Monday, May 26, 2008

Adventure #25: Barcelona

Damon had been banking on going to a work conference in Barcelona in mid-May since last fall, so we kept holding off on booking a trip, all the way up until early April. When the company trip plan fell through, we had no choice but to take another vacation. Who could possibly live in Europe for a year and not visit Spain at least once, right?

Last fall, we asked several Spaniards we'd met in Galway the same question: If someone told you they only had time to visit one city in Spain, which would you recommend? I could see the near-tortuous contemplation on their faces, silently crying out, "Spain? Only one city? How can this be possible?" But when they finally made the grueling decision, they all gave the same answer: Barcelona. (They made their cases for additional visits to San Sebastian and Sevilla, of course.)

Barcelona was a little overwhelming to me at first. It's big, bold and eclectic, a sprawling city so large that only a poster-size map would afford you the ability to see all sections of town, especially the tiny little Gothic Quarter passages. On many occasions, we spent 15 minutes walking underground in the never-ending metro tunnels before reaching the platform. Hordes of tourists swarm the streets. But if you like to walk (and we do) and you love food, sparkling wine, diverse architecture, music and the bustling pulse of an oceanside city (ditto here), Barcelona's charms soon overthrow the shock of its stature. Once you get your bearings, learn the ropes and accept the fact that millions of people like you flock to this amazing maritime city every year, you will have a fabulous time. We certainly did.

Barcelona is the second-largest city in Spain and the capital of Catalonia, an autonomous region in northeastern Spain, bordering France and the Andorra region of Spain. They have their own government, cultural traditions, etc., even a language, Catalan, quite different from Spanish, but since we don't speak Spanish, we didn't really notice. :)

We flew Ryanair from Shannon to Girona and took a bus to the main station, Barcelona Nord, in typical Ryanair fashion. We stayed at a house converted into guest rooms called Fashion House, which was located half way between the bus station and the top of La Rambla. Fashion House was a great location and great price, but a little too noisy for us.

We spent our first day walking around, getting a handle locations and distances, while letting sensory overload welcome us in grand Barcelona style. A walk down La Rambla -- passing vendors selling ducks, chickens, turtles, parakeets, ferets, bunnies and more as well as painted street performers miming for money -- led us to La Boqueria, a highlight of the trip. This market blew our minds! It dates back to the early 1200s. You could spend at least a half-day hanging out at the tapas bar counters, sipping on cava and nibbling on croquetas. Just check out our pictures. We ate fresh, grilled calamari and a plate of sauteed mushrooms with our cava, then moved along to Bar Pinotxo, where I waited in line for heavenly morel mushroom croquetas. We bought some chocolates and a Kiwi smoothie before taking a walk around the new boardwalk area by the Aquarium and the port where all the cruise ships dock.

Then we walked through part of the Barri Gothic (Gothic Quarter) and toured the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia with its beautiful cloisters and fountain surrounded by geese. Unfortunately, there is a lot of restoration work happening here now, so we couldn't get a good shot of the exterior. We spent the rest of the day walking over to, and up to Montjuic, the mountainous area where most of the 1992 Summer Olympics buildings were constructed. (We'd hoped to take the gondola from the port over to the mountain, but got turned away by one of the gondola workers even though the guide books said it closed three hours later.) We checked out the stadium, auditorium and the gorgeous views from the plaza in front of the National Art Museum of Catalunya . We also visited a place we did not realize was a theme park called Poble Espanyol. It's a village of tourist shops with all the buildings designed to display different types of Spanish architecture. The buildings were very pretty, though not a highlight of the trip. That night, we ate a hardy, traditional Catalonian dinner at Meson David, a restaurant that had been recommended to us for its value. We finished off the night with mojitos (is there any city that doesn't feature them on every menu?) at this really funky bar that reminded me of a less-commercial version of Rainforest Cafe called El Bosc de les Fades, and we sipped our mojitos by a tree trunk, under its branches, next to the pond adorned with plastic dolls. Crazy place.

The behemoth Sagrada Familia beckoned on our second day, the Antoni Gaudi Catholic church that has been under construction since 1882. He lived his last 16 years inside the church while building it and is buried in the crypt. We'll let the pictures do the rest of the talking; this place is insane. Tourists stand in line for sometimes two hours to ride the elevators up to one of the spires high above the city. That's the only way to go up. We got there at opening and still had to wait nearly one hour. The highlight was the climb down from the top, where we got to stop off at some open terraces jetting out from the side of the church. (Scary!)

Architect Antoni Gaudi left his Modernisme imprint all over Barcelona, and Barcelonians, as well as the rest of the world, will be grateful for thousands of years to come. Once you see a Gaudi building flanked by a traditional business building -- the mosaic tiles and curved lines juxtaposed with bland walls of stone and straight lines -- you want to spend the rest of your time in Barcelona seeing his masterpieces with your own eyes. I know I did.

We went to a disappointing market about 15 minutes from the church (really just a flea market), then doubled back and hopped on the Bus Turistic outside Sagrada (no small feat -- we had to wait in line for at least 30-40 minutes) and rode around during a light rain storm, listening to the history and seeing many sights on the north side of town. Our next Gaudi building we'd hoped to see was Casa Batlló, sadly closed early when we stopped by on Saturday, so we took exterior pictures of it and Gaudi's nearby Casa Milà, then strolled down the fashionable Passeig de Gracia and had tapas and cava at an sidewalk cafe. Afterwards, we found a local artists market happening on Avinguda del Porta de l'Angel, where we also watched a woman dancing flamenco, an amazing tap dancer, and Damon bought me a new bathing suit for our coming Greece trip. We stopped by the Santa Maria del Mar church, then tried to get into the Picasso Museum a couple of times that night (always LONG lines), then had a wonderful dinner at Senyor Paralleda, just east of the Gothic Quarter, before heading down to Placa Reial for an authentic flamenco performance, another highlight of the trip.

We had a lot of ground to cover on our last day. As soon as they opened the doors at Casa Batlló on Sunday morning, we started our tour. The curves, funky windows, stairwells, mosaic tiles and rooftop terrace were a trip. Check out the photos. We also stumbled upon a big race happening on the streets of Barcelona and took a few photos on our way to the Picasso Museum in the Gothic Quarter, determined to get in. We arrived just before opening, and there was still a line of at least 50 people. But we learned that this particular Sunday was free-entry day, so the line went fast. This museum has one of the most extensive collections of artworks by the 20th century Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. I would have liked to have spent more time there, but we booked two seats at a classical concert at Palau de la Música Catalana, mainly to see the interior of this stunning Art Nouveau masterpiece. The music was lovely but the setting was unreal.

Our next Gaudi stop was the Park Güell, a public park on the west side of the city which was originally supposed to be a housing development commissioned by Count Eusebi Güell. It is a UNESCO Heritage Site. We absolutely loved the walking trails, cave-like tunnels, plants, mosaic tile benches and more. We shared a sandwich in the park before hopping on the tourist bus and going to Tibidabo, the highest-point above Barcelona. There is an amusement park here will rides perched on the cliffs -- amazing! -- and you have to either drive a car or ride the funicular to the park, which we did. We treated ourselves to a carmel apple while watching the kids enjoy the rides -- what a surprise we found when I bit into the apple and found that Catalonians like to harden the caramel on their apples!

A little rain hampered our photography opportunities, so we climbed to the top of Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor -- one of these best-kept secret type of places we discovered. We have no idea why more tourists don't pay the 2 euros to take the elevator to the top of this church above Tibidabo, but the views were amazing. We waited for the skies to clear and got some great shots, before finding a terrace bar overlooking the city to stop for a glass of cava. We road the tourist bus on two separate routes, finishing near Barceloneta, an oceanfront neighborhood where we had paella and arros negre, two traditional Spanish dishes, to celebrate our fanastic 2.5 days in Barcelona. I think 4-5 days would be the right amount of time to spend in Barcelona, so hopefully someday, we'll return. Hanging out in the market, sidewalk tapas cafes and beachfront bars sounds like the way I'd like to spend my next trip to Barcelona.

Reality Check on Pricing

We just paid more than 16€ (roughly $24) for a bottle of contact lens solution at the pharmacy in Salthill. The bottle is medium-sized, about as long as my hand from the tip of my fingers to the base of my palm. How's that for a reality check, regardless of the poor exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Euro?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Mother Nature is a cruel flirt

Maybe the Irish are used to Mother Nature's cruel jokes, pouring sunshine and warm temperatures along the West Coast of Ireland after seven months of bone-chilly winds and intermittent rain.

I'm not.

She flirted with me earlier this month. I returned from Prague to find girls in bikinis tip-toeing on the sandy beaches of Salthill. Hordes of people walked along the Prom in shorts and tee shirts, licking balls of vanilla ice cream from atop sugar cones. I painted my toenails. I pulled my capri pants out of storage, deep in the back of my closet. Did I dare believe that summer was here, that this glorious weather would never end?

The Irish told me not to get used to it. Mother Nature is a tease in this part of the world. But I dreamed that this year, just maybe, Ireland would have a warm, sunny summer while us Californians are living near the sea.

We returned from Barcelona on Monday to cool breezes and cloudy skies. Yesterday, I wanted to go running, but it was chilly and windy, so I opted for the treadmill at our gym. Today, it rained all morning. My flip-flops are worthless again. I have no idea when, or if, Mother Nature will stroll in and drop a bucket of sunshine on us again.

The silver lining: we leave for Greece one week from Friday.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Is this what they call an Irish Spring?

The soap company that decided to name its product Irish Spring could have easily called the sudsy bar Irish Winter or Irish Fall, as there doesn't seem to be any difference whatsoever between the three seasons, from my eight months of experience living here.

Ireland is all rain, all cool temperatures, all wind. That's okay in the winter, as it's quite similar to a Northern California winter. But I have been wearing thick socks for eight months straight; my toes are pasty white and gasping for some warm, fresh air, which they are accustomed to enjoying every year by March -- because three months of winter hibernation is really all you get in Northern California -- and me and my toes like it that way.

Damon and I went to Prague for three days last weekend, leaving the cool, rainy, damp Ireland behind us for some sun in the Czech Republic. We savored one day in Prague without a cloud in the sky, and my entire body loved every warming second of the day. When we got off the plane in Dublin, I didn't see a cloud, the air was still and quite almost felt like summer. I turned to Damon and asked, "Are we in Ireland?"

I guess Ireland just skips Spring -- or maybe the weather is different this year -- but I didn't see much change in the weather from January to April. Then May 5th arrived...and summer debuted along with it. Someone in the sky flipped a switch, and suddenly, magically, we have warmth. I knew the Galwegians would be going crazy here. It was about 22 degrees yesterday (71-72 degrees), so they were all out at the beach, girls in bikinis and guys in their swim trunks. You would think it was 85 degrees out, but hey -- these people haven't seen 70 degrees since probably last August. It was definitely the hottest day I've ever experienced here.

I went to French class last night with slip-on sneakers -- NO SOCKS! I wore a tee shirt and capri pants. I felt like an eskimo on vacation in the Caribbean for the first time...strange, out of place. I hadn't walked outside without three layers of clothes and a hood since September. I hope it doesn't end, but I fear that the rain and wind will return soon. The silver lining? We are going to Barcelona in less than two weeks. I am certain I'll be able to wear sandals and shorts for three days: I CANNOT WAIT.

Adventure #24: Prague

We leave our apartment in Galway early on Saturday morning, driving east to Dublin airport. By noon, we're sitting in a Czech beer garden in the center of Prague, eating goulash and dumplings, while sipping on authentic Czech lager beers.

This is the greatest beauty of living in Europe. The ease of traveling is absolutely amazing; the flight took just two hours.

Our vacation in Prague was probably our most relaxing to date. I left our travel guide on the kitchen counter for Damon to read on Friday night; he never read it, we never packed it. We discovered the city with only a map we picked up at the front desk of Miss Sophie's Hotel (and Hostel). It was quite nice to have such an unhurried pace for a getaway.

Prague is considered one of the most romantic cities in the world. It didn't disappoint. Most of the historic center is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was particularly interested in seeing Prague, as my grandfather, Frank Kermashek, was Czech. Many of the locals did look like they could easily be from the Midwest U.S. Most of the women I saw did have features similar to mine and many of the people I grew up around how said their ancestors were from Poland or Czechoslovakia. (Before we left for Prague, Damon told me it's not good to say Czechoslovakia anymore when you travel in the Czech Republic, as that state/country ceased to exist in 1992.)

Travel into Prague was quite easy with public transport. Taxis are notorious for over-charging here, we read, so we took public transport route, which means one bus ride (Bus #119) to Dejvicka (A, Green Line Metro). Then we took the Metro from there -- about one hour travel time total from the airport to our hotel south of Old Town. (Tickets are sold at machines outside the bus stop. A ticket last for more than one hour, and gives you access to Metro and Bus. Tickets were cheap, and no one ever checked or scanned our ticket. It seems the Czechs operate on an honor system.

We started our trip with an authentic Czech lunch -- we got to taste true Goulash (no hamburger meat or elbow macaroni here) -- and wash it down with beers brewed on the premises, typical in Prague. I think the version of Goulash I ate was Pörkölt, typically made of meat, onion, paprika powder, tomatoes, caraway seeds and other additions (though often debated) to the basic recipe. The food was definitely cheaper than Ireland and France. (We usually ate a hardy meal with drinks and an appetizer for under 30€.) Lodging prices were reasonable as well (70€ per night).

Then we wandered through the streets of Mala Strana and got our bearings while finding the sites, figuring out when to visit. We then crossed over the famous Charles Bridge and walked through Old Town Prague, did some shopping, hung out at cafes, people-watching. Horse-drawn carriages take tourists through the streets of Old Town. You can also take car tours in vintage convertibles with a driver's guide for a reasonable price.

That night, we watched the famous Astronomical Clock strike 8 p.m. The 12 Apostles spinning around the open doors were quite cool, as was the skeleton pulling on the rope in unison with the chiming of the tower's bell. After the trip, Damon did some research and told me what the four figures (skeleton is one of them) stand for "the four things that are despised": 1) Death (represented by a skeleton); 2) Vanity (represented by the figure holding a mirror); 3) Greed (the figure with the bag); and 4) the Turkish -- OF COURSE! (the figure with the turban). This totally cracked us up. But overall, the hourly show was a little disappointing. We thought the other parts of the clock would spin too, and we'd be able to understand the reading of the planets, the sun, the moon as well. No luck.

The second day, we strolled through the parks and climbed Petrin Hill and its mini Eiffel Tower overlooking the city. Then we walked through the Prague Senate gardens, followed by a tour of the Jewish Quarter in Prague, Josefov, an amazing experience. I never knew of Prague's rich, Jewish history before planning our visit. The Old Jewish Cemetery left us speechless. It was used beginning in the 15th century. There are an estimated 12,000 graves there, some stacked 12 deep. We also toured a few of the synagogues; Damon had to wear a yamaka (as requested). We also learned that it is customary to wash your hands in the fountain at the exit to the cemetery. (I took a picture of some Italians doing this.)

We discovered that mojitos are all the rage in Prague, so we found a bar that specializes in them and ordered a Raspberry and a Strawberry one.

We then took on an afternoon boat ride on the River Vltava, crossing under the Charles Bridge and many other beautiful bridges in Prague. One of the most fascinating learnings of the trip for me was that most Gothic architecture structures were made of sandstone, and it turns black as it ages. That is why most Gothic buildings are black in color -- it's not pollution, just old age. Charles Bridge is covered with sandstone statues. Damon took some great nighttime photos that evening after we had dinner at Wenceslas Square.

On our last day, we enjoyed a morning stroll along Charles Bridge (very few tourists then), then stumbled upon a vendor cart in the street selling a unusual-looking traditional Czech pastry called Trdlo, so we had to try it. We then toured Prague Castle, St. George's Basilica (oldest church in Prague) and St. Vitus's Basilica (seat of the Archbishop of Prague). We ate goulash soup and beer-soaked sausages at an authentic Czech beer garden, Malostranska Pivnice, near Prague's Little Venice area on Cihelna Street, just under Charles Bridge. We watched some live Czech music near Wenceslas Square that afternoon before buying tickets to a Black Light Theatre performance called "Faust," held at All Colours Theatre that evenings. It was quite interesting to see this intimate, low-budget type of theatrical performance, when we typically watch shows by Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas. We also learned that marionettes have a long history in Prague. The wooden puppets filled souvenir shops, and we couldn't help but bring home one...a gift for someone special back home.

Sadly, we missed the Czech Cubism Museum (closed on Mondays), something I'd really hoped to do. There were also many concerts (classical -- Vivaldi, Mozart) held in the cathedrals every night, which we didn't cramp into our schedule.

Lisbon is still at the top of my list for favorite destinations this year abroad, though Prague's many spired churches, winding river, ornate bridges, hills, parks, cobblestone streets and lively, laid-back atmosphere made it a close second.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Adventure #23: Lisa and Mom in Ireland

Upon our return from Paris, Damon picked us up at the airport, then we stopped off at Kilmacduagh Monastery near Gort, so Mom could see an ancient monastic site.

After the Paris jaunt, Mom and I had two days to enjoy Ireland. Surprisingly, the weather was better here than in Paris. We spent a leisurely day in the Connemara region (see my previous post with background on this region), where we had lunch at an Irish/pub restaurant in Clifden, so Mom could try authentic fish & chips. Then we walked up to the John D'Arcy Monument, overlooking the town of Clifden, before driving out on Sky Road to see dramatic views of the Atlantic Ocean along the coast of Ireland. Then we toured the walled gardens, chateau and church at Kylemore Abbey before driving back to Salthill. Though we wanted to go for a stroll along the bayfront promenade in Galway, we were too tired from walking in Paris for three days, so we skipped it. Mom did get to watch all the prom walkers each day from our balcony, though.

On our last day, we spent the morning relaxing at the apartment and repacking, then went down to the Ballyknow Quay at the end of the River Corrib in Galway to feed the swans, before driving down to Bunratty Castle & Folk Park. Damon and I had visited Bunratty before, though we never attended the medieval banquet dinner held inside the 15th-century castle walls. Bunratty is considered Ireland’s premier visitor attraction.

Before our dinner, we toured the castle first; Bunratty Castle is considered the most complete and authentic medieval fortress in Ireland and is fully furnished. Built in 1425, it was restored in 1954 to its former medieval splendour and now contains mainly 15th and 16th century furnishings, tapestries, and works of art which capture the mood of those times. Then we strolled through the Folk Park while waiting for dinner to begin. Bunratty Folk Park recreates 19th-century life in Ireland. Set on 26 acres, the park includes 30 buildings in a "living" village and rural setting, which spread out at the foot of the castle's massive walls.

We were greeting for dinner inside the castle with a glass of Mead in the main hall of the castle. The walls were draped in tapestries and our hosts dressed in vintage Irish clothes. We listened to harp and voilin players before moving into the dining room. We sat at long, wooden tables next to other guests (everyone at our table was American). We were given only a knife for utensils, so we could eat like they did inside the castle walls centuries ago. (They did give us a little cup of lemon water to dip our fingers into between courses.) We sipped soup straight from the wooden bowl, nibbled on spare ribs, then chicken and potatoes before dessert. Pitchers (pottery-style) filled with white and red wine, as well as water, dotted the table, along with platters of traditional Irish Brown Bread. The hosts sang Irish songs while we ate. Two tourists were also crowned "Lord" and "Lady" for the evening, and were fitted with crowns and special treatment during dinner. We chatted with tourists from Virginia and Texas, one of whom has relatives all along the Kansas/Missouri border leading up to Kansas City. A small world, as always.

The next morning, Damon and I left for Dublin airport around 2:30 a.m., and Mom left for the bus to Shannon airport at 3 a.m. It was a lot of fun to show Mom a little bit of Paris and Western Ireland. I wish she could have stayed a little longer, so we could have relaxed more and seen more at a leisurely pace, but she does have a job and other responsibilities that I have been thrived to shed for one year -- and only four months left of freedom!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Adventure #22: Lisa and Mom in Paris

Mom arrived one day late into Ireland (generator problem on her AerLingus flight from Chicago to Shannon), so she spent her first what-would-be Ireland night at a Holiday Inn near JFK airport in New York. We spent her first day enjoying a rainy afternoon in downtown Galway, though she did get to have a true Bailey's & Coffee -- her favorite drink -- on Irish soil in a Gaelic pub.

Damon dropped us off at the bus terminal on Monday morning, and Mom and I took Bus Eireann to Shannon airport for our short flight to Paris-Beauvais, where we caught another bus into Paris. (Mom got to learn the ins-and-outs of European travel and flying budget airline Ryanair: lots of bus transportation and cheap flights with no frills.)

We checked into our cute little hotel near the Eiffel Tower called Hotel du Champs de Mars, which I highly recommend. I'm not sure you can find anything this nice and centrally located in Paris for 90€ a night. We strolled through the gardens of park Champs de Mars and then along the River Seine, so Mom could see all the wonderful bridges. We crossed over the famous Pont Alexandre III, past the Grand Palais, before enjoying a walk down the lovely Champs-Élysées, where we stopped at a sidewalk cafe and enjoyed tea and hot chocolate, before climbing the Arc de Triomphe. We finished our first day with an authentic French bistro dinner at Chez Georges on Rue Mail, before taking in an evening boat ride on the Seine with Vedettes Pont-Neuf. It rained off and on our first day, but it wasn't too bad.

On Tuesday, we woke up to light rain, which lasted most of the day. We had French pasteries on the famous Rue Cler market street (right around the corner from our hotel), then walked over to the Eiffel Tower to find very long lines, all before 9:30 a.m. We decided to hop on a tourist bus in the rain (and save the Eiffel Tour for Wednesday morning), though the bus became very crowded and difficult to enjoy all the sights, but we were dry. We took one loop on the bus past the L'Opera, Place de la Concorde, Notre Dame and the Louvre before catching the Metro to pick up our Versailles tickets. After a hectic train change to get outside the city to Versailles (we almost lost each other between train cars -- and got on the wrong train), we finally reached our destination and spent a rainy, soggy afternoon at the Palace of Versailles. We avoided the long lines by first visiting the Estate of Marie-Antoinette, a highlight of the trip. The Petit Trianon was under renovations, but we toured her personal theatre, gardens, grotto and the famous farm with her private residence near all the vegetable gardens and farm animals -- goats, sheep, cows, chickens, donkeys, pigs, etc. Then we toured the Grand Trianon, before walking back through the palace gardens to the Chateau Versailles. The lines were gone, and we finally navigated our way onto the second floor (without following a mob of tourists, this proved to be difficult). We strolled through the Chapel, Grand Apartments, Queen's apartments and Hall of Mirrors before having the tour cut 30 minutes short. The web site and brochures said the palace closed at 6:30 p.m. (last entrance at 6 p.m.) But as soon as 6 p.m. hit, they directed everyone to the door. A little bit of a bummer, since I'd planned the visit so that we would have one full hour inside the palace. We enjoyed a casual dinner (replete with French onion soup!) that night at a corner bistro near L'Ecole Militaire, not far from our hotel.

On our last morning, we hoped to get back on the tourist bus for one last loop to get our moneys worth, but the Eiffel Tower still beckoned. We endured the winds and rain while standing in line (probably only waited 45 minutes), before taking the elevators to the second story of the tour. The weather improved and the sun magically appeared when we got to the second level. We then took the metro over to Jardin du Luxembourg for an impromptu picnic lunch with the birds before doing some shopping and heading back to our hotel to collect our bags and take the metro back to Port Maillot to catch our bus back to Paris-Beauvais airport. It was wonderful to show this amazing city to Mom and share the travel experience with her. I just wish we could have spent a week in Paris, taking in all the sights and spending long afternoons sipping wine and people-watching at the cafes.