Barcelona: jamón, Christmas poop, and architecture

December 23, 2018
by Dan

Our bus arrived at Barcelona in the evening. From the bus station we too the metro to where we were staying, Meeting Point Hostel in Sants neighborhood. It was a nice quiet neighborhood without too much going on. A bit far from the tourism center of the town, but we ended up liking the area and it was convenient to public transit. And since we weren’t going into the city center every day it wasn’t a big deal. Plus there were some weird things nearby like a mostly empty model prison and the Parc Industrial with a cool dragon slide.

In my opinion, the most important and distinct thing about Spain is ham. It’s like the bread/rice/noodles of any other country. It’s in exactly every single Spanish dish (true facts). And so to illustrate this potentially exaggerated fact, and to continue our trend of pointing out the crazy vending machines that we find throughout the world, here is a picture of a freaking ham vending machine that we found in Barcelona. Case closed.

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Barcelona also has other things going for it besides ham. Namely, Barcelona is the main city in Catalonia. That means despite speaking Spanish, we didn’t really speak the local language. We were kind of excited to get to speak Spanish again. And yes, most people speak Spanish, but a lot of the signs are in Catalan, which looks to me like a mix of Spanish and Italian. Not too hard to decipher, but it still made menus harder to figure out than I was expecting.

It also means lots of protests for independence. Most everyone outside of Catalonia seems indifferent or against this call for independence from the rest of Spain. I figured there would be more of a split opinion here, but it seems very strongly supported. There were flags and graffiti and pro-independence clothing everywhere. So I avoided that topic of conversation but more on this later.

Finally, since we were there for Christmas season, it meant a whole lot of wacky Christmas traditions. Mostly involving poop. Seriously. This really took me by surprise. Surprise poop!

First up is the local addition to the nativity set which consists of a figure squatting to poop called the caganer. There isn’t a great explanation for why this is the case, but it usually has to do with pooping being some great equalizing factor among humans. I think it’s popular because it’s silly. The figurines are for sale in markets everywhere and often there are pooping pop culture figures to be found (Darth Vader, David Bowie, Hello Kitty, etc).

Next up in the Christmas poop category is something called Tió de Nadal. I thought this meant uncle Christmas but in Catalan tió is log. So Christmas log. It’s got eyes on it and you apparently take care of it during Advent, and then put it on fire and/or beat it with sticks and it will shit out presents. I didn’t read about it too carefully just because I like the version of the tradition as it is in my head currently. The point is, it’s pretty weird and I heard lots of little kids singing the Tió de Nadal song when walking past these decorated logs for sale in the Christmas market. I love that we got to visit at Christmas so we could experience these weird unique traditions.

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Another big feature of Barcelona is the architecture. Antoni Gaudí is from here and his architecture is a big reason it is a tourist destination. Our first encounter was on a run through Ciutadella Park. The park itself is really small and not great for running since most of the park is occupied by the zoo (that you can’t run in). Still it seems like a popular place to run in very small circles. Near the park is the Barcelona Arco de Triunfo. In the park is Cascada Monument, which was a work by Gaudí when he was still a student. It’s a crazy large fountain with really beautiful clear pool. You can also climb the stairs to the top of it.

After the run we wandered around the area a bit. We had some beer and bocadillos (sandwiches, usually ham). Then we wandered some more and stumbled upon this crazy looking building. It was like a small colorful version of the Gherkin in London. It’s called either Glóries or Agbar Tower and was built by a Spanish king in 2005. We also stumbled upon a flea market with a crazy sci-fi looking roof which will be discussed in more detail when we returned for a proper visit.

On the next day we paid a visit to La Boqueria Market. It’s mostly a tourism market, but they have some really nice Spanish products, such as the aforementioned jamón. They also had a bunch of juice vendors with some really delicious flavor combos. My favorite was the strawberry and coconut. These juices were legit cheap. You could find deals for 2 juices for 1.5 eur, which on the global scale of juice prices is pretty darn good. Cambodia still has that beat in terms of price and quality, but this is pretty close and the combination with the coconut milk was a game changer in terms of juice drinking experience.

From there we walked over to the Cathedral of Barcelona. This was a huge disappointment. I have complained already at length about being charged an entry fee (a huge entry fee) to see the inside of the church. So let’s just say we didn’t go inside, but the outside was very pretty.

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We then had some time to kill and we took a break inside a little hole in the wall sandwich and booze shop, which despite being right in the thick of Barcelona tourist  land, was quite cheap and super local. The bartender was dangerously generous with the gin for the gin and tonic. Gin and tonic is super popular in Spain BTW. Also vermouth. After drinks we tried to hit up the Picasso museum when the free vising hours rolled around, but we got turned away since you need to pre-book the free tickets. Makes sense, but it was a bummer to miss it.

The next day we made a return visit to the flea market with the space age looking reflective gold roof. It’s really bizarre. We arrived a bit late in the evening and many of the shops were starting to pack up, but there was still a fair number of shops open. Around the outer edge are proper shops selling fabrics or bootleg clothing. In the center were people with tables (or stuff on the floor) full of antiques and various other broken old things as well as household goods and clothes. I loved it.

Our next failed touristing attempt came we tried to visit the Magic Fountain. I chalk this failure up to translation error of Catalan. I guess I was assuming that it was similar enough to Spanish to be able to get the picture of the visiting hours. So we ended up arriving in time for the summer show, which was at least an hour late for when the winter shows happen. So we missed out on the fountain lighting up to music.

Instead we wandered around the nearby square where some pro-independence protesters were blocking traffic. We made our way to the top of Arenas De Barcelona shopping mall, which looks like a Roman amphitheater with Moorish embellishments, and watched the ensuing drama. There weren’t very many protesters, and police eventually unblocked traffic and then there was some shuffling about and re-positioning of the protesters and police. All in all it seemed pretty tame, and almost no one even had any signs with them.

We decided that we had to see the main Gaudí attraction in Barcelona: La Sagrada Familia Basilica. It’s an epic modern church that still isn’t finished after more than 100 years, but they are working on finishing it. The outside is amazing. It’s weird and imposing and interesting. For example there are bouquets of fruit on spires and dragons. I love it. After so many churches and temples on this trip, this one definitely stands out. I personally like the SW side and Christina was more of a fan of the cave-like NE side. Unfortunately though they’ve put up an ugly security barrier around the church. I’m sure Gaudí would not be happy with that addition.

To see the inside of the church it’s a pretty hefty entrance fee. I’m not so offended by this one since the church is still being built and it’s a huge tourist attraction, but I’m still not keen on paying to enter Christian churches for a number of reasons and the fee was just too high for our budget. So we were lucky to be able to attend mass at the church. It’s free, but only happens once on regular Sundays and other holy days (here is the schedule).

We went early on a Sunday morning. The official queue is supposed to start at 8:30 am for the 9:00 am mass but we got there at 8:15 and were about midway in the group. The mass was an interesting mix of languages. Mostly conducted in Latin, but the readings and homily switched between Catalan, Spanish, French, Italian, English and a little bit of German for good measure.

After the mass there were about 10 minutes where we were allowed to hang out inside. The whole group of people pretty much instantly started wandering around photographing after we said our “Thanks be to God” at the end of mass. It is really beautiful inside, with vibrant stained glass casting rainbow light on to the white walls.

The one thing we didn’t get to do, that we would have for the normal 15 euro tour was climb the towers using the beautiful spiral staircases. So I can’t really pass proper judgement, but I think the main feature of the church is the exterior and overall, to see the inside, mass is the way to go though. And to any non-Christians reading this, don’t be intimidated, it’s a rather welcoming set up. Just follow the majority of people when standing or kneeling and know that nobody else there can actually understand what’s going on either.

Since we got up so early, by our standards, to go to mass at Sagrada Familia, we actually had time that afternoon to do a second tourist activity in the same day. We went for a run up to the Montjuic Castle. It was a pleasant but steep run. We chose to go on Sunday because it’s free entry to the castle. I’m really glad we did. There isn’t really anything there to see; I don’t know why they charge an entry fee. But you get a nice view over the city at least and the surrounding area makes the hike up worth it.

From there we ran back down the hill and stopped by the Olympic stadium (fyi: you can run there on the last Sunday of the month). Then we headed down further to see the wacky art deco communications tower nearby in a big open plaza area. It was really cool with the setting sun.

On Christmas Eve we headed out in the evening to do the modernism walking tour that we found online (pdf map). Some of it was kinda cool, some was a let down. But it was a pleasant walk around the city. Many of the buildings you can pay to go inside, but we were happy looking at the outside, and some of the night-time lighting was really cool, especially at Casa Batlló (in blue).

We did the tour in the reverse order, so at the end we arrived at the Palau Theatre. We had purchased tickets to a flamenco show so we got to the see the inside as well. It’s a gorgeous theater with really cool tile work and sculptures and stained glass. Unfortunately the nose bleed seats weren’t the greatest. They needed a little bit more of a step up between the rows. It was a lot of peering around the backs of heads for me. But the show was quite good with really great Spanish guitar music.

The finally, it was Christmas! I was worried that everything was going to be closed leading up to and following Christmas, but it really wasn’t so bad. Most things were just closed on Christmas morning. We had bought enough groceries to carry us easily through the day so we didn’t even go out much.

On Christmas we stayed in the hostel pretty much all day except for a short trip outside for a ring work out. That evening we laid out a huge snack spread with all sorts of cheese, crackers, jamón, and pickled items. Then we watched Die Hard, ate, and drank champagne. Merry Christmas!

Then the next day we left for the airport for Morocco. On the topic of getting to the airport (often complicated via public transit) I did some research and only got this handful of copy/pasted SEO tourism sites that I have learned to equally hate and also rely on. In this case they were utterly useless. They all quote some L9 line which leaves from city center and requires a special expensive ticket (which also doesn’t allow transfers to other transit lines). I don’t know why the L9 line exists.

The actual way to get to the airport is to take the R2 train, which conveniently for us stops by Barcelon Sants, and uses the regular transit tickets that allow transfers to all the other public transit lines in Barcelona. It takes the same amount of time as the L9.

The only catch is that the R2 line drops you off at the domestic terminal and we had to take a shuttle bus to the international departures terminal T1. This wouldn’t be a bit deal but it’s a really long shuttle bus ride. I think it was just driving out of the way for fun. There was a sign in the terminal that said it was just a 1.5 km walk, but it took at good 15 minutes at highway speeds on the bus. Anyway, I’m glad I figured out that we could take the normal trains, but very frustrated that the internet didn’t help me out on that one, we only figured this out with the help of the hostel staff.

Once at the airport we were spent our last few euro coins enjoying some vending coffees while we waited to our flight to depart to the final country on our travels: Morocco.

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Paris & Lyon: snails for lunch, the Eiffel Tower, and surprise lions

December 10, 2018
by Dan and Christina

~Dan~

With the family we took the Eurostar from London to Paris. Once we got settled into our AirBnB our first order of business was going out to a nearby bakery to score some macaroons. My sister is a bit of a fan and has made some herself, so we had tons of fun trying the bakery versions vs the supermarket ones. Also obtained was wine and baguettes. Fun side note on baguettes: you might think it’s a stereotype of the French, but the number of folks that we saw just wandered down the street with a baguette in hand was astounding.

After dinner we went to attend Saturday evening mass at Sacre Cour. The cathedral is perched on top of a huge hill. The view of the city is phenomenal and we got a nice look at the Eiffel tower all lit up and sparkly. The interior of the church is rather simple except for an enormous mural of Jesus, which was pretty cool.

The next day was our only full day in town with the family, and so we went pretty hard with the tourism. Our first stop was the allegedly most visited museum in the world: the Louvre. I had read that the lines to get in were pretty long, and we were going on a Sunday, which had me worried. We got a late start and arrived at noon, but there were hardly any lines for the security or the tickets!

Once inside we bee-lined as a group to the crowds surrounding the Mona Lisa. From there we split up to explore independently for two hours. Not only is the art in there fantastic, the architecture and lighting plays a big part of the experience. I wasn’t expecting to be so in love with the visit. [Note from Christina: The ceilings of the building were one of my favorite parts!]

I didn’t realize at all how massive the Louvre is. Just walking the whole building at a leisurely pace would probably take the better part of an hour. So there is absolutely no way to see the whole place in 2 hours or, really for the matter, a whole day. Still we all had pretty serious museum fatigue at the end of two hours (this is a real medical condition, trust me, I’m a doctor). We pretty much all agreed that if we were to do it again it would require packing snacks (yes that’s allowed… I know right!?) and maybe taking a strategic nap or two on a bench inside the museum.

After our allotted two hours we wandered off for food. Unfortunately the area around the Louvre really sticks it to you for a simple mediocre meal. Again, I really wish I knew about that snack situation.

Following lunch we paid a visit to Notre Dame Cathedral. The outside is super impressive, but I didn’t know much at all about the interior. Turns out, this was what the cathedral level in Time Splitters 2 was based on. It’s pretty obvious in hindsight, but it was fun to recognize while I was there. The stained glass was very impressive.

From there we headed to the Eiffel tower. We arrived a bit after sunset. It was cool to see it all lit up, but we were really hoping to go inside the tower during the day, so that was postponed until the next day. After having some fun photo shoots, we headed home and pretty much collapsed for the day.

The next morning we checked out of the AirBnB and stored our bags in the Gare du Nord station. We were able to get everyone’s things into two large lockers, so that worked out pretty well.

The next item on the agenda was to go out for a proper French meal.

I did some research on this and a ‘proper French meal’ in Paris generally means something super fancy and is described with words like “daring” and “inventive”. Not really what any of us cared about. But I found Le Bouillon Chartier which seemed to be a fine dining experience of classic French food for the common person. The prices were reasonable, the food was tasty, the atmosphere was nice. It was perfect. The main complaint of the place is that it’s busy and they shuffle people in and out too quickly. As a normal American family that wouldn’t typically bother us. But also we were on a tight schedule today so reading complaints about a place with service that is fast (by European standards no less) was perfect for us.

We were the slow part and took a long time to order food. But we were all super happy with what we got. The main event was the escargot. Christina and I were super proud of my sister who tried a snail (there may be a video of this…). My parents had never had snails before, either. My mom went into the meal willing to try just one, but then she ended up absolutely loving them. Way to go mom! And they are really quite delicious.

Then we were on a mission: summit the Eiffel tower or bust. To get into the ticket booth, you have to pass through security. The entire area below the tower is walled off and there is only one entrance on the north east side. Once through security we got worried when we saw the huge line to go up the tower. Luckily that was for the people getting tickets to take the lift up the whole thing. We were planning to walk up the first bit, which is my preferred approach for towers.

The line for the stairs was way shorter, and the tickets are less expensive. We opted to get the tickets that would take us all the way to the top which, no matter what, requires an elevator ride from the second floor viewing platform. It’s possible to buy the tickets in advance but only for the lifts, to walk the steps it seems that you have to buy the tickets in person.

It’s a pretty long hike up to the second stage. We were all worried about the line for the second elevator, but it turns out that it wasn’t so long at all. And the rather small viewing platform at the very top was also surprisingly not very crowded. All in all we spent about 1.5 hrs there. The view from the top is pretty great. I think the most interesting aspect of the city is that the skyline is minimal except for this one patch of skyscrapers off to the NE far from the center of town.

We then went straight back to Gare du Nord station to get the family on their train back to London, and their flight back out of Heathrow. We had a bit of a scary moment when their storage locker was out of order and wouldn’t open, but it didn’t take too long to sort out. So we got them to the Eurostar check in on time! It was really great to have my family join us and see what our life has been like for the last year and a half. I think that they had a good experience, and I hope we inspired some further travel adventures for them. It was great to have you guys visit!

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Once they were on their way, Christina and I had a few hours to kill before meeting up with out Couchsurfing host Anais. We went to meet her and hung out and watched a movie together before bed.

The next day out we didn’t have much planned other than to walk around the city. We really expected to be able to find a nice cafe or library and hang out. This turned out to be more challenging than anticipated. First off cafes are only really open from around 11 am to 5 pm maybe. And even then they are not really places to hang out for very long. It’s more of a midday break sort of thing for French people. That was hard to wrap my head around and I wasn’t super comfortable with the concept of not being able to buy coffee at 8 am. Early morning coffee is not a thing in France, or at least, Paris.

After a pastry at a boulangerie with no WiFi, we found a promising free library near to the Eiffel tower, Bibliotheque Amelie. It was promising mostly because it was open at 10 am… compared to 1 pm for most of the other libraries. The hours kept in Paris were very strange for us. The library is tucked away up a set of stairs inside of some courtyard with government offices. We arrived only to find out that it was closed that day for staff training, but we ended up sitting in the waiting room chairs outside the library and using the WiFi anyway. Plus there was a bathroom and a really cheap coffee machine downstairs, so it all worked out.

We went to take a look at the Champ Elysees, which was pretty boring except for the lights and saw the Arc de Triomphe. By triumph arch standards, it’s pretty impressive. Christina got a short run in before we went to buy some groceries for dinner and meet Anais back at the house.

Christina was inspired by a veggie sushi dish that she had in London which was fake eel sushi made with sauteed eggplant. I was skeptical of recreating this, but it turned out quite perfectly. She just sauteed slices of eggplant in butter and soy sauce and they were amazing. We used apple cider vinegar for the rice and it actually turned out close enough to sushi rice. It was pretty amazing work with limited ingredients.

The next morning we said farewell to Anais (Thank you so much! It was lovely to meet you!) and took off early. We made our way over to the bus station near Bercy. We had some time to kill before our bus. It was cold and the not-open-early cafe situation was pretty dire. Even the Burger King wasn’t open yet. Luckily we were able to pay a visit to the Francois Mitterrand Library. This place is massive, with a forest courtyard in the center. I don’t even know what all is in the four huge towers attached to it.

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To get in you have to go through security. They didn’t mind our huge backpacks even though they were clearly well above the specified limit. There was tons of space to work and free WiFi. It was all very cool and modern. This is definitely a great place to do some work in Paris.

When it was time, we made our way across a cool icy pedestrian bridge to the bus station. It was a bit of a waste land, but they seem to be trying to liven the place up. We hopped on our Flixbus to Lyon.

~Christina~

We were quite surprised to discover that the bus stopped for bathroom breaks every 1.5 hours, and this is a bus that has an on-board bathroom! After the long haul buses in Latin America and Southeast Asia, where at one point we had to argue vociferously for a bathroom stop on a long haul bus with no bathroom, this was a pleasant shock.

We arrived at Lyon and took the metro to our AirBnB, a private room in a shared apartment. Our plan was to just have some downtime and not do much after the visit with the family. Our hosts, Alex and Louisa, were very social folks, and they had friends over a few times during the week, inviting us to join, but mostly we just cooked our meals in and puttered around the house.

One day we went out for lunch to meet Janet, the mother of my friend Matt. Matt grew up in Lyon and is now living elsewhere, but he put us in touch (many thanks!). We met her at Les Gamins de la Place, where we enjoyed savory and sweet crepes with cider, and had a nice chat about travel and research. Thank you so much Janet, it was lovely to meet you.

Despite the cold, we found a time to go for a run in the Parc de la Tête d’Or near our the apartment. It houses a large botanical garden, a zoo, and a velodrome. It was the first time I’ve ever had a surprise lion on my run, which made the pack of deer a little later a bit less impressive.

The velodrome was closed, but we took a peek at it as we ran by, and interrupted our run to visit the botanical garden, which was free.

We made a point to go downtown and have a bite to eat. The main street was lit up pleasantly for Christmas, and the buildings on the Fourvière hill, including the basilica and the court house, also had some very nice architectural lighting.

We ate flat breads and enjoyed happy hour beers at Flam’s Lyon restaurant, which has a all you can eat deal, but I somehow managed to avoid overeating, though exactly how, I’ll never know.

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I returned to the park on another day to do a ring workout, and was very discouraged to discover that though there was lots of playground equipment, there were no monkey or pull up bars to hang the rings on. Also, there were giraffes. Hi.

I nearly gave up, but then I found a nice tree and had a pretty pleasant work out, and I was very proud of myself for managing it despite the cold.

And so, after five pleasantly relaxed days in Lyon, we made our way back to the bus station, and our next destination: Barcelona!