Frohe Weihnachten!

Trip Start Aug 31, 2009
Trip End Jan 08, 2010

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Flag of Spain and Canary Islands  , Catalonia,
Thursday, December 24, 2009

Phew – all this traveling is exhausting! OK, I know I shouldn't complain when we have this incredible opportunity to see Europe, but traveling can be a lot of work.  We got up very early Saturday morning and took a bus, a train, and another bus to the airport in Berlin an hour and a half away from our apartment.  Once we got all checked in and through security we were herded into this small, stuffy, roasting room to wait for almost an hour with the rest of the passengers for our Easy Jet plane to arrive.  Once the plane pulled up outside the airport it was a literal "free for all".  When you fly low cost airlines they have “free” seating, where seats aren’t assigned but rather it is on a first come, first served basis.  Although the airline, in theory, wouldn’t sell more seats than are available, Europeans seem to believe there won’t be enough space to go around so the best solution is to push their way onto the transportation vestibule in question to ensure they have the best seat, even if it means pushing old women and strollers out of the way.  So, much like the train, once the plane arrived people began a stampede toward the door to get on the plane.  Needless to say, it was a disaster.   A few hours later we finally arrived in beautiful Barcelona.  From inside the airport it looked amazing – blue skies, palm trees, everything you would expect from Spain.  That is, until we stepped outside and came to the horrific realization it was about 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside.  Apparently while we were there Spain was experiencing an unprecedented cold snap that was dumping snow throughout most of the country.  Luckily Barcelona didn’t have any snow but it wasn’t much warmer there than it was in Berlin.  Despite the chilly temperatures we were thankful to have abundant sunshine, something we don’t get much of in Berlin. 

Our hotel was located a block away from Barcelona’s most famous tourist attraction – La Sagrada Familia.  The Sagrada is an enormous, I mean, ENORMOUS cathedral and arguably the most architecturally stunning structure I have ever seen.  Truly, the Eiffel Tower, the Notre Dame, the Brandenburg Gate, and the many castles and palaces we’ve visited don’t hold a candle to the Sagrada, it is amazing.  Construction on this beauty began in the late 1800’s and it has been a work in progress ever since.  The original architect, Gaudi, who died in 1926, envisioned 18 spires on the cathedral with three “facades” – the Passion Façade, the Nativity Façade, and the Glory Facade.  Even though it is under construction it is still an amazing sight.  The Sagrada is only partially completed; in fact it isn’t expected to be fully finished until 2026.  The sheer detail on the Sagrada is almost overwhelming, your eyes literally cannot take it all in fast enough.  Alex and I have made a pact with ourselves to return to Barcelona when we’re old so we can (hopefully) see the Sagrada when it is finished or near finalized – it is so incredible now I can’t begin to fathom what it will look like upon completion.

During our short stay in Barcelona we also walked down La Rumbla, which is sort of like the Champs Elysees of Barcelona.  It is an incredible main street through Barcelona peppered with restaurants, shops, and street performers.  We see our fair share of “performers” in Berlin, but they are nothing like the ones in Barcelona.  The makeup, the costumes, the acts are all so elaborate.   After wandering down La Rumbla we slowly made our way down to the beach.  We wanted to see the Mediterranean with our own eyes and it was beautiful.  I have to admit it was a little strange to be walking along the beach in my snow boots, winter coat, and scarf, but we still had a marvelous time searching for shells and sea glass and watching the waves splash against the sand.

The next morning we got up at 2:45 AM, yes, AM to catch our shuttle bus to the airport to make our 6:30 AM flight.  I had a breakthrough on this trip regarding “low-cost” airlines: they are low cost because they only fly to airports in the outskirts or even in different towns from your destination but they still call it your destination.  For example, we flew out of “Barcelona (Girona)” which is really a town 55 miles OUTSIDE of Barcelona, so to avoid paying 120 EUR for a cab ride to Girona, we had to get up in the middle of the night to catch the 3:30 AM shuttle bus to Girona.  Of course the shuttle wasn’t included in the price of our ticket and cost about 25 EUR for us both to take.  Once we landed in “Brussels” (Brussels – Charleroi) we of course had to take another shuttle 30 miles into Brussels to get to the train station.  As you may have guessed this shuttle also wasn’t included in our ticket price, and we paid another 25 EUR.  All in all, I learned a hard lesson that “low-cost” airlines are low cost for a reason, and more often than not it makes more sense to just pay the extra $100 to avoid the extra shuttle fees and hassle.

Once we finally made our way to the small German town of Heidelberg we checked into our hotel and collapsed for the rest of the evening.  The next day we wandered through Heidelberg’s Old Town and enjoyed various Weinachtmarkt’s (Christmas Markets), which are without a doubt the best part of being in Germany during Christmas.  The Weinachtmarkt’s sell everything from jewelry to cheese, from handmade ornaments and scarves to hot mulled wine and crepes and everything in between.  The smells, the lights, the energy makes this experience so heavenly.  Many of the markets have carnival rides or ice skating rinks and lights everywhere, it is quite a sight.  We picked up a few souvenirs and made our way to the end of the Old Town toward the Heidelberg Castle.  This Castle was unlike the rest we’ve seen so far.  There has been light restoration work done on the Castle to make it safe, but otherwise it is pretty much in its original state.  To someone who would rather see the Palace of Versailles, this Castle isn’t for you.  It’s deteriorated, appears to have been bombed out and subsequently collapsed on one side, and it is made of sandstone which doesn’t hold up well over centuries, but was a diamond in the rough for us and was one of the most beautiful castles we’ve ever seen.  We paid the 1.50 EUR to go inside and were rewarded with the best view of Heidelberg from the castle’s balcony.  We could see everything from up there – the many cathedrals, the various Weinachtmarkt’s, the amazing bridges and of course all the vibrant colors that make up Heidelberg’s homes. 

On our second day in Heidelberg we once again made our way down the cobblestone streets of the Old Town and headed toward the Karl-Theodor-Brücke, or the Old Bridge.  I felt envious of the people that live in Heidelberg that THIS is what they saw every day on their way to work.  From the bridge you can see everything – the old Castle, the cathedrals, the spires on the bridge.  We also paid a visit to a few of Heidelberg’s breweries and discovered what all the fuss about German beer was about.  Berliner’s love their pilsner, they can’t get enough.  As a result, you’d be hard pressed to find many other styles of beer in Berlin.  Heidelberg, however, has a few small craft breweries, much like the ones we are accustomed to in Montana.  We sampled a pilsner, of course, but were delighted to try their seasonal Christmas beers which were darker and “hoppier” and definitely more flavorful.  Had we not visited Heidelberg and discovered German beers that were actually tasty we would have come back to the States with a bad taste in our mouths about German beer.  Luckily Heidelberg’s beers single-handedly redeemed all of Deutschland. :) 

Today we make our way to Grindelwald, Switzerland, a tiny town tucked away at the foot of the Swiss Alps.  The weather forecast calls for temperatures in the single digits and snow all day – just the way I like my Christmas.  It will be strange to be away from our family this Christmas but hopefully the Alps will make us feel a little closer to home. 
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