My first visit to Spain.....
Trip Start Jun 06, 2013
14Trip End Jul 04, 2013
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2013 June 18 - Tuesday
I woke up early this morning, about 06:00, which is typical on days when I'm going to be travelling. When I paid my bill, I found the hotel records were still in a somewhat "chaotic state", given the "crash" of their computer. The clerk had bits of paper all over the desk and I'm amazed he was able to make sense of it all.
I left the hotel at 07:35 as planned for the short walk to the station. The train arrived on time and it was a short ride (40 minutes or so) to Bologna Centrale
At Bologna Centrale, it took me a few minutes to determine where my next train would be leaving from. The signs said Track 16, and I discovered that was about three floors underground in a newly constructed part of the station. It looked and smelled "new" and I could hear construction work (grinders, etc.) ongoing in a part that was blocked-off with plywood.
The track number (Binario) for my train wasn't announced until about 15 minutes before scheduled departure, but it was in fact on Track 16 (althoughs 5 minutes late). Again it was air conditioned and I was happy to find that there was no one else seated in the four-seat location I was sitting, and I had a window seat. Although I was dozing at times, it was great to zip by the pastoral fields and small houses, watching people starting their days. I was also watching the speed of the train, and it never got over 255 kmH.
On arrival at Milano Centrale, the place was a “zoo” as usual, with hundreds (if not thousands) of people all moving in different directions
After lunch I continued down to street level, and noticed there’s also a McDonald’s on the middle level. The Deposito Bagagli (left luggage office) is at ground level on that side of the station. When I got outside, it wasn’t hard to find a ticket office for the Malpensa Shuttle. There was a small booth directly opposite the entrance with three "cabins" that sold tickets for three different services (which included the Shuttle to Bergamo). My bus was the "official" Malpensa Shuttle (there appears to be two different services operating on that route). The driver validated my ticket, I loaded my large pack in the cargo hold and boarded the bus.
Again, I was fortunate that no one decided to sit with me during the trip. It’s warm and humid in Milan today and the inside of the Bus felt like a Sauna. Finally a woman went forward and asked the driver to switch-on the air conditioning, which he did
The trip to MXP T2 took almost exactly 50 minutes (I timed it on a stop watch). I wasn’t quite sure where to go from there, as the procedures with EasyJet have recently changed. There’s no “check-in” now, but just a bag drop.
When I got to the bag drop, I found a huge queue but it seemed to be moving fairly quickly. As I reached the end of the queue, I discovered that I could have used the Speedy Boarding line, which was much shorter. I’d forgotten I had paid for that. Although I had my large Backpack configured for air travel with the straps behind a zippered panel, the agent was “whining” about there being “too many loops”. He was mumbling something about “maybe you should have taken it to window 17 for bulky luggage” and “maybe you should read the instructions carefully next time”. I could have done that if I had even known there was a “window 17”. That wasn’t wasn’t well explained on the website. I ignored his whining and he sent the pack on it’s journey on the conveyor belt.
I found the “Imbarchi” (departure gates) without too much trouble and went through security, which went fairly quickly
I knew my flight would be departing from Gate “D”, but didn’t know the gate number. Since the gates were in two different directions from where I was situated, I felt the best idea would be to remain where I was until the gate number was announced. That didn’t happen until about 45 minutes before departure, when Gate D9 was shown.
When I reached D9, I asked the girl about Speedy Boarding, and she confirmed that I’d be boarding first. I had also paid for a designated seat (11D) so knew where I’d be sitting. When they announced boarding, I was indeed at the front of the line. The Speedy Boarding passengers were instructed to go to the closed doors at the end of the air ramp, and then wait. There was A/C in there (which I stayed next to) and within 10 minutes or so the doors opened and we walked down to the Tarmac and then into the aircraft via front and rear stairways
The A/C was also operating inside the plane, and it was very comfortable. Again with this trip, I was pleased to find there was no one seated with me (the seats in this AirBus aircraft were 3-3). I had an aisle seat but could have moved to the window.
The flight was about 15 minutes late departing due to a “long queue” at Malpensa (according to the Pilot), but it wasn’t a long delay. The flight to Barcelona would be about 1H:15M and it was a very pleasant flight.
Upon arrival in Barcelona, I noticed a TV monitor which indicated baggage for our flight would be on Carousel B22. As I got to the end of the air ramp, I noticed that passengers for the next flight were ready for boarding, so the aircraft I travelled on will be turned around VERY quickly.
The walk to the Carousel was a long one. The Barcelona airport is huge and many of the shops in this part of the terminal were dark and deserted. I don’t know if this is a new part of the airport and not occupied yet, or whether the shops aren’t operating due to lack of business? Fortunately there was a “moving sidewalk” for part of the route, which made things much easier
When I exited the front door, I found a rank of Taxi’s just to the right. I had forgotten to pack my tour instructions to the hotel, but remembered that the Shuttle Bus was also to the right so I headed in that direction. I walked a good long block and didn’t see any bus stop, and was almost ready to give up and use a Taxi. However, a couple from the U.K. stopped to use a customer service phone, and I asked them. They directed me to the appropriate stop, which was just a bit further and around the corner.
As it happened, a Bus had just arrived and I walked right on board and bought a €5.90 ticket from the driver (what a bargain!). The trip to central Barcelona took about 30-45 minutes and although I didn’t have the instructions, I knew I’d need to go to Plaza de Catalunya. There was a young couple from the U.K. seated behind me that also wanted to disembark there.
When I arrived, I tried to use the GPS to find the hotel, but unfortunately it wasn’t listed so I had to retrieve my Guidebook from my large pack
I finally found the hotel and it was sure a relief to finally get here. It’s been a long travel day! The room was VERY nice, with comfortable and modern furnishings and good A/C. I had a short rest and then got organized for my usual familiarization "walkabout". By this time it was about 19:00 and I was getting hungry since I hadn’t eaten since 11:00. I just wanted something quick and simple, since I was tired and wanted to get back to the hotel quickly. I just don’t have the energy or interest to explore much tonight. The helpful clerk at the front desk gave me a suggestion for a good local place that would be open, but I found that it was full, most of the items were seafood (which I’m not especially fond of) and there was some kind of performance taking place just outside the restaurant with a loud PA system
The new directions took me to a small square which had a number of small bar/restaurants. The menu and decor in one of the restaurants appealed to me, so I decided to try it. There were two girls working (who could speak a bit of English) and I ordered the Catalan Meatballs in peas & carrots, along with some red wine (and coffee after dinner). It was rather a small bowl with four meatballs in a gravy, and I was still hungry so also ordered some potato wedges. They were also served quickly, and I found they were small squares of potatoes, with part covered with what may have been mayonnaise and part with a brown, somewhat spicy gravy. The food was quite good and it occurred to me later that what I ordered was in fact “Tapas”, although I didn’t realize it at the time. On the way back to the hotel, I found there were still masses of people in the narrow streets, and many of the shops were open. My first impressions since arriving here are that I’m somewhat out of my “comfort zone”, and this is a very new environment for me, one that I’m not at all familiar with
2013 June 19 - Wednesday
My first full day in Barcelona! This is the second largest city in Spain, and the capital of the Catalonia (Catalunya) region. It's about 2000 years old, and the present city spread outward from the old city and now encompasses a huge area from the ocean to nearby mountains, with the population of the city at about 1.6 million and in the greater Barcelona area at about 5 million. The complexion of the city changed drastically after the 1992 Olympics, when a lot of infrastructure and improvements were made. In some areas, underground parkades were constructed and then linear parks were built over top at street level, which provides a nice feature for many neighborhoods.
The main "hub of activity" seems to be the Plaza de Catalunya which has two large fountains in the centre and a large number of stores and restaurants around the periphery, anchored by the huge El Cortes Ingles store
Given the somewhat “upscale” nature of this hotel, I was curious to see what type of breakfast they would be serving. When I got to the breakfast room on the first floor, I was pleased to find an elaborate buffet, with an ample selection of foods (which included wine and champagne). They also had vending machines for coffee but these made a good cup of coffee, with each cup being ground and brewed fresh. What a treat! I eventually noticed a small sign on the table that said that freshly prepared eggs, sausage, and bacon were available on request. I decided to get some scrambled eggs and sausage as well. The “sausages” turned out to be wieners, which was rather disappointing. Tomorrow I’ll order bacon.
I went out again about 11:30 or so to have a look in the Apple store and get something for lunch. The store is on one corner of the Plaza de Catalunya and is apparently the largest and the flagship Apple store in Europe
I had intended to go to a restaurant recommended by the girl at the front desk, but I passed a Hard Rock Café on the way back from the Apple store so decided to stop there. I was hungry and it was convenient to where I was at the time, so it was a logical and predictable place to stop for a meal. I noticed that they had a "guard" at the door to keep "undesirables" out, which seemed a bit unusual.
I went out again in the late afternoon and decided to take one of the Hop On/Hop Off Bus tours. The blue Barcelona Turistic Bus was convenient and ready to leave so I used that one instead of the Red Bus. I took the blue route first, which covered the most popular sites including the Sagrada Familia (which is still under construction, and covered with scaffolding). As was the situation yesterday, the traffic was dreadful and there’s no way I’d want to drive in this city, especially in rush hour. It was such a tranquil experience to sit on the top deck and be driven through beautiful tree lined streets, looking at elegant buildings and driving through neighborhoods and observing people just going about their normal daily activities. In one neighborhood, I noticed a group of people playing Pétanque in a neighborhood park, which is similar to the French "Boules", and is played with hollow metal balls.
Some of the streets were lined with Palm trees, some with Maple trees and a variety of other types. My first impression is that this is not only a very large city, but also a very green and beautiful city. There are a lot of neatly manicured bits of greenery everywhere including Bouganvillea plants, a lot of bike paths and people out everywhere just enjoying the city on foot, on bikes and skateboards
At the end of the blue tour, I switched to the red tour (wanted to get my money’s worth), which covered a different part of the city. It travelled through some of the same areas, but mainly covered Montjuic and the harbour area. The Royal Palace on top of the hill was very impressive, and I would have liked to stop for a more detailed look, but it was getting late. The harbour was beautiful, with cruise ships, sailing boats and a few mega-yachts. That eventually leads onto a large sandy beach which is apparently several kilometers long and very popular with local residents (and apparently also wheelchair accessible). The red tour was about two hours and didn’t get back to Plaza de Catalunya until about 20:00. I could have also transferred to the green route, but I felt that was enough for one day. It's a good thing I didn't decide to "hop off" and have a look at the Royal Palace, as that was the last Bus of the night, so it would have been a LONG walk back to the hotel.
I had noticed an Italian restaurant while on the Bus (Le Taglietelle) and thought that I would try it for dinner, but the prices were way too high
After dinner I walked back to the hotel, as I'm tired so that’s enough touring for today. I found when I got to the hotel, that a security guard is on duty. This seems to be a common practice in the evenings.
2013 June 20 - Thursday
I had another very substantial breakfast this morning. It's not hard to fill up with the choices here, but the Guide has indicated that other hotels on the tour won't be nearly as good for breakfasts.
I checked the website for Sagrada Familia but couldn’t figure out how I was going to buy tickets and print them, so decided to ask at the front desk. They suggested using a La Caixa ATM, as there’s one of the larger Servi-Caixa machines just around the corner from the hotel. I walked there and found the first part of the menu was fairly straightforward, however it kept asking to select a “show” and the only times it provided for both today or tomorrow were at 20:00. This didn’t seem right, as I’m sure it’s closed by then (stupid machine!).
I asked again at the front desk and they said they could print my ticket if I sent them an E-mail with the PDF voucher, so I went back to the room and tried again. This time I was successful in buying the ticket, and I bought an entry ticket and an appointment for one of the towers at 14:00 tomorrow. This time I chose to collect the ticket at the La Caixa ATM and that process worked well. I inserted my credit card, entered my PIN and then chose the “Collect Tickets” option and it printed a ticket and receipt (the receipt was optional). Thankfully that’s all sorted!
I want to do a tour of La Rambla today as it looks very interesting. The tour schedule for tomorrow was now posted in the lobby, and the Guide suggested visiting La Bouqueria market, which I found about half way down the Rambla. I found Rick’s favourite Tapas Bar, Pinotxo Bar just inside the entry on the right, and the Juan was hard at work (just as pictured in the Guidebook). They were very busy, probably with Rick’s readers. The food seemed to be mostly seafood so I didn’t bother trying it
The La Bouqeria market was an incredible feast for the senses! There were small snack bars, as well as vendors selling just about any time of food imaginable, including seafood, vegetables, fruits, meats, etc. It was incredibly busy with people coming and going, some with small shopping carts, vendors bringing pallets of merchandise back and forth, people dining in the small bars and LOTS of noise. Many people apparently use this as their primary source of groceries, which is probably what I'd do if I lived here.
I continued all the way to the bottom of La Rambla right to the waterfront. It’s an incredibly beautiful day for a walk like this – sunny with a light breeze blowing. I got a picture of the Columbus statue and then walked across to the waterfront. It’s arranged as kind of a “linear park” with benches overlooking the boat mooring area and yacht club and of course bicycle lanes. I walked to the dock going across to the large Mare Nostrum building I had seen the previous day from the Bus, which I found to be a huge shopping mall with lots of “high end” stores.
The large pedestrian walkway leading to the dock was lined from one end to the other with what appeared to be immigrants from Africa selling cheap trinkets, such as sunglasses, jewelry items, etc., all neatly laid out on large towels. They weren’t “pushy”, which was nice. I could see two super yachts docked across the bay, and I was anxious to get a closer look to see the names. I found that one was called Valerie and the other one was Eclipse. I wasn’t able to find much information on Valerie, but found that Eclipse is apparently owned by a Russian billionaire (he reportedly has had as many as five yachts at one time). The cost is estimated at $1.5 billion and it’s reportedly fitted with armour plating and bullet proof glass in the bridge and owner’s suite, and supposedly has a German-built missile defense system and an “anti-paparazzi” system which aims Lasers at any camera CCD that it detects (that claim sounds a bit “far fetched”).
I sat for a short time on one of the many benches and just enjoyed the atmosphere. There was a small group of girls on one end in bikinis all tanning at one side of the dock. There also appeared to be a school group and a bunch of the guys were having a “push-ups” contest, accompanied by much yelling and applause
It was good to get back to the hotel and cool off. I had a short rest and by this time it was close to 17:00 so time to go to the tour introduction meeting. I was a bit early, but there were already a few there. I met the Tour Escort and poured myself a glass of wine (which turned into MANY glasses of wine) and got some snacks, which included Jamon de Iberico (which I had been interested in trying). There was also cheese, olives, potato chips and small bread sticks. Nothing but the best for Rick's groups!
The group is about 26, so it’s a full tour. The meeting lasted about an hour or so, and all the details of how the “My Way” tour operates were explained. I was pleased to hear that we’ll be taking a Bus from the hotel to Sants station, as I wasn’t looking forward to using the Metro with all my gear. We’ll be taking the AVE (fast train) to Madrid on Saturday, and I’ll be interested to see how that compares to the Freccia trains in Italy or the TGV in France.
2013 June 21 - Friday
I’ve been finding that the mornings are easier if I have a shower in the evening, as was the case with my Sicily tour last year
After breakfast I had a few questions for the Guide, who was “holding court” in one corner of the room. He will be available from 08:00 – 10:00 every morning to help tour members get their day’s activities organized. After that it was back to the room to do some computer work and get ready for my afternoon tour of Sagrada Familia. It will be interesting to try the Barcelona Metro, and hopefully I won’t have any issues with pickpockets.
I left for Sagrada Familia at about 12:00. I determined that the best route would be from the Passeig de Gracia Metro stop, as it’s only three stops from there to Sagrada Familia (which has its own stop). The desk clerk said that the Metro stop was just one block off Plaza de Catalunya, but I couldn’t find it so chose another line that connected with Passeig. It was a quick trip and the connections were the same as in other European metro systems. Passenger traffic was light and I didn’t see anyone that looked like pickpockets, nor did I see any Police or security personnel. I bought a Ham & Cheese bun at a small food stand in the Metro as it was lunch time and I was getting hungry.
When I exited the Metro station, I wasn’t sure exactly which side of Sagrada Familia I’d need to go to find the entrance
The inside of Sagrada Familia is magnificent! It’s difficult to describe and the photos don’t really convey the size and complexity of the design. It’s hard to believe it’s not finished yet, and will be at least another 13 years. They’re hoping to have it completed in 2026, on the 100th anniversary of the death of Gaudi (he died in 1926 after being struck by a Tram, and is interred in the Basilica).
It was a bit warm and humid inside, but not too uncomfortable. There were lots of people touring, but not an overwhelming amount. There was a peaceful religious music playing through speakers, punctuated at times by the music of the large Pipe Organ. There’s one large Organ installed now, but eventually there will be four
My appointment time for the ride up the Passion Tower was 14:00, so I went to the gate precisely 15 minutes early as instructed on the ticket. That apparently wasn’t correct, as I was told to wait for 10 minutes before joining the queue. I assumed the “official” rule would be what was written on the ticket, but apparently things are “variable” here. This is another example of confusing and ridiculous rules that aren’t well explained.
The queue for the Tower elevator was short and moved fairly quickly, which was good as it was hot and humid in that area. The ride takes visitors to a “landing” and it’s necessary to walk up a narrow spiral staircase from there to the viewing area. I was pleased to find that the elevator was air conditioned, and the respite from the heat even for a minute or so was a treat.
The views from the tower are spectacular, although the openings restrict the views somewhat. Much of one side of the Church is covered by scaffolding, as construction is ongoing. From the viewing location, visitors cross a small stone bridge and can then either descend a short distance back to the elevator or descend 400 (or so) steps down a narrow spiral stairway (I chose the elevator as I was hot, tired and my back hurt).
After my trip to the tower, I decided to explore the far side of the Basilica, where I found the entrance to the Museum which explains the history and construction of Sagrada Familia in some detail. In one small room, there was a video playing which described the construction. It was all in Spanish, but I found it reasonably easy to get some idea of what they were describing. This also provided an opportunity for me to have a short rest in comfortable theatre-style seating. After the Museum, I had a look in the gift shop but there was nothing there that interested me, so I left the site.
The Metro was a bit more crowded on the way back, but not uncomfortably so. Again, no issues with pickpockets. When I exited the Passeig de Gracia station, I finally found out where it was located. If I had continued one block further past Plaza Catalunya, I would have found it. I’ll note that for future reference.
Back in the air conditioned comfort of my hotel room, I had a refreshing shower and did a “sink wash”. While I was in the shower, someone hammered on the door and tried to enter (the Maid?), but fortunately I had thrown the deadbolt. Whoever they were, they never returned
After dinner I did a quick “walkabout” of the area and decided to have a look in the El Cortes Ingles department store to see if they had any sandwiches for my trip tomorrow (I didn’t see any). I got into the “Super Mercado” section and tried to exit through one of the unused (closed) check-out lanes. The woman in the next lane had a conniption and rushed out and stood in my way to prevent me from leaving. Apparently, I was allowed to leave only through the “official” exit lane. Another seemingly goofy and senseless rule. Next time I’ll just give her my best impression of a “Queen Elizabeth” wave, ignore her and exit where I darn well please and she can watch my backside recede into the distance!
Back in my hotel room, I got organized for the trip to Madrid tomorrow. I'm interested to see how it compares with Barcelona.