Tuesday, November 22, 2011

O, Valencia!

The Decemberists have a song called "O, Valencia" but it seems to be more of a Romeo and Juliet story rather than about the city of Valencia. What can I tell you about Valencia, Spain? Well...it is the birthplace of Paella, which all of us on the trip love. Kym and Kyle have a big paella pan and make paella before triathlons and whatnot. Valencia is also the third largest city in Spain, after Madrid and Barcelona. It is also on the coast and has a lovely beach. And it's like a three to four hour train ride from Barcelona so you might wonder why we were going there.

In the original trip plan, we had two more cities included: Valencia and Granada. We decided that we would all still go to Valencia as a day trip. This involved waking up very early to catch the subway and then the train. This was painful. And of course the train station was super hot.

We arrive in Valencia and wait for the shuttle.

The train ride was pretty nice though. We had assigned seating and Kelly got to sit next to a very attractive Spanish man. Very attractive. So much so that when they were both sleeping I considered snapping a photo under the guise of "Oh...ha ha...look, Kelly fell asleep. And OMG! Look at the hottie next to her!" But, I didn't. It felt weird. We arrived at the north train station in Valencia, so the first thing we had to do was ride the shuttle to the main train station. And of course once we got to the main train station the first thing we had to do was find some food, because there was a shortage of corn flakes that morning.

We found a little place called Cafe & Te and there was plenty of seating on the sidewalk. As with many places in Spain, you pay a little more to eat outside rather than inside.  Cafe & Te appeared to be some sort of a chain...we saw several in Valencia. We had croissants, donuts, little sandwiches. Erin got something that instead of coming with butter came with a wee little bottle of olive oil (we never got butter in Spain with our bread). I had to take a picture. It was so cute!

Valencia is really a nice city. It had the narrow, twisty streets that Sevilla had. It also had the clipboard people! You know what I mean! The people that stand on street corners in the summer and ask if you have a moment for animal rights or the environment. They are in Spain too! There they were...on the streets of Valencia. Fortunately, I could pretty much say, "No Habla Espanol" so it was a short conversation.

We had picked up maps at the train station, but they were incredibly unhelpful. So, we just sort of wandered and followed the rest of the gang. Lea, Amit, and Kelly wandered off one way and Kym, Kyle, Alan, Erin, and I wandered another way.

The first place we wandered over to the was Mercado Central. We really just wandered around and gawked at all the food. I've included some photos below, but you could also check out this blog post I found that has lovely photos and they actually bought some food there. Sounds like they also got to go to the market in Barcelona, which we missed.

The beautiful domed window in the ceiling.


 A beautiful market!


 Not sure what these are.

Yes, those are calves heads. Shortly before our trip, I had read "How to Eat a Small Country" by Amy Finley in which she writes time spent in France and also mentions eating tete a veu, which is calf's head. And here was a calf's head. Well, a couple of them...and some other parts as well.

We wandered out and explored some paella stalls outside, selling pans, spices, and whatnot. Then we walked past what must have been the textile part of town. See that little group of women there? They are all knitting. The stalls across from them were filled with fabric, thread, yarn, and assorted other crafty goodies.

Our next stop was Valencia's Cathedral. This link has some nice photos as as well. I can't get enough of old cathedrals. They had a nice audio tour that described each of the chapels and the architecture. There is a statue of the Virgin Mary and pregnant women will come there and pray and they walk around around the cathedral nine times and that is supposed to give them a healthy pregnancy.

They also have some relics there - the skull and some bones of a saint (you could not see these very well as they were towards the back of the chapel), as well as the preserved arm of St. Vincent the Martyr. Yes. There is an arm in that box. Not being Catholic, I think I find this all the more fascinating.

They also have what is supposedly the Holy Grail there...yes! The actual Holy Grail.

It's in that little glass case...I'm not sure why they say this is the one. Valencia, Spain seems like a strange place for it to be, but maybe it is. I thought it looked pretty fancy, and I'm going to go with Indiana Jones and think that the cup of a carpenter would be more modest.

Where to next! Well, the bull ring of course! No, we weren't going to a bull fight, but Valencia has a bull fighting museum and we thought we would check it out. Plus, it was free. As part of the exhibit, there is a video of a bullfight, explaining the three stages and some of the history. I have to say - seeing that video was enough for me. I don't have any desire to see an actual bull fight.

The museum was very well done and you really get a sense of the history and culture of bullfighting. You also get a sense of all the matadors who have died. The outfit below was worn by a matador on the day he died. Many of the descriptions of matadors ended with, "and he died two days after being gored" or something like that. 

By this point, we were all ready to head to the beach and to get some paella! It was very warm in Valencia (I'm not sure how warm but the weather channel said it was going to be 90 degrees). We hopped on the bus and headed to the beach front.

We of course stopped first for paella. We were able to sit outside, overlooking the beach, and although our waiter spoke pretty much no English, we managed to order paella for the nine of us and beer. He must have liked us because he brought us shots of something at the end of the meal.

Vegetable paella before.

Vegetable paella after.

And then we just laid on the beach. Ahhh. So nice. The water was very cold, so I just laid on my beach chair and read Sports Illustrated. I think I've mentioned that at this point in the trip I was just so tired. Laying on the beach for a couple hours was a welcome way to spend the afternoon.

Eventually, we had to head back to the train station. We had a little time to kill first. David and I headed over to Cupcake Valencia. That's me below in the train station with my cute little to-go cupcake box.

I also took this photo of the audiology center in Valancia for my sister. Always thinking of you sis!

Then we headed over to the bar in the train station where we met Kym, Kyle, and their little penguin friend.

Nothing says travel like cupcakes and beer.

There were also all sorts of other goodies there...look at those yummy olives. We had little baguette slices with brie and ham. Ham and cheese...what else?

Our train was late. Sigh. And we had another big day ahead of us tomorrow. But on the bight side, the return trip was in the first class car of the train.Unfortunately that doesn't mean much on a train. They never turn the lights on the train off, which made sleeping tough. Sigh. We arrived back in Barcelona about midnight. Time to stop at the store for more cornflakes and then straight to bed!

Oh, in Valencia we also saw this message from Anonymous. Wow. Anonymous is everywhere.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Exploring Barcelona, Part Dos

When we left off, I was hot, tired, and I may have mentioned the need of a bathroom. We had just traveled one of the shadier parts of Barcelona, my feet hurt; I am sure I was thirsty. Sigh. Instead of heading back to La Rambla, we decided to head over to the Olympic park. Was it the '92 Summer Olympics that were in Barcelona? Why yes...yes it was.

To get to the park, which was up a hill, we took the Funicular Montjuic. What is a funicular? It's an inclined railway. Funicular sounds a lot more fun! We got to the top of the hill and I almost immediately turned into crabby "must-find-bathroom- NOW" Michelle. I'm sure that was fun for my travel buddies. Especially since there really didn't seem to be any place public with a restroom to use. We found a garden and on the map the bathroom looked miles away, down a billion steps. But, it was a pretty park and gave me the chance to practice my living statue.

Contemplating why there is no bathroom in sight.

Then we wandered over to the Olympic Stadium, which was pretty neat.

Olympic Stadium from outside.

You can walk right in...no entry fee and you can wander around. It was so cool to think about all the athletes that had competed there...Carl Lewis came to mind because I thought he was just the coolest!

Olympic Stadium inside!

We had a beer and snack and then decided to try and find the pool! David had a poster hanging in his room when he was a kid of the pool and someone diving and the mountains are in the background.

Another view of the stadium and a fountain. No...this isn't the pool.

We walked and walked and walked. And then we walked some more. At one point, David sort of motioned to us to follow him and I thought he had found it, but alas...we just walked some more. We wound up by a museum of some sort, but it was closed because it was a holiday. I think the museum had something to do with the history of Catalonia. We gave up on finding the pool and hopped on the bus back to Placa Carlos Ibanez (there was some confusion with the bus here as the first bus we tried to get on didn't understand what we were trying to say when we were asking if he went to the Placa Carlos Ibanez. The next bus driver didn't understand us either, but we got on anyway).

We did get to the right place.

The cable car in the air.

It was here that we were able to to catch the Transbordador Aeri del Port...a aerial tram that travels 230 ft above the port of Barcelona to Montjuic Hill (which is where we were by the way...Montjuic Hill). There was a French couple who in line seemed very nice, but got all bent out of shape when the tram attendants informed them they needed to fold up the stroller they had. Grrr...come on people! There isn't much space in the tram. They had a very hard time getting it in and I laughed inwardly.

Then I shut my eyes because in addition to being mean, I am also a scaredy cat. I was scared being up that high.

The beach! And a building that looks like a sail!

It dropped us off near the beach, which was very crowded. And why not? Dang! It was hot that day! By this time, we were also hungry and thirsty! Always hungry and thirsty. I think it was about this point that I realized that Spain was seriously kicking my ass. I don't mean to sound like I didn't appreciate the trip, but good golly...I was exhausted. We had just been so busy and there was so much walking and not enough just sitting.

So, it was a good time to just sit and get some sangria made with Cava and a nice snack. I had something sort of like a pizza with cheese and some green vegetable...maybe it was spinach. It was all warm and melty and really hit the spot. The sangria even more so.

mmmmm! Alcohol.

Suitably refreshed, we hit the road again to walk back to our apartment. I don't know what time it was. We walked up the Passeig de Sant Joan which was conveniently where our apartment was located. On the way, we walked under the Arc de Triomf.

 Kym and Kyle. They look so hip and happy.

We had a really nice walk back to our place. Barcelona is a wonderful city for walking with very wide sidewalks, parks liberally interspersed along the way, and it is very organized with straight blocks. None of that skinny, twist road thing going on here.

By the end of the day, I really felt like I had triumphed! I am sure that by the time this picture was taken I was just exhausted, but also so happy. We'd had a great time hanging out with Kym and Kyle and Barcelona was just amazing. Most likely when we got back we sat on the roof and had a glass of wine and shared stories with the gang, but to be honest I don't remember. On a happy note, Kelly had bought a new suitcase to replace the one that got destroyed in Lisbon! Yay! Everyone seemed to have had a good day.

I just want to sit down.

Now, another plus that had happened that day was that we figured out where a restaurant I wanted to try was located. Remember the conference I was at just before we left? There was actually someone there who was from Barcelona. He made several recommendations, one of which was for Cerveseria Catalan. All I knew was that it was on the Carrer Mallorca, which wasn't very descriptive. I was very excited when I saw that it was written up in my guide book! Yay!

Me, Lea, and Kym. Ready to hit the town.

The name means "Catalan Beer Tavern" and there are many cerverserias in Spain. The review was good but said to expect a wait. This place is popular. When we got there, it was fancier than I expected, and there was a small mob waiting outside in the street. Ugh. This did not bode well. We were a group of nine. I imagined it would be hours before we were seated.

The man outside told us to go inside to check on seating indoors. The next thing I knew, we were being seated. Yes. Immediately. Turns out being a group of nine worked to our advantage. They had two large round tables and one was empty. I'm sure if a smaller group had gone we would have waited much longer.

Lea and Kym enjoy some beer and wine.

So, there were were. Wine. Tapas. I had these amazing little green peppers that were seasoned with just salt and a little pepper. The worlds tiniest hamburger. We had cheese. Ham and cheese croquettes. Of course we tried the Spanish omelet. Patatas Bravas which was sooo good - it's basically potatoes with hot sauce but that description does not do it justice. There was a brie with roasted peppers. All so very very good. For those of you keeping score, I am two for two with my recommendations that I received from people!

And then...it was back home. The next day we had to get up early...like 5 a.m. early to catch the train to Valencia. Were we really going to rise so early on our vacation? And why? Stay tuned...there is still more to come.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Exploring Barcelona

Okay, so where was I? What day is it? Wednesday? That sounds about right....It was October 12th. Thank goodness I can look back over Facebook or and get somewhat of an idea of where we were.

Our apartment building. Isn't it lovely? We were on the fourth floor...one of those turrets was ours. Well, not the entire turret. Just one floor.

So...it's Wednesday morning. During the evening, David and I discovered that the nightlife in Barcelona never really stops. It is also a city full of scooters and people seem to ride them all night long. Around 2 a.m. David suggested we head over to the one empty bedroom that was on the other side of the apartment, away from the street. What a fantastic idea! So nice and quiet. About 6 a.m. I suggested we head back to our room and things were fairly quiet until two women on the street below started screaming at each other. What a way to start the day!

It wasn't all bad. The apartment was great, plenty of space for all of us. After a breakfast of cornflakes, the obligatory modeling what I was wearing that day photo (seen below), and some coffee we headed out to explore the city with Kym and Kyle.

ooh! I am so cute!

The Sagrada Familia was only 2-3 blocks from our apartment. Way to go Lea in finding the lodging! The Sagrada Familia, for those of you that don't know, is an amazing church designed by Gaudi that has been under construction now for about 100 years.

 Note construction cranes that nicely accentuate the lovely Sagrada Familia.

Gaudi's life was cut short by a trolley, but obviously he would not have seen it finished anyway. I had been prepared for an incredibly tacky looking building, but I have to say...it is amazing. AMAZING. And I didn't even see the inside this day. The line stretched down the street, around the corner,  down the other street, and around another corner. Yes...it essentially wrapped around the church. We weren't really in the standing in line mood, so off we went!

 But we didn't go far. This is the back of the Sagrada Familia.

Around back is a charming little park so we wandered through there and enjoyed the view of the church.

My talented hubby took this cool photo of a reflection of the Sagrada Familia in the pond. Neat, eh?

What we really wanted was coffee and some pastries, so we just started to sort of wander towards Las Ramblas searching for a place along the way. We some some beautiful pastries, but did not find just the right combination of charming shop, pastries, AND coffee until we stumbled upon this little place.


My favorite, Cafe Con Leche

I'm not sure if the name on the cup is the name of the cafe. What I DO know is that there was a husband and wife running the place and they were so charming and so sweet. I don't even know what the pastry was that we ate, but he told us it was very good, and HE WAS RIGHT! His wife showed us to a little table and they brought us pastries and coffee and it was heaven. The coffee was the best coffee. All the coffee in Spain was the best coffee.

Oh, I forgot to mention - we passed by the bullring on the way to the coffee. Bullfigthing was recently banned in Barcelona. More on that later. Apparently, there is a museum, but it wasn't open. Or we just couldn't figure out how to get in.

Nourished with the elixir of life (cafe con leche), we continued our journey to Las Ramblas. I can only assume we passed through a wealthier part of town because those were some mighty expensive baby strollers I saw in the shop windows in what I can only assume was the part of the city where you shop for baby stuff. Later in the trip we drove down what seemed to be the bridal central...store after store of wedding gowns. But, I digress.

Look! In Spain the food walks hand in hand! So Happy!

Before we hit La Rambla, I spied the official store of the Football Club of Barcelona (Barca). I went in and spent an obscene amount of money on a soccer jersey for the Little Guy. I passed on spending even more to put his name on the back. Was that the right choice? Hmmmm....next time.

So, La Rambla, or Las Ramblas, depending on which website you use, is basically a big outdoor market/promenade. It is full of people, so watch your wallets folks! It is also full of street performers and they draw quite a crowd!

You too can have a photo of yourself and a golden woman for just a few coins.

We also saw some poor guy who appeared to be getting scammed by the whole, "which cup is the ball under" trick. I'll say this about the living statues. They were quite good and just a lot of fun. We saw a lot of living statues in Madrid too, but no one seemed to care about them there.

At some point, we wandered over to an old hospital which is now a library. There was a neat looking little cafe there, but they were power washing the courtyard so we passed that up. 

Our next destination was the Cafe Viena, wherein resides the best sandwich in the world, according to Mark Bittman of the New York Times.

It's pretty inauspicious. We walked past it a few times until I spotted a tiny sign on the door that said something about the New York Times. In we went, grabbed a seat at the bar, and ordered us some ham! Of course we got the Iberian Ham sandwich - the best in the world. And it was...uh...kind of small. But, I have to say. Very good sandwich. Of course, when you are talking ham that can be upwards of $96 a pound (and YES...I did see it for sale in the market and it DID cost that much), you expect a damn good sandwich.

 We are happy, for we are about to eat the best sandwich in the world.

Then we tried to go to the Boqueria, which shows up on all the "DO NOT MISS THIS WHILE YOU ARE IN SPAIN" lists. And it was closed. Because of Columbus. Yes...October 12th. It's a national holiday. Grrrr.  So disappointed.

So, back to La Rambla! A few blocks off La Rambla was a really old church...the oldest in Barcelona. So we wandered down a side street (Saint Pau) that quickly took on a shady feel, and I don't mean trees. At first it was just the presence of crappy looking hostels...then the guys gambling in the street...and then that woman in fishnet stockings who looked a little rough, but surely she isn't a prostitute...but wait a minute...and then the intersection with a hooker on each corner. They were DEFINITELY hookers. So, from the nice part of town where you can buy a baby buggy for $1,000 to the bad part of town where you can buy...never mind.

We found the church. And it was closed. Or, we just couldn't figure out how to get in. I can't remember at this point. I was hot. Spain is hot.

This seems a good point to stop for now. I leave you with a cliff hanger! It's hot! I'm tired! I am getting cranky! Maybe I have to pee! What will happen next? Stay tuned for the rest of Wednesday (it was a really long day. No need for it to be an even longer blog post).

Monday, November 7, 2011

Travel Day: Off to Barcelona!

Tuesday was another travel day! We were off to Barcelona. Although I was sad to leave Sevilla, I was excited to see a new part of Spain. I was also particularly pleased that we would be flying to Barcelona. No horrible bus ride.

Before we left town, David and I and Kym and Kyle decided to head over to Mailboxes, Etc. and ship some things home so we wouldn't have to lug olive oil and stuff all over Spain. We had done this on our honeymoon as well and it worked out great. Well! All I will say is...shipping anything from Spain - very expensive. Note to self: in future buy light weight gifts.

After that little adventure, we stopped at a pastry shop for some sweet treats. I wish we had more shops like this in the Twin Cities. Sure - there's Woullet and Cupcake and Sweets Bakeshop, but nothing like the bakeries and pastry shops I saw in Spain. I miss them so. If anyone knows of a good one in the Twin Cities, let me know.

Fortified by pastry, we finished packing up and headed across town to the bus stop where we would then catch a ride to the airport. Oh, how I wanted to take a cab! I felt like I was going to fall over backwards with my pack on, and I needed a second person to help me even lift it to my back. My plan to get everything in there so I didn't have to carry a pack on my back and pack in front (see Ireland) was a bad plan. The pack on front helped with the balance.

Much sweatier, we arrived at the airport. Check in was a breeze. Security was a breeze. Yes - you heard that right. It was easy. Our flight in Vueling Airlines was quite nice. Overall, a very good travel experience.

Much to my delight, when we arrived in Barcelona, Kelly decided she was going to take a taxi to the apartment and Lea was going with her. Oh joy! I happily agreed to forgo the hour of public transportation and contribute my euro to the taxi ride.

A short cab ride later, and we arrived at our lovely, lovely apartment. Completely furnished in Ikea. Six bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a kitchen the size of a bread box.

First order of business was food. And wine. Well, first order of business is really wine. Since we had some time before the rest of the gang would arrive, we started to wander. Smart women we are, we wandered in the right direction and found this lovely market.

Multiple stands of fruit, meat, seafood. It was so fun!

We had actually passed this in the cab and it appeared from the outside just to be a flower market. I was wrong! I had my first experience pointing and buying and did pretty well, although I bought a single banana instead of a bunch. I was too embarrassed to ask for more.Then we headed across the street to the supermarket and stocked up on wine and beer. Next stop was this amazing bakery with fresh baked bread and some equally amazing looking pastries. The woman working was so so friendly and we got little mini-croissants for free.

We came back home with bread, cheese, a little pizza, strawberries, grapes, bananas, and some other peach/apricot thing I didn't recognize. We had a nice little spread. Oh, tomatoes too because Kym made an amazing bruschetta which is not pictured.

The people at the market were so friendly as well. Catalan is the first language in Barcelona and I speak none of that, but we managed just fine.

Kym and I headed back to the market later to get some food to make dinner, as well as some breakfast items. Cornflakes. I believe dinner was pasta with pesto. We had gotten into a comfortable routine of eating in on travel days.

The apartment had a nice rooftop terrace where we hung out, drank wine, and made plans for the following day.

We also had a view of the Sagrada Familia from the roof top. As you can see, it is still being built.

And then I got busy uploading photos to Facebook!

Another great day. On tap for Wednesday, exploring Barcelona!