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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Spain -- After Thoughts & Photo Albums

Here are some random thoughts and tips for those of you who may be interested in visiting Spain in the near future:
  • For the safety reasons, make sure you carry a cross shoulder bag with you. Leave the passport in the hotel or apartment safe.  Bring a copy of your passport for ID check when you use your credit card.
  • When using your credit card, be careful reviewing your receipts.  You have options to pay with USD or EUR. Palau Musica Catalana charged USD on my credit card without being forthcoming about it until I reviewed my receipt many days later. When you are being charged for USD, look out for statement: "Transaction Currency in USD" on your receipt.  The conversion rate may not be as favorable as your credit card company.  The receipt also stated "I accept that I have been offered a choice of currencies for payment.  I accept the conversion rate amount & that the final selected transaction currency is dollar.  I also accept that my choice of currency is final." on the bottom of the receipts. 
  • On the money subject, also be careful about some ATM machines that may not be associated with Banks.  I took out money from one of the ATM machines on Calle Princesa in Barcelona.  The exchange rate and service charge from the local machine was horrible.  Again, take your time, and read the instructions carefully.
  • A good map is essential to navigate in Barcelona, especially in the old city.  It is also worth taking walking tours offered by the tourism information center to save you time and energy trying to find the narrow small streets. Time Out travel guide has decent maps in the back.  It did not seem to be easy to buy maps in Barcelona as my travel partners D and E had a hard time finding them.
  • For people who may be interested in getting a local Sim card, it is probably better to get a Sim card from larger cellphone network carrier for better connections.
  • For those of you who are debating between apartment rental and hotels, I would suggest that you only rent an apartment if you speak the language, plan on staying in the city for a longer time, and do diligent work preparing for the trip. Otherwise, get a hotel room. 
  • Visit food markets. Better yet, eat at one of the small eateries inside the food market.  It is a unique experience, and you will love it.  While we are on the food subject, do yourself a favor and forget about diet or healthy eating.  Enjoy the food and alcohol. Wine and beer are really cheap in restaurants in Spain compared to the U.S. 
  • Last but not least, a big shout out to D, E, H, and the lovely couple we met on Montjuic.  Without H, the trip would not be possible.  Without D and E, the trip would not nearly be as much fun as it was.  Without the couple, who knows, we could still be on the mountain trying to find our way down.   

8.4 - 8. 6 Barcelona 8.7 -- Gaudi day 8.8 - 8.10 Barcelona
8.10 - 8.13 Madrid 8.12 Segovia  

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Spain: Madrid 8.12 - 8.13.09

* Segovia                                           * Di-Vino                                            * Flamenco Dance 

* Museo Nacional del Prado                                       * Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

Wednesday 8.12.09 -- Segovia 

The water was leaking from the ceiling of our hotel room and we had to change rooms around 1 AM last night.  I guess sleep was a luxury on this trip. 

E and I had planned to visit Segovia and to catch the 8:30 AM AVANT express train at Chamartin train station.  Unfortunately, the metro ride from Sol to Chamartin was longer than what the hotel front desk quoted.  We missed the train by two minutes and had to wait for the next train at 10:30 AM. I was so miserable learning that there was nothing else we could do but to wait in the train station for two hours.  What a waste of time!  So, I finally had some downtime to catch up with my postcard writing and mailed them in the station. I guess it was not a total waste of time after all. 

The first thing I noticed about the train station were the x-ray machines.  Since we did not go through the security check procedure when we took a train in Barcelona, I assumed that it was implemented after the 2004 terrorist bombing attack.  
After a 30 minute train ride, we were at the Segovia train station. Bus 11 was waiting outside the train station to take us to the Segovia town center.  As the bus pulled into the town center, there was this architectural marvel of Roman Aqueduct standing before your eyes.  The Aqueduct was built around 2000 years ago.  It consists of 118 arches, and is 95 feet at it's highest point. 

E and I got a town map from the tourist information office located on the right corner of the square when you pass through the Roman Aqueduct, and began to wonder around the streets of Segovia. It did not take me long to fall in love with this quaint and enchanting old town. Everywhere you landed your eyes on was just picturesque. I felt like I was traveling back in time, or in an almost too pretty to be real movie set.  E and I were so engrossed in our surroundings that we lost trace of each other.  I continued on passing through plaza mayor, Cabildo Catedral de Segovia, and came to Alcazar de Segovia.  The castle was lovely, just what you expected it would be in such an adorable town. But what I enjoyed the most was the panoramic view of Segovia when taking the narrow stairs up to the tower. After the tour of the castle, I got a call from E.  We decided to meet up at the restaurant that I reserved for lunch, Di Vino.  


Di Vino was a modern restaurant that served creative gourmet cuisines. We ordered gazpacho (yummy), squid with potato (A bit too salty for me) for appetizers, raw thin slices of sirloin (fresh, tender, and tasted really good with cheese & maybe balsamic vinaigrette), and we were guessing some kind of local wild boar served medium rare with mustard sauce (again, delicious) for entrees, chocolate brownies (rich and decadent), mint watermelon (light and refreshing) for desserts, and vinos for both of us.  The lunch was a total treat. 

After lunch, E and I went to Cabildo Catedral de Segovia.  I have never seen a catherdral this....  busy for the lack of a better word.  It had a lot going on with all the chapel rooms, cloisters, and the choir stalls.

After we walked out of the cathedral, it was about time to head back to the city. A day trip to Segovia was sufficient, but I enjoyed the town so much that I would have loved to spend a night there. Of course we missed the bus 11 at the town center.  I mean, what else is new?  We took the cab to the train station for about 8 euros.  

Because of the delay this morning, We decided to postpone our afternoon train from 4:08 PM to 6:20 PM.  However, we did not know that we have to change the tickets prior to the departure time.  The woman at the ticket booth did not want to change our tickets at first.  I was thinking, "Great, now I have to buy another ticket." But I guess both E and I played the dumb tourist card pretty well.  Eventually the woman gave in, changed the tickets for us, and charged us 3.8 Euro for the late fee. 

We were back in the city around 8 PM.  E planned on spending the night over at her sister's since it would be her sister's last night in Madrid.  I asked the hotel front desk to book the flamenco dance show at Las Tablas for me. (By the 3rd day of my stay in Madrid, the lovely girl at hotel front desk was like my personal tour guide.  I bothered her with all kind of questions at least twice a day if not more.) The show started at 10:30 PM. The performance venue was by Plaza de Espana, two metro stops from Sol.  It would be my first time taking the metro by myself at night in Madrid.  Even though I was comfortable walking around Madrid so far, I did not want to take any chances. I asked the front desk if it was safe to take the metro at night, especially after the performance ended close to midnight.  She looked at me like I had two heads, and told me that it was safe to take the metro at that time.  There will still be a lot of people around.  

When I walked out of  the Metro station and walked through the Plaza de Espana around 10 PM, there were many people out in the square, young couples sitting on the grass, family with babies walking around, and police patrolling.  I almost felt a bit silly with my paranoia.  Las Tablas was a small venue for flamenco dance.  The show started promptly at 10:30 PM with a six people group.  One female, one male dancer, and four other musicians playing instruments and singing.  The first half of the performance was relatively tame and mundane.  As the time went on, the music became more powerful,  the singing more passionate, the temples turned faster,  the dancers swift with their feet at an impossible speed, and the energy intensified in the whole room.  It was a lot of fun to watch and the performance ended at a high note. 
After the show, I made it back to the hotel safely without any problems.  

Thursday Madrid 8.13.09 -- Last minute museum crunch

It was down to my last few hours in Madrid.  The flight back to New York was this afternoon at 5:20 PM.  I was planning on hitting the other two major museums before I leave. 

I got up early again and headed to Prado Museum before 9 AM.  The temporary exhibition already had a long line of people, but I was the first one in line waiting to see the permanent exhibition.  Once I got in, there were already a few Japanese tour groups inside the museum.  (If you don't know what to see, just follow the tour group, you are guaranteed to see the most important collections in the museum.)  Prado museum has the most complete collection of Spanish painting from 11th-18th centuries. To be honest, as important as Prado Museum is in the art world, paintings from these periods were not really my thing.  I spent two hours in the museum browsing through most Spanish painters' works, including Velazquez, Goya, El Greco, and Murillo.  The highlight for me was seeing Velazquez's most famous painting, Las Meninas. After seeing Picasso's extensive study of the painting at Picasso museum in Barcelona, seeing the original painting was like meeting an old friend. 

After Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum was the next.  It was my favorite museum of all three.  The museum houses European paintings from 13th to 20th centuries.  Walking through the museum, you felt like you were getting a comprehensive art history lessons.  I especially enjoyed the collections from 19th century on and some American painters' works.  
Once I left Thyssen, I was running out of time.  E's sister left early this morning, and E would stay in Madrid for one more night.  We met up for our last lunch in Madrid.  We randomly picked a restaurant near the hotel.  Unfortunately, it was our WORST meal of the entire trip.  What a let down. :( I guess it pays to do a little research on the restaurants, and stay out of tourist areas! 

The past 10 days went by like the blink of an eye.  It was such an action packed and sleep deprived trip.  I enjoyed my Spain adventure, but I was also ready to go home to my husband.   

Adios, Spain.  In the mean time, I know that I have Xunta tapas bar and Sevilla restaurant in New York to satisfy my cravings when I miss you....

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Spain -- Madrid 8.11.09

                                    * Madrid Vision                                                     * La Catedral

                                    * Mercado de San Miguel                                   * Casa Lucas

Tuesday 8.11.09 -- Eat, shop, and be merry
The wake up call from the front desk woke us up at 7:00 AM.  After breakfast in the hotel, we walked to Plaza de Oriente to catch the Madrid Vision bus tour at 9:45 AM. Madrid Vision bus has two routes, Historical Madrid and Modern Madrid.  The total travel time is less than three hours.  It is the easiest way to cover a lot of ground in a short time.  However, this type of sightseeing was never my thing.  I did see  beautiful exteriors of many famous buildings and took a lot of pictures.  Even though the audio guide on the bus provided some basic explanations, but by the time I finished the tour, I could not remember anything.  All these buildings were just a bunch of names that I was not connected to. If I had more time, I would have loved to take the tour inside of Plalacio Real though.  

I said good bye to E and got off the bus on Calle de Serrano as she was meeting her sister's family later, and I wanted to do some shopping.  Calle de Serrano is in the Salamanca district, an upper bourgeois neighborhood.  The street is full of luxury brand shops. It's unfortunate that the street was under heavy construction at the time of my visit.  I knew that Ferran Adria's Fast Good restaurant was nearby.  Since I could not afford the real deal, El Bulli, in Barcelona, I figured that I should at least try his fast food. When I finally found the restaurant (not without getting lost first, of course), it was located inside of an office building, and all it has to offer was SALAD! What?? you gotta be kidding me. UGH.... okay, I refused to come all the way here to eat salad.  There is no way.  So I left disappointed.  

I decided to have lunch at La Catedral near the hotel.  I passed by the restaurant yesterday and was immediately attracted by it's fancy woodwork and charming interiors. The menu of the day was quite a bargain for 10.25 euros.  I had mixed paella and hake fillet with eel. Both came with huge portions and were really delicious.

After lunch, I continued shopping at some smaller streets around Puerta del Sol.  I also went to the supermarket inside El Corte Ingles department store to get Mahou beers for my husband and some ciruelas, small green plums that I discovered during this trip. They were so juicy and sweet.  I have never seen them in New York. 

Finally, I had my hands full with shopping bags. It was time to go back to the hotel.  It was a little past 8 PM.  I was still full from lunch.  But to make up all the dinners we did not have in Barcelona, I vowed to eat well in Madrid.  I quickly freshened up and headed out again. 

I took a stroll from Puerta del Sol to Plaza Mayor.  Tourists seemed to congregate towards this area. There were several street performers. I also saw a lot of police force present. 

After passing through Plaza Mayor, I accidentally discovered Mercado de san Miguel, a iron-canopied food market with striking ornamental details.  I must have stepped into the market at the perfect timing.  At quarter to 9PM, the market was packed.  

There were lines waiting to order food and drinks.  People drank wines and ate pintxos, oysters, and seafood just freshly made from one of the booths.  I had to get something, but it was nearly impossible to find a table or seat in the market.  Finally, I settled for a few fresh oysters.  I was in heaven! The oysters were fresh and delicious. It was even more fun because it was such a surprising discovery. AH~ I LOVE food markets!
Continued on to my dinner quest, I walked to cava Baja, the street that filled with tapas bars. Based upon Maribel's guide,  I decided to check out Casa Lucas on Cava Baja 30.  It is not to be confused with Casa Lucio, Cava Baja 35, which is a well known old establishment, but unfortunately closed in August. (Even the google map mistakes these two.) Casa Lucas was a small contemporary tapas bar with only four sit down tables. I was lucky to be able to get a chair at the bar. I ordered cava to start with. While I was struggling to make sense of the menu on the blackboard, one of the guys behind the bar offered me the English menu, thank god.  I narrowed it down to two choices and asked the bartender for recommendations.  They were so accommodating that they offered to give me a half portion of each dish! 

The food I had at Casa Lucas turned out to be my favorite in Spain: Black pasta stuffed with curry seafood and vegetables over fresco cream cheese sauce.  Fried squid wrapped in bacon with squid ink mousse and garlic mayo.  They sounded amazing already before you took a bite! And let me tell you, they tasted even better than they sounded.  I was so happy sitting at the bar, sipping cava and eating the amazing food, and having an awesome time!  Something about traveling alone in a foreign country where I do not speak their language and nobody knows me is very thrilling to me.  I loved the anonymity and the brand new experience of exploring the unknown territory. All my senses were heightened and I felt totally aware and present.  I left Casa Lucas just before 11 PM.  It was still early, and I would have loved to check our another tapas bar but I was so full that I just could not eat anymore. 


Friday, September 11, 2009

Spain -- Madrid 8.10.09

* Estado Puro                       * Reina Sofia                       * Restaurant Botin

Monday 8.10.09 -- Hola, Madrid

After saying goodbye to D at the airport,  E and I went to the Air Europa check in counter for our flight to Madrid.   I requested a window seat as I did not get to see the bird view of Barcelona when I landed.  Shortly after I got the tickets, I realized that I did not get the window seat! !@#$$#@  E had the window seat and offered to exchange the seat with me.  But it was her first time to Madrid, I can not take her seat.  I went back to the ticket counter.  

"Excuse me, I did not have the window seat." I said.
"Your friend has it." The guy who worked at the counter replied. 
"Ya, I KNOW.  BUT I REQUESTED it. Can I have the window seat, please?" I said, a bit annoyed.  
"But you won't be sitting next to your friend." he said.
"I don't care. I don't care." I said rather impatiently.  Thinking to myself, "I think I will survive being apart from E for 1 hour on the plane."  

The guy exchanged the ticket for me.  I gave him a big smile and a sincere "Thank you very much" to compensate my rather bitchy attitude just now.  Good thing I went back to change the seat, because within that 5 minutes, Air Europa changed their departing gates.  

Apparently, the gate changing happened quite frequently that you should always double check your boarding gate just before boarding time. 

As I walked into the airplane trying to find my seat, I had a bad feeling. "Hummm... it better not be the last row"  And yes, I got the last seat on the last row.  The row in front of the toilet, and seats can't decline.  I bet he was laughing now. Oh well, at least I had a window. 

An hour later, we landed in Madrid.  We took a taxi to our hotel, Victoria 4, centrally located near by Puerta del Sol.  The ride to the city took about 20 minutes and cost around 26 euros.  My first impression of Madrid was that it was a small city compare to Barcelona.  The buildings were more concentrated, the streets were narrower, and there seemed to be a lot of construction going on everywhere. 

The room was not ready when we arrived.  We went to Museo del Jamon around the corner to get some breakfast.  Museo del Jamon is a chain restaurant that you can see everywhere in Madrid.  It was a little before noon.  There were people standing by the bar, eating their mid-day snack and drinking beers.  I noticed that the hams in Spain were often curved by hand, so it was a little thicker.  I liked hams cut by machine, thin as paper.  

After breakfast, we got some bottle water and a city map from near by stores.  By 1PM, we were able to check into our room.  By the time we got to Madrid, I was very much "tourist" out from our trip to Barcelona.  I had little emotional attachments to the sights in Madrid.  I was ready to slow down the pace, and to take it as it comes.  E suggested taking the hop on-hop off bus the next day, and we booked it with the front desk.  I also knew that I wanted to eat the roast suckling pig at Botin.  Ya, i know i know, it's a tourist trap. The seasoned Spain travelers are probably rolling their eyes right now.  Well, what do you expect? I am a first time tourist!  We also asked the front desk to make a reservation at the Botin for us. E tried to contact her sister so we could all meet at the restaurant for dinner.  She still could not complete the phone call.  No problem, we asked the front desk for help.  After staying in an apartment for the past 5 days, and having to DIY everything ourselves, it felt really good to be able to call the front desk to get things arranged, and questions answered.  We took a much needed siesta, and did not come out of the room until 5 PM.  

I wanted to check out the museums in Madrid.  Since it was Monday, the only museum open was Reina Sofia. On the way to the museum, we stopped by Estado Puro, a chic wine bar across from the Naptune fountain, for some tapas and Mahou, the Madrid local beer.  We ordered the cod fritter, fried anchovies, and pig's trotter with cutfish noodles.  The combination of pig's trotter and cutfish noodles were quite interesting.  The textures of these two types of food were totally opposite.  I liked Mahou beer.  It was refreshing and light, perfect for the summer. 

We arrived at Reina Sofia around 6 PM, and decided to purchase the "paseo del arte card" for all three museums.  Reina Sofia's collection focused on modern arts.  We saw many great Spanish artists' work including Dali, Miro, and Picasso.  However, one painting struck my attention.  A first glance at this painting of a car crash and the badly injured guy, I thought, "huh.. this painting was pretty dark." When I saw the painting was called "Self-portrait" I laughed.  I thought, "huh, the painter had some twisted sense of humor."  Then, as I looked closer: "Alfonso Ponce De Leon, 1906 - 1936".  The painting was created in 1936 when he was only 30 years old.  The same year he died.  The hair on the back of my neck just stood up.  What was the story behind this painting? Did he die from the complication of the car crash? I tried to google the painter, but there was very little being said about him.  

After we finished most of the important painters' works on the second floor, we got a text message from E's sister and E had to look for pay phones to contact her sister.  I went up to the terrace and had an beautiful sunset view of the city.  By 8:30 PM, we left the museum and headed toward Botin.  I was not sure if it was Monday, it was raining that day, or I was constantly comparing Madrid with Barcelona, the streets felt relatively quiet, and we did not see as many tourists as we did in Barcelona.  Madrid just seemed like a much smaller city on a scale. 

We arrived at Botin around 9:15 PM.  Botin, established in 1725,  was supposed to be the oldest restaurant in the world.  Ernest Hemingway wrote about this restaurant in the final pages of his book  "The Sun Also Rises".  It was also the restaurant that Andrew Zimmern from "Bizarre Foods" of the travel channel tried his roast suckling pig. 

E's sister and her family were not here. E still could not get in touch with her sister, and we weren't sure if they would join us or not. While we waited, I was able to check out the kitchen and the old stove.  After 15 minutes, E decided we should go ahead and have dinner.  We ordered the gazpacho soup, roast suckling pig, a half pitcher of sangria, and closed the meal with rice pudding.  The suckling pig was pretty good, the skin was crispy and crunchy.  Is it great? or the best? I am not sure, but I am glad that I tried it. After the meal, we took a taxi back to the hotel and called it a night. 


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Spain -- Barcelona 8.9 - 8.10.09

Sunday 8.9.09 -- Montserrat
The sound of a text message woke me up. I had a bad feeling.  I jumped out of the bed, looked at the cell phone. 8:29 AM. "Sh*t! We were late!"  

For the past couple of days, I was the one setting up the alarm to wake D and E up.  Last night, E came home at 2 AM from her sister's hotel.  Half asleep, I moved the alarm half an hour earlier and went back to bed.  Turned out, I did not set up the alarm on my cell phone properly.  We were supposed to get up at 6 AM and take the 8:36 AM train to Montserrat. 
I yelled, "Girls, wake up! We are late. We have 30 minutes to get ready. Hurry up!"  Truth to be told, I did not think we would even be able to catch the 9:36 AM train.  Three girls sharing one bathroom, one hair dryer, one mirror, and trying to be ready in 30 minutes?   I did not think so.  But I have to aim for the best and prepare for the worst. 

I worked D and E like a Drill Sargent. "15 minutes left, girls!"  "5 minutes left, you need to hurry up!"............. I was in the kitchen preparing the sandwiches for lunch since I got ready faster than D and E, giving them the minute count, and thinking to myself, "Holy cow, I look like a mother preparing lunch for her kids and rushing them out to catch the school bus!" 

45 minutes later, we were on the street hailing a cab to the Estanya rail station.  

9:30 AM, we were inside of the station.  D and I bought our Trans Montserrat tickets via cable car version at the tourist information booth in the airport when we first arrived.  E quickly purchased her ticket at the ticket booth in the station. 
9:33 AM, we made the impossible!  Hats off to D and E for their total cooperation.  We were sitting on the train, looking cute as ever.  Montserrat, here we come, finally! 

We have been meaning to visit Montserrat much sooner.  However, with so much happening in the past few days, we had to keep postponing the trip till the last day, unfortunately, the most crowded day of the week, Sunday.  A little over an hour later, we had arrived in Montserrat.  The cable car up to the mountain provided  an amazing view of the landscape.  The monastery was surrounded by majestic figure like sandstone mess.  The church bells were ringing and echoing that created a mystical aura.  Unfortunately, the boys choirs were on holidays during the time we visited, so we decided to to take the funicular car up to the Sant Jeroni Path first.

Having been in the city for the past four days, it was a breath of fresh air and welcomed change of pace to hike on the mountain.  The hike was pretty mild and easy.  We were fascinated by all the surrounding  gigantic stones.  We looked for the hidden faces and figures.  There were so many! This smiley face was our favorite.  We even gave it a name (which I forgot already..)  

It felt like these stones had thousand-year old souls. They created an indescribable energy in the air.  We rested on top of the mountain with a 360 degree view.  After awhile, We began hearing thunders, one louder than another.  The clouds slowly gathered.  We were not ready to leave yet.  Then,  lightning pierced through the dark cloud.  Eventually, we felt rain drops.  We knew it was time to go.  We walked back to take the Funicular car down to  the monastery.  

By the time we got down to the monastery, it was raining cats and dogs. The trans Montserrat ticket included a short film about the monastery.  After the short film, the rain stopped.  We walked to the Basilica.  On the way there, we got distracted by the local food vendors selling all kinds of cheese and honey.  All of them were eager to offer you some generous samples.  Before we knew it, we were sampling all kinds of cheese and walked way passed the Basilica.  

Once we were back to the Basilica, there was a huge line of people waiting to see the black virgin.  Oh well, it was a Sunday.  We waited in line immediately, and took turns to visit the inside of the Basilica.  It took us almost an hour and a half to finally see the black virgin.  I was focused on taking pictures of the black virgin that I did not even take a good look at her.  Walking out of the Basilica, I was like, "Wait a second. Why did I just spend 90 minutes waiting in line to see the black virgin?? I am not even catholic."

We went back to the vendors to buy some cheese and honey.  It started pouring again.  We ran into the cafeteria, got some coffee and shared the cheese cake we just bought from the vendors.  I am not sure if there is a name for the cake, but it was so creamy, moist, and super tasty.   

The weather was really miserable.  The sky was dark, the rain poured like a waterfall, and lightning and thunder kept on going. It was definitely the weather we did not experience in Barcelona.  We were finally not hot and sweaty for a change.  We were cold and wet.  I was glad that we went up to the mountain first.  I would hate to miss the hike, the view, and the sandstones.  We decided to head back to the city and ran to the cable car station in the pouring rain.  Once we got there, it was another long line for about a 45 minute wait.  

We got back to the city around 7:30 PM.  It was still early!  It was our last night in the city.  We decided to have a nice dinner before D flew to Rome to meet up with her husband, and E and I flew to Madrid.  I went home first as D and E went to the internet cafe to check on their emails.  After I was showered and dressed, D and E were still not home.  Huh.. this is taking a lot longer than I expected.  I started packing  while I waited.  Finally around 9:30 PM, D and E came home.  "This is ridiculous! It's getting so late. Let's go, before we would miss the dinner again!" D stormed into the apartment rather annoyed.  "Are we going to take a shower and change first?" E asked.  "We don't have time! Let's just go.  We still have to come home to pack after dinner."  D said.  I asked D and E what took them so long at the internet cafe.  Turned out, it was the mysterious phone situation with E trying to call her sister and not having any success in the phone center.  D lost it in the phone center and made a scene.  People working in the center tried to help to no avail.  Finally D and E had to give up calling E's sister and came home.  (I was secretly relieved that I was not there.  Two Leos going crazy at the same time is not something anyone wants to witness.)  

Just before we were about to leave, D came to a realization.  "Why do I even bother to bring a bag with me? I have been running around pretending I have something worth stealing on me. You know what, I am just gonna go."  I could not stop laughing.   It was true.  D had nothing valuable on her anymore.  No camera, no cellphone, no credit card, no money.  E had lent D some cash, and I helped D with credit card purchases.  We were all a bit paranoid with our belongings walking on the streets and taking the metro since the robbery incident.  So was D, protecting her bag with nothing in it.  

E still needed to meet up with her sister for the Madrid hotel arrangement before our flight tomorrow morning.  As we stepped out of the apartment, E's sister called.  I gave E my cell phone and parted ways.   D and I headed to La Paradeta for seafood.  Unfortunately, it was closed on Sunday. UGH... it's like there is this dark force preventing us from enjoying the food in Barcelona.  So many good restaurants I wanted to go were closed in August.  We were always rushing to eat and had to eat out of convenience most of the time.  The one day we had a decent dinner, D got robbed. What the heck??

So, with no specific place in mind, we checked out a few restaurants on Passeig del Born and settled on the restaurant, La Tavern del Born.  We ordered Spanish wine for a change, a few tapas and tried trips (it's probably pork trips, I prefer beef trips much better).  With food in our stomachs and alcohol in our blood, we were semi-relaxed despite the fact that the restaurant was rather loud and smoky.  We left the restaurant a little past midnight and went home packing. 

E came home around 2 AM.  As if we did not spend enough time together the past couple of days, We kept on talking until we all lost our voices.  I was the first one going to bed around 3AM, and E stayed up the whole night.

This trip had been hectic, stressful and full of drama.  We did not even have time to do any shopping!  However,  the opportunity for three married women in their 30's having a girlfriend getaway in Barcelona was hard to come by.  We really enjoyed one another's company and this unique and crazy experience.

Monday 8.10.09 -- Adios, Barcelona
Last shot of the group in the apartment before we left to the airport. 8.10.09 6:30 AM.


Monday, September 7, 2009

Spain -- Barcelona 8.8.09


                      * Palau de la Musica Catalana                                                               * Barri Gotic 

Saturday 8.8.09 -- The show must go on

Not sure how long we had laid in bed, but some rest did the brain good.  D and I were able to think more clearly and discussed some details about the rest of her trip. One of our biggest concerns obviously was the fact that the robber had the keys to our apartment.  The worst scenario would be that he was able to locate our address and break in.  D's iphone had online access and emails of our trip itinerary and apartment booking information. We managed to find her cellphone carrier's overseas contact number and blocked all future phone and internet usage on her iphone.  However, we still could not shake the uneasy feeling that the robber could possibly live in the neighborhood, and D's camera had pictures of the three of us.  Even without Iphone access, there would still be a slight chance for him to spot us on the street and find out where we live.  We realized that we need to call the landlord and ask him to change the lock. 

Fortunately, D had all her US dollars and passport in the safe so the impact to her future travel plan was reduced to the minimum.  However, I realized that it was now Saturday and that banks most likely were closed for the weekend.  We read up the resource pages of our guidebooks and called 010 phone line to get more information we needed. 010 phone line turned out to be quite helpful and the operator that answered the phone spoke excellent English.  In the past,  I usually glanced through all the facts and information portion of the guidebook, and quickly moved on to the interesting parts about sightseeing and dinning.  When incident like this happens, all the boring information became relevant and important.
After taking care of some important details, it was probably around 9 AM.  We finally gave up the attempt to sleep and got up. It was the last full day we had in the city.  There was still so much to see and we were running out of time!

I have enough travel experience to know that despite the best effort to plan the itinerary, One must stay flexible when traveling because some unforeseen events bound to happen during the trip.  However, it is also very likely, in the process of researching the destination, you formed an emotional attachment to something.  It could be some food you must try, some show you must see, some restaurant you must go, some activity you must do, or some site you must visit.... 

For me, it was Palau de la Musica Catalana.  Once I saw the photos of the stunning stained glass ceiling, it was over.  YES, I HAVE TO VISIT PALAU DE LA MUSICA CATALANA. So, despite the fact that D just got robbed, that we had barely slept since we arrived, that I had to take 2 headache pills last night, the show must go on.  I have to see the stunning stained glass ceiling with my own eyes. 

E wanted to come along as D decided to stay home to recoup.  She reminded us to inform the concierge that keys to the building and apartment were lost from our robbery incident.  Once we came downstairs, the concierge was nowhere to be found since it was the weekend and he was off duty.  Feeling uneasy being in the apartment by herself without a concierge in the lobby, D decided to join us.  

Before our English tour began, we had an hour to kill.  D & E went to a nearby internet cafe to check some emails, and I went to an Orange cellphone carrier store to add more credits to the Sim card as last night's phone calls wiped me clean.  I also got some stamps for the postcards from the tobacco shop near by. I was a little puzzled by the tobacco shop selling stamps, but that seems to be the norms according to my European husband. 

Anyway, back to my palau de la Musica Catalana.  It was as striking as the photos I saw.  BUT, taking pictures inside was not allowed! What good is that for??? ugh.... 

After the tour, E was planning on meet up with her sister and spent about one frustrating hour in the phone center trying to get in touch with her sister. (It was probably less than an hour, but it felt like more as patience was never my virtue....) Why both E and her sister had extreme hard time reaching each other through our local cell phones, public pay phones, or her sister's international cell phone remains a mystery to us.  The fact that we had little idea what the operator on the phone was talking about did not help the situation at all.  Finally, at around 2 PM, E was off meeting with her sister.  D and I went to the supermarket to get some groceries.  At the check out counter, I was trying to pay the cashier with my credit card. The cashier requested to see my ID, and of course I did not bring the copy of my passport with me again.  I mean, when would I ever learn???  So, I paid cash, got the change and receipt, helped D to put the groceries in the plastic bags, and carried the groceries home.  

After last night, walking in the El Born neighborhood felt very different even in the broad daylight.  Those quaint small streets with characteristic balconies and charming wall lamps were not so lovely anymore.  It could be a crime scene!! Both D and I have lived in New York since 1995, and I'd like to think we were pretty tough.  We were determined not to let the robbery dampen our spirits or hinder us from enjoying Barcelona, but I had to admit that the robbery was different from pickpocketing.  It is a lot more violent, intrusive, and violating. We got nervous when someone walked a little too close to us. 

We stayed home for lunch and siesta, contacted our landlord about changing the lock, and did not come out again until 5 PM.  
After the siesta, we headed out to Barri Gotic, the historic quarter. We followed the Frommer's self-guided tour and hit all the major sites.  Negativing the small vicinity of Barri Gotic was not as easy as we thought.  The street signs were small.  There were many squares and the same streets on the opposite sides of the squares are named differently.  We were often circling the squares trying to find the right street and getting frustrated.  Based on our experience, I would recommend people taking Barcelona Walks Gotic tour provided by the Barcelona tourism office to save the hassle.  

The fatigue definitely started affecting our intelligence.  At one religious site, we were not allowed to enter because both D and I had spaghetti strip tops on.  We would have to pay 1 euro for a shawl in order to get in.   Both low on cash, D and I were thinking if we should go in.  Then, I came up with this "brilliant idea", and told D that we should spend 2 euros to buy two shawls to get in, once we are done with the site, we could sell them for 1 euro.  So, after we finished the site, we stood by the entrance looking for potential customers.  It was a hot summer day, within 30 seconds, we sold our shawls to another two girls.  Feeling pretty smart ourselves, we moved on to the next site.  Guess what, It was the cathedral!! And yes, you guessed right, we would have to cover up to go in!!!

UGH.... so, we sucked it up again, spent that 1 euro we just made back to buy one shawl.  This time, we would have to share the shawl and take turns to visit the cathedral.  Ya, REALLY smart.  15 minutes later after we both took turns visiting the cathedral.  I asked D, "Should we sell the shawl for 50 cents?"  D answered, "Wait, is there any more churches we will visit?"  We went quiet for a second, and burst out laughing... This is such a dumb and dumber moment. It is beyond retarded.   Ya, we hung on to our shawl....


One of the most impressive sites we saw was four majestic columns, remains of the Temple of Augustus from end of  the first century BC, hidden inside the courtyard  of a medieval building.  At first, we just glanced through the guide and thought the courtyard was all there was to it.  We took pictures of the courtyard, and left.  But D read the mention of the four columns and wanted to go back to the courtyard for a closer look.  We returned to the courtyard, could not find the four columns, until we walked all the way to the end of the courtyard, and saw a couple of stairs down on the right side, there they were.  Four ancient columns, more than 16 meters high, tugged inside the back of some building.   Both D and I were in awe.   

Towards the end of the tour, we decided to take a coffee break.  At that time, I realized that I could not find my credit card anywhere! I was not sure if it was stolen, if I left it home, or what happened to it.  Friends who know me long enough are used to me losing stuff all the time.  Once, I forgot my purse with my passport, airline tickets, wallet in a cafe on a small Greek Island as I was on my way to the airport.  The bus driver had to turn back along with other passengers as I went back to the cafe looking for my purse.  It is a common reoccurring theme in my life and I got a feeling that I probably just forgot my credit card somewhere.  Anyway, D and I took out all the changes we had to get two scoops of gelato and finished the rest of the tour.  

After the tour, D and I went back to our apartment looking for my credit card.  It was nowhere to be found.  I called my credit card company and put a temporary hold on it.  It was not a big loss, but it surely would be a big inconvenience for the rest of my trip.  I  recalled my day and realized that the last time I took out my credit card was in the supermarket.   It was past 9 PM on Saturday night.  Sunday, we will be leaving to Montserrat early morning, and who knows if the supermarket will open by the time I get back.  On Monday, we all have flights leaving Barcelona at 9 AM.  I decided to give it one more try and asked D to come to the supermarket with me hoping the supermarket could still be open.  We went to the supermarket, and it was closed.  All of a sudden, we saw a few workers still inside of the supermarket through the glass door.  D and I bend on the glass door hoping to get their attention.  The same woman cashier who requested to see my ID this afternoon recognized me immediately.  I could not believe my luck!!  A man opened the door for me with my credit card in hand.  Before he handed to me, he asked for my ID.  And guess what, this time I finally had the copy of my passport with me!! hahaha.... Thank you, my guardian angel!!

After recovering my credit card, it was almost 9:30 PM.  We had to head back home by 10PM as our landlord would come to change our lock.  There was no time for a sit down dinner AGAIN.  We decided to go back to Euskal Etxea for some quick pintxos and cavas as they were quick and delicious.  D chatted with the waitress about her robbery incident.  The waitress told us that it happened to a female customer just a few days ago inside of the restaurant.  On the way back home, we passed by the crime scene again.  The street was crowded and seemly harmless, but we knew better now.  We studied every person on the street to see whose purse could be easily snatched like two criminals.  We saw many girls carrying their handbags loosely, and some dangled their purse handles in their hands.  

At 10 PM, our landlord promptly arrived at our apartment to change the lock.  In our phone conversation this afternoon, he told us that replacing the lock would be at no cost to us.  After he changed the lock, he wanted to charge us 50 euros!  D and I made him change the lock back.  I guess we were not that afraid after all.  All it took to cure the fear of breaking and entering was 50 euros!