of them were located on the next street that runs in parallel to La Rumbla. It was less than a 2 mile walk from our hotel via Av. Diagonal and we had a full day ahead of us. Since it was a Sunday all the stores on Diagonal (lots and lots of fashion stores) were closed as in pretty much any other self respecting European country.

Casa Mila.The first of our two stops was Casa Mila also known as La Pedrera. It really does look like nothing else. We bought the tickets for the inside tour (no lines again) and were able to walk through the inner yards, get up to the roof and take a walk through an apartment-museum where all the old furniture was left in place. We asked our parents who traveled here with a tour group if they have been to the roof, but because of the group size these kinds of things are skipped often — they haven’t been up there.

Casa Batlló.A couple of blocks further was another famous Gaudi building — Casa Batlló. For this one we just sat on a bench in front of it resting our feet and admiring the structure. We decided not to go in inside of this one as one was enough for us. Seeing these in person though did bring up some distant memories. I’m sure I’ve seen it somewhere (pictures) before, I just didn’t really know what it was.

From the roof of Cathedral of Barcelona.And after that we proceed to walk to the same gothic district again. This time we ended up there earlier than previous days, so we decided to take a tour of the main cathedral. We went inside and to our surprise discovered that one could actually get up to the roof, which we did. We took some panoramic pictures and moved on.

Streets of Barcelona.We couldn’t really get an internet connection so we picked a place for our dinner at random. We decided to try some traditional Spanish Paella, but we didn’t make a good choice of a restaurant. It had the illusion of being full, but it turned out to be just one big family occupying several tables. When those people left we were left alone. Tapas were pretty stale and Paella was … not tasty. That was our first and last Paella try. Luckily we were able to fill up on good tapas back at the executive lounge of our Hilton.

Streets of Barcelona.And thus our Barcelona stay has concluded. On the next morning we checked out from our hotel, jumped into a taxi and asked for a drive to the main train station. Our next destination was Madrid.

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