Spain, Day 13-Barcelona

Actually I’m posting this from the airport in Rome, where I have a 5 hour layover, but all the pictures are from yesterday, my last day in Spain (for now). I will definitely come back someday though. I think Barcelona is my favorite of the three cities I’ve been so far. I wish I’d been more organized; I was trying to find something to do Tuesday night when I got back there but all the things I wanted had to be booked in advance, like the monasteries, winery tours, Dali’s house. So Wednesday I decided to go see Park Guell:

After that I went back and wandered around La Ramba area for a while. This area is so much bigger than I thought, especially once you get off the main road. I found La Boqueria market, a gourmet paradise. I probably could have filled another suitcase with cooking supplies. They had stalls with spice, all kinds of flavored salts and olive oils, fresh fruit, dried fruits and nuts, candies, marzipan, vegetables, dates, honey, seafood, meats, even whole rabbits and pheasants and quail still covered in fur and feathers (I’ll spare you a photo of those). Basically, everything.

For now I’m actually looking forward to getting back to a normal routine for a while. The last couple months have been crazy!

Spain, Day-Something-or-other, pretty sure I’m in Madrid

Yeah I’ve lost track of time completely, and I’ve been moving all over the place. In some ways it feels like I’ve been here forever, and I definitely don’t want to leave. I tried to pack as much as I could in today since I didn’t have much time in Madrid. But I got to see all the things I really wanted to though: Palacio Real, Plaza Mayor, el Prado.

First stop was Palacio Real, which is actually the largest royal palace in all Europe. It’s the official residence of the royal family of Spain, although they actually live in the outskirts of Madrid and the Palacio Real is only used for official ceremonies. The interior rooms were stunning. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside. Not that I could have gotten many good shots because the place was absolutely mobbed with tour groups. It was beautiful but I could only stand to be there for about an hour; it was just crazy.

After I left I went and had lunch at Plaza Mayor and did some shopping, then headed over to Museo Nacional del Prado, the main Spanish art museum with one of the greatest collections of European art in the world. Again, no photos and mobs of tourists 馃槮聽 But I got to see so many famous pieces I’ve studied, works by Velazquez, Rubens, Bosch, Titian, and many from Francisco de Goya.

And, of course, the food pics:

Tomorrow morning I’m off to Barcelona again for two days, then home to Beijing early Thursday.

Spain Day 6-Granada

So I鈥檓 in Granada now but I wanted to post a bit from my last day in Barcelona. I took a bus to the National Art Museum on Montjuic, way up in the hills. The museum has a rooftop patio where you can up to look out over the city and it was beautiful. I had the place all to myself. They had a really nice collection of medieval pieces too.

From the museum I walked down to Placa Espanya and looked around, then took the metro back to Port Vell to walk around a bit. Oh, and here’s some pictures of the place I stayed:

I got up early to Wednesday to catch my train to Granada. I love traveling by trains-so much more relaxing than flying. You can just show up 20 minutes before the train leaves, for one. And the security check is much simpler. I was supposed to change trains in Antequera but misread the ticket I guess, because instead of a train we transferred to a bus for the rest of the way to Granada. Only for an hour or so though. These pictures aren鈥檛 great since I took them from the moving bus/train, but driving through Andalusia was so pretty and quiet.

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I got a cab from the bus station to my Airbnb apartment in the Albayz铆n of Granada. Way up in the hills and very close to the Alhambra. There’s so much Middle Eastern influence here, and so much history. It’s also more traditional than Barcelona; they take their siestas very seriously here. So many restaurants and shops were closed when I go her in the afternoon. But I met my host and love this colorful apartment. Then I got dinner at a small outdoor restaurant next door. It was a little chilly but it’s still nice to be able to be outside so much this time of year.

I was a bit worn out from Barcelona so I just took it easy today. I slept in then walked down into the center of town. These pictures are so-so since I just had my phone and it was cloudy and drizzly most of the afternoon. Still a nice walk though. Down. Coming back up the narrow, ancient, twisty cobblestone street in the rain though was work.

Then I spent the evening fighting with multiple websites but finally managed to book the rest of my trip. Leaving Sunday for Madrid for a couple days, then back to Barcelona. That’s where I fly out of so I thought I’d spend my last couple nights there since I loved it. Tomorrow I’m going to try to see the Alhambra so there will definitely be pics of that!

Spain, Day 3-Barcelona

Note: experimenting with layout. If you click the smaller photos it will pull up a slideshow with larger photos and captions.

Finally got to tour the Sagrada Familia today! A little history, for those who don’t know: Construction began by public subscription in 1882 and the artist Antoni Gaud铆 took over as director about a year later. He dedicated the rest of his life to it but the church still isn’t completed; in 2010 it was finally considered half done and there doesn’t seem to be a projected completion date as the work depends on donations and ticket sales. Eighteen towers were planned but only eight have been finished so far. The central tower (that doesn’t exist yet) will make it the tallest building in Barcelona (and the tallest church in the world), but 1 meter shorter than the highest hill-Montju铆c-, as Gaud铆 believed that he shouldn’t build anything higher than God did. There really aren’t words to describe this place, so:

I paid the extra fee to go up the lift into the towers and it was well worth it. The lift takes you up 50 meters to a narrow open air walkway where you cross from one tower to another, and get to take in the view of the city. Then you walk down a spiral staircase in the opposite tower. The stairs are maybe 18 inches wide all the way down, steep, and, oh, spiral. For 50 meters it’s down and around, and down and around, and around, and did I mention I get vertigo? Oh yeah, it was bad. My legs were still shaking about an hour after I got to the bottom. I’d do it again though. It was breathtaking at the top. I doubt it will be completed in my lifetime but I wish I could see it finished.

I am not Christian, and more spiritual than religious, if that makes sense, but I have always wanted to see some of these European cathedrals. Most of what I do know of religion comes from studying art history extensively. For so long the two were very closely entwined. The Catholic Church in particular commissioned some of the greatest masterpieces and employed some of the greatest artists of all time. You can’t help but feel something here, surrounded by the beauty and the history.

After I left La Sagrada, I packed up and headed to my next destination: another Airbnb apartment in the Gothic quarter. I wanted to see different areas of Barcelona so when I booked my trip I decided to split my time here in a couple locations. I will try to post a video of this place tomorrow because it’s awesome-built on the ground floor of a 14th century stone building in La Rambla, that used to house a mint for making coins.

After I checked in here I took the metro a couple stops to Passeig de Gr脿cia. I’d heard good things about the area and the tour bus drove past yesterday but I didn’t get off there. I wanted to see Casa Batll贸 and Casa Mil谩, or La Pedrera, more Gaud铆 masterpieces, just a few blocks from each other.

I’m pretty sure I could stay here forever, drinking cava and sangria and eating tapas and taking pictures of amazing places (or until I run out of money). It’s a wonder I haven’t been hit by a car yet, I’ve spent so much time wandering around gaping up at these buildings. (Kidding, Mom.)

And now, let’s talk food. Or rhapsodize, more like. Also, the drinks. For lunch, I stopped at TapaFina, a small tapas bar by the Jaune 1 station on my way to my new apartment. They had display of various snacks set up on the bar, buffet style, and a “pick 6” deal, so I tried that. Tapas are just a wide variety of snacks/appetizers, so actually this place had pinchos, aka pintxos. “Pincho” is Spanish for “pierce”, and these are usually appetizers pierced to a piece of bread with a cocktail stick. Whatever you call them though, they’re amazing. Especially with cava; made like French champagne but called cava when it’s produced in Spain. For dinner, I found another tapas bar-Txapela’s-across from Casa Batll贸. Highly recommend that one too. Here they have a menu and you order piece by piece, about 鈧1-3 each. Word to the wise though-watch out for their sangria! Delicious, but I couldn’t quite see straight after only half a glass. Yeah. But it was a nice evening, a little chilly outside on the patio, but they were blasting the heaters and I ordered a cappuccino to keep warm (and sober up) while I waited for the sun to go down. I wanted to see Casa Batll贸 lit up at night.

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Worth waiting for!

 

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Spain, Day 1-Barcelona

Apparently, the flight to Spain is about the same length as to the U.S. I was so excited to be going to Spain I didn’t really think about that when I booked my tickets…Two long-haul international flights back-to-back is draining. But I fortunately got a seat in an exit row so I had plenty of room to stretch and good books to keep me company. I flew into Rome first to change planes and sadly that’s all I had time for. Probably for the best though as the Rome airport appeared to be one giant designer shopping mall with a few gates squeezed in here and there, and I don’t think my wallet could take it.

I arrived in Barcelona a little after 5pm Friday local time, managed to navigate the subway to la Sagrada Familia stop, then emerged into a light drizzle and turned in circles trying to figure out which direction to walk. My Airbnb host’s directions were pretty clear but I wasn’t sure if I’d come out of the right exit. I turned back and forth few times, then happened to look up…and up…and up. I knew the apartment was near the cathedral but it still startled me to find it looming over me!

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First view of la Sagrada Familia!
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Sidewalk cafes are all over here, some with little tents around them. There were a couple tables with people drinking coffee in the rain.

From there I was able to orient myself and found the apartment easily. Svitlana and her husband Uri were very friendly and welcoming. Svitlana knows little English and my Spanish is seriously rusty but we managed to understand each other. I pretty much crashed about 8pm as it was 3am for me. But that meant I was able to get up early this morning and go out sightseeing, and, oh boy, I did. I got breakfast at a little deli/bakery across the street:

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I walked around Sagrada Familia to admire the facades, then through a little park nearby. I needed some contact solution but none of the pharmacies were open yet so I kept walking, and walking. It was barely 9 and not many people were out. The weather was trying to be sunny, with sporadic bursts of light rain throughout the day, but it felt like spring to me. After Beijing, 55F feels positively warm, and I have missed rain. Anyway, I had no particular destination, so every time I reached a corner I did a mental coin flip and headed that direction. At one point I saw an odd, iridescent,聽 cylindrical building at the top of a hill, so I set off to see what it was. On the way, I admired all the variations in architecture, then stumbled across an enormous open-air flea market with people selling everything imaginable: antique books, chandeliers, furniture, kitchen implements, clothes, shoes, miles of fabric and ribbon, as-soon-on-TV whatnots, you name it. It turned out to be Encants BCN, one of Europe’s oldest markets; the structure is new but the origins go back to the 14th century.

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The buildings are so beautiful and varied. Of course, I’ve gotten used to the standard, matching, communist block buildings in Beijing, so anything’s an improvement!

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I browsed around for a while, and when I came out the other side I was right next to the funny looking building, which turned out to be Torre Agbar, a huge office building that marks the area of the tech district. Up close, it’s even cooler. The outside is actually painted in big blocks of bright colors-green, orange, pink-but then the whole of it is covered in layers of glass shutters, some open, some closed, some frosted, some clear, making it look iridescent from a distance.

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From there I wound up wandering into this long pedestrian mall that stretched for blocks and blocks. There were tons of boutiques and restaurants and cafes, fruit stalls, flower vendors on the corners. It turned out to be La Poblenau, and I had walked a long way, so I took the metro back to my apartment for lunch and a very short nap. Then I went out to find Placa Catalunya, considered the heart of the city. The plaza itself I wasn’t too impressed by-a big circle filled with pigeons and tourists taking pictures with the pigeons.

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That little dog in the florescent raincoat (bottom right) was having the time of his life chasing birds!

But the area was pretty , with fountains and statues, and I ended up wandering through the little alleyways full of shops and bars and tapas restaurants. I wanted to try some tapas but it was too early for dinner so I kept walking down Las Ramblas, a lively pedestrian boulevard. I found a beautiful hand-made felt purse from one of the craft vendors so I won’t have to drag my backpack everywhere, admired some paintings, and watch the street-performer “statues” come to life:

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I ended up walking all the way down to the harbor at Port Vell, with some spectacular views, then back up the street again for dinner.

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Port Vell

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I had tapas and sangria at a little cafeteria in an alley off of La Rambla, and by the time I was done, the street was packed with tourists. Apparently it’s an evening hotspot. At this point I already had my 27,468 steps in for the day so I got the metro back to my apartment. My feet, they’re not so happy with me right now. Think tomorrow will be a bus tour day…

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So the guy in the bottom left made his own instruments out of 5 gallon buckets, frying pans, etc. Sounded pretty good too! The subways are full of music. Earlier I was on a train with a man playing the accordion. This afternoon, it was two guys with a saxophone and a keyboard. Street musicians everywhere too.

 

 

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This, That, and Everything Else

More of Jess’s adventures in Israel:

I was certain I was prepared for this trip. More so than I had been for any of my other trips. I was wrong. Of course I was. When are we ever truly prepared, 100%? Never. I feel I get closer with each trip, but there is always something missing. The good news? I brought enough to at least bundle up in layers, clothes dries, and walking barefoot in the rain (okay, I was not barefoot, I was wearing Chaco-type shoes) isn’t so bad when the water is cool and refreshing. As Tony (a new friend, that I made in Nazareth – we are hiking together, tomorrow) and I were strolling through the twining, wet streets and up barely upward hills, I was reminded that leaving behind a warmer jacket, waterproof boots, and an umbrella wasn’t so bad. Vendors were scooping up rain water as it was falling off rooftops and dripping through cracks. The clothes, fruits and vegetables, and other things were either floating away or drowning in the water. Things were drenched. Things were flying this way and that way. People were diligently and quickly scooping up and sweeping away the water. At the same time, we knew that the rain was good. It was so good. It doesn’t rain enough here, and it’s needed. I can’t stop thinking about that. Let that resonate. Let it speak volumes to your mind, and let it challenge you. Let it humble you. We can’t always be prepared, regardless of how hard we try. We can make lists, and we can run through them multiple times. We can ask others to run through them with us. We can tell ourselves, “This time, I am prepared. I have learned my lesson. I will not leave my toothbrush. I will prepare clothing for different temperatures and climates. I will bring this and that. The more I travel, the more familiar I become with what to bring and how much of this or that to bring. I will not be without. I will even be more prepared than I need to be, but hey, that is better than forgetting things!” Guess what? The rain will still fall, and it will do so when you least expect it. You will need to improvise. You will need to hurry. You will need to do this and that to be okay. But it will all be so good for one reason or another. As we were roaming through the streets, I noticed that the first thing people did was not to try and bring things inside. It was to tackle the water. It was to face the rain, to stand in it as it was coming down, and to take action.

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We need rain. We need to be humbled. We need to reminded that we cannot foresee what’s to come. We can ready our hearts, minds, and spirits for the unexpected. We can take action. We can move.

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While in Tiberias and Nazareth, the day consisted of both rain and clear skies. For 10 minutes, it would rain and the winds would blow. For another 10 minutes, the skies were blue and clear. Between the raining and the clearing of the skies, there were thick, grey clouds. I was wearing my rain jacket, and then I wasn’t. I would walk through the rain, my feet covered in ice cold water. I was even eating a baguette shawarma. It was delicious.
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I have eaten way too much throughout the past week. I have no shame. The food is delicious. It’s flavorful, juicy, watery, fresh, spicy, salty, sweet, tender, and now I want more food simply talking about it. The lamb and the chicken and the hummus, oh my.

Also, most people at most of the restaurants and bars and stores that I have been to are welcoming, helpful, and kind. They are loving. Of course, I have met some knuckleheads here and there, but that is inevitable in any country, any city or town, at any time. I went out to eat while exploring around the Mahane Yehuda Market (also known as The Shuk), and some pretty cool people told me about a hostel that has live music on Tuesday nights. I was psyched to find that I didn’t have to be a guest nor did I have to pay a cover. I only had to buy a drink – I tried another Israel beer – and mingle with the awesome employees and guests. I had such a great night at this hostel – The Post – in the heart of Jerusalem. This place is energetic, it’s lively. Not just the hostel, but the market and all that surrounds the two places. If you ever go to Jerusalem, both the market and hostel are worth your time and shekels.

I like the food. I like the music. I like the markets and coffee shops and tucked away pubs and restaurants. I like the people. I like the various sights. I have so much to share, and can only cover a smidgen through this post. I have more to tell you. And I shall do so. Later.
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Walking with Elephants-Check!

What an amazing week! After years of wanting to visit Chiang Mai, Thailand, I finally got to cross it off my list. First I have to say I loved the place I stayed-Enchanted Garden Bungalows. I found it on Airbnb.com and they were awesome. I had a little bamboo cabin all to myself, surrounded by the gardens. I got to do my homework on the wraparound porch outside and listen to the waterfall. And swim in the heated saltwater pool every day!

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cm3This place was set outside of Chiang Mai a bit so it was nice and quiet, and I enjoyed walking around the small village. Nearly all the houses I passed had small shrines set up, there were tiny open-air restaurants and markets, even cows wandering around.

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Love the bright colors of this school!
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Enjoyed this beautiful little coffee shop as well-

The number one thing on my list was to go see elephants so I did that first thing Tuesday. I went with a tour about 1.5 hours outside the city to a small elephant farm. I got a recommendation from the resort’s activities director, Janie, as to a good one, as many are too touristy or abusive. There was no riding elephants and they seem to only follow voice commands (or food bribes)-no hitting.

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The scenery up in the hills was beautiful!

cm2We got to prepare food-sugarcane, bananas, and pumpkins-to feed the animals and walked around visiting them for a while. It was a small farm-3 adults and 2 calves, Mina (3 years) and Milo (only 1 year). They eat so much! The adults can pick up half a pumpkin, rind and all, and toss it in their mouths.

Milo was too cute! He had fun splashing in the water and chasing people. (He has to wear a bell around his neck so people hear him coming.) He ran up to headbutt me when we walked in to the yard. The caretakers cautioned us not to push back and just sort of sidestep him so he doesn’t get to forceful. He was so playful and fun to watch though.

After we fed them we ate lunch, then walked the elephants down a steep path to the river for their bath. That was fun. Unfortunately I have no pictures since I was up to my neck in cold, muddy river water! I loved watching them though. We could barely stand up in the strong current but the babies were just rolling around splashing. It was such an amazing experience! (Yeah, you’re gonna get a lot of exclamation points this time. Too bad.

Next stop-The Little Kitchen Thai Cooking School. This was an awesome place. There were a lot of other cooking schools in Chiang Mai but I would absolutely recommend this one-and it was only a 2 minute walk from the resort. Each student gets to pick 5 dishes to make from their menu and they have most of the ingredients all prepped-I felt like I was on a cooking show! Delicious food, too.

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My favorite dish-pineapple fried rice!

I spent one day just walking around the downtown area and going through all the temples and shops. It was a beautiful day for it, too. The clouds almost look fake, but no editing, I swear! I walked all over the place, bought many, many (too many) things, then got a 60 minute foot massage for 200 baht (about $5.67!)

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Monks painting in front of one of the temples
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The iced coffee is some of the best I’ve had, and pad thai (noodles)=yum!

It was seriously hard to make myself come back to Beijing Friday but I managed. Sometimes I’m surprised at how far I’ve come. I had an overnight layover in Kunming, southern China, on the way back. I booked the cheapest hotel I could find close to the airport. I took the free shuttle, which was really a small van with a dozen people and suitcases piled on top of us. The hotel was in an area that might have horrified me a year ago but after all the traveling I’ve done I wasn’t even phased (and it was super comfortable, especially for US$45/night). I just threw my bags in the room and went out for a late 8 kuai dinner from a street vendor.

I can’t believe it’s almost mid-October now. Beijing got a bit chilly while I was gone; my toes have been freezing all day! But I love the crisp fall weather. And in just over 2 months I’ll be home for Christmas. This year is going even faster than the last one. I might have to stay a third…