Saturday, December 31, 2011

Museums of Madrid

We are not big museum people, so we usually take a look at the museums a city has to offer and then choose a couple we would like to see. In our time here in Madrid we went to see the wax museum, air museum, naval museum and railway museum. There is a story around the air museum, but I'll leave that for later.

The museums here are generally good, with decent displays of the items that are hosted and many wow displays. The wax museum had figures from Spanish history and sport heros and movie stars. Leon and I took pictures with the likes of Brangelina, Johny Depp in pirates of the caribbean, and a famous cyclist. There was a horror train, which is probably a horror if you're young, but it was pretty amusing.

The railway museum is displayed in the old Spanish train station that boasts from the old to newer trains. There are some miniature train railways with actual trains chasing around and switching tracks. The guy who builds these obviously has a great passion for it and his control panel has almost as many buttons as an airplane cockpit.

The naval museum was mostly miniature boats demonstrating the real life replicas. I have a soft spot in my heart for these boats and would like to one day build my own, so it was fun walking around and looking at them. There were som real statues - those that usually go on the front of the boat - on display. Most of the museums here don't have the English translation for what is on display, which does make a museum a bit more boring since you don't find all the interesting facts you would usually read about. Most impressive of this museum were displays of iron pieces that were probably in/on the boats, and what kinds of damage torpedoes and canon balls can do to them. Again - I enjoy seeing things like this since as a child my parents would shoot with their hand weapons (on a shooting range) through telephone books to see how the bullets open up and start out as a small hole in the front of the book but ends up ripping the back of the book into pieces.

The air museum was definitely the most impressive, specially for my airplane loving husband who becomes like a little boy in a toy shop! There were from the first planes used in the army and for transport to newer planes. Many helicopters, from the first ones that had bodies similar to that of a plane to later modern ones. We saw the bullets and bombs that were used in the wars, and could even see the cockpit of the train. We would have probably spent hours here, but had a little under one hour since it took us two hours to find the museum. So the story...

We realized that morning after sleeping in again that the air museum is probably about half hour by train from Madrid. No problem, we hopped on the train, got off the closest metro and saw the airport grounds, easy, now we just need to find the museum. So we start walking, eventually all the way around the airport and still can't find the museum. We asked a guy busy working on his car for directions, and then a little bit later, still not finding it walked into a cafe to ask again. Turned out that we would still take another 20 mins to find the museum, and that would mean we only had half hour to browse. So we settled on getting home and trying again the next day, grumbling a bit about wasting the day. Low and behold on our way to the bus stop, the guy who was working on his car stops next to the road and waves us to get in the car and all the way there explains to us how grande the museum would be. We got to the museum an hour before they closed, so decided to see how far we get and then maybe come back the next day. We got through almost everything except the last set of helicopters, but the mechanic saved our day and it was not such a waste after all.

Something we did also stumble upon in our meandering around the airport was a couple of young boys who have built themselves a bmx track to practice around, who were busy practicing. They were pretty impressive and did some good jumps and stunts. It looked like there was an old man busy coaching them and teaching them the ropes. We also found a huge park with single track and jogging roads through the trees, beautiful for walks or just spending a chilled day (if it were summer). So even if we didn't find the museum on that day, we did find some more nice things just outside of Madrid.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Pinto: A legend's peaceful little town

Once we found out that Alberto Contador only lives 29km from Madrid, we decided to make it a day trip to go see where this legend lives. We googled endlessly to find his exact address or at least that of his relatives, but the best we could find was the name of a regular cafe he visits, whose owner also rode with Contador as a youngster. We did find out that his parent's apartment are on top of a plumber's shop, so I tried to find the translation for plumber in Spanish in hope that we'll find it.

As we reached Pinto, our initial thoughts were that we didn't really come with much of a plan, since it didn't look like there was too much to do or see in this town. So we had a coffee, and then looked at the town map and decided we'll amble through town to where there seems to be a big park.

Our journey started, with the first sight being a fairly large bird sitting in a nest it built on top of the church where the cross of the church towers above it. I'm not sure what bird it is, but I'm guessing it's head would reach my hip bones, so it's almost like seeing an elephant making a nest in a tree. Later that same day we saw another one of these birds on top of another building in the same sized nest. We found the cafe (most cafes here double up as pubs) where Contador apparently regularly hangs out. We decided we'll return there for lunch, and continued walking.

Leon's keen eye found a cycle shop down one of the streets. It is the first proper sport cycling shop we found in Spain, all the other's have been commuter shops or big general sport ware shops. Leon found a set of Saxobank shorts (Contador's team) and a pair of Leopard-Trek shorts (my favorite two Schleck brothers) which to his dismay didn't fit him, but to my great surprise fitted me perfectly! We bought Leon a nice jersey similar to those they rode with in the 50s, some sox and then got free water bottles, huge discount on the stuff we had bought and the socks for free. The shop mechanic was busy putting together a beautiful carbon Cannondale with an electric Ultegra group set. Complete bike with the group set - less than R50,000! We thought the bike shop would only support Contador, but they were both wearing Leopard Trek jerseys and the mechanic showed us his bike which is the Leopard Trek team bike.

With Leon extremely grumpy because they had no pro branded shorts for him, we ambled our way further toward the park. The park is beautiful with a man made dam and little waterfalls. It is also huge, my guess would be as big as emerentia except the water section is less and replaced by grassy sections or walk ways. Sitting there we realized why Contador still lives here. It is a peaceful friendly town, which was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of Madrid. The apartment buildings aren't as high and the streets are wider and there aren't any crowds. We could easily stay there for the rest of our time in Spain and just lie in the park every day reading a book or running or sitting in a coffee shop.

We then made our way to the cafe and sat down for their set menu. Again, these people eat a LOT of food. In Spain set menus consist of a plate no 1 and plate no 2 - each number you have 5 or 6 items you can choose from. Plate no 1 we had peas made with ham and fish/chicken paella. This is a full normal sized plate of food, which for me is too much for just one plate of food. Plate no 2 we had fish and a chicken dish - which were both absolutely delicious. With these two plates we still had a basket of bread (almost half a garlic loaf worth). The food was delicious though, and the owner then gave us each a shot of something which after a litre of Sangria had us both rolling out of the cafe. We didn't ask the owner about Contador as we were too shy, but our bags with Trek branding made it very obvious that we are cyclists. The universal language for 'I am a cyclist' seems to be by pulling up your sleeve and showing your cycling tan - which the owner did. They then showed us a picture of them receiving some trophy from Contador which stood on top of one of the cabinets in the cafe.

That was the end of our trip to Pinto. We couldn't find a plumber shop underneath any apartments we walked past, but for all we know we walked past his house and his parent's house and that he has eaten at the same table we sat at that day, and for us it was just great to see where he spends his days when he is not touring Europe training or racing. It is a small, peaceful, quiet town, probably perfect for someone hounded by the media almost every day of his life or with doping control knocking at your door at the most inconsiderable time of day or night.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Madrid mixed emotions

Our first impression of Madrid was not the best, at the bottom of our street there is a place for prostitutes that look like women but aren't exactly female. We also saw a couple of men stop in one of the side streets to take a nature break, which explained to us why we could smell urine in a number of side streets. We arrived in Madrid only at 20:00 with not a lot of time to do our initial exploration of the city, so going to bed that night Leon had quite a bitter taste in his being, although me being the optimal optimist reckoned if we explored a bit further off the city centre we might discover something different.

The apartment we are staying in is the best one we've lived in so far, with free wi-fi, coffee, sugar and salt in the cupboard and lots of shampoo :). We had to buy everything from groceries to condiments in both the previous apartments. It is still small, but our bedroom is on the same floor as us and the open plan kitchen-lounge has enough space for a small dining room table, two double couches, a small coffee table, and a computer desk and chair. We live not too far off the main street of central Madrid - Gran Via. This street boasts many shops, restaurants and Starbucks, and has some beautiful buildings as well with beautiful towers and old domes on top of the buildings. It is a very busy street, and what we have still not figured out is if it is only this busy because it is between Christmas and New Year, or if it is always this busy. Unfortunately we won't be here long enough to figure it out either.

A couple of streets down from Gran Via there is a huge open area where there are many people dressed up in some form or other making a living from change out of people's pockets. There was Mickey and Miney mouse, Sponge Bob and Square Pants, some evil Star Wars character and more. This area is similar to the open area in Sandton square, probably one and a half times the size, but 40 times busier. If you get there after 17:00 you would reckon U2 was holding a rock concert there. But no, it is people socializing or shopping or just wandering around in the streets as the Spaniards seem to do every night. The people here don't all look truly Spanish. In Barcelona we knew we were in Spain, Valencia boasted quite a bit more fair heads, but other than the people speaking a different language, the mixture of people here are not that much different than South Africa, except there are a lot less black people, but more Mexican type looking people than in the other two areas we visited.

We found the madrid castle and Arab wall, Egyptian temple and gardens the following day, which proved that there are prettier parts to Madrid, but unfortunately where we stay means we always pass the ugly as well. We have now even found a detour to our apartment to avoid the manly females. Something interesting we noticed, besides the fact that there are more beggars and even in the busy streets more hookers (normal female ones), was that there are also guys here standing at robots with a bottle of soapy water and a window cleaning thing, that does exactly the same as the street washers on our street corners. So it is not only in South Africa, maybe just not as frequent. Leon's feeling of Madrid, which sounds about right, is that Madrid is more like Johannesburg, where Barcelona and even Valencia is more like Cape Town. Madrid is extremely busy especially at night, inside and outside shops, young and old with people always going somewhere or doing something or shopping or...something.

It is also extremely cold here, but funnily it is FREEZING, as in I am wearing two pairs of socks when we go running, from early morning until about 11. Then it starts warming up and at 20:00 it is still not as cold as it was in the morning, even though the sun sets at about 18:00.

More of Madrid to follow soon, we have found some pretty spots and some funny stories, but our bed is calling me quite hard!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Ho ho ho out of Valencia and into Madrid

To our 3 regular readers ;), radio silence was not due to us being way too busy here in Valencia, but rather due to the fact that there is a lot less to do and see. So I've been gathering stuff for one big blog post. We are now on the bus leaving Valencia on our way to Madrid. I must be honest, since Christmas day is usually a family thing for me, I am feeling a bit home sick and missing the familiarity of SA. But we end of our adventures in a fashion capital, so I'm sure tomorrow I'll be ok again!

Valencia is smaller than Barcelona, and also has its fare share of old buildings, except it is a single tower here and there spread across the city. It looks like medieval Valencia was one central fortress, with individual watch towers spread around it. Today the central building is used for display of art, and the towers are now attached to normal buildings that host shops and/or apartments. Our apartment was close to Torres de Serrans, or in English - the tower of Serranos. Valencia also has an old town and new town, with the old town having very narrow and low sidewalks or no sidewalks with space for one car to drive through. The only difference is the old town seems to be the same size as the new, or maybe one third vs. two thirds, where Barcelona had a small section of old town. We lived on the cusp of the two, to our left the old town, and to our right the new. We also found the science museum closer to the beach front, which boasts very modern Eco system built buildings. The one building literally looks like a space ship ready to take off, from a different angle it could also be a star wars storm trooper's helmet. There is a sequence of three of these buildings, one is a science museum, another an oceanarium and another building that I'm still not sure what it is. We didn't go inside as they were all closed, but strolled around outside admiring the architecture.

The people and shops here are the same, in price, friendliness and size. There are less arty people here, in Barcelona one in every 25th person boasted a hairstyle similar to mine or with funky colors, in Valencia I counted them on one hand. No dreadlocks... We found a big department store where Leon got rollerblades, a pair of Dr Dre earphones and we found good quality winter cycling kit (for those who know - Santini) for a quarter the price it sells for in SA. So Leon's post on FB about the suitcase for my shoes were actually for his very large unstable shoes! But now I might be able to find one more pair of shoes... What is interesting about their department stores is that it has all the products you would find in the shops in Sandton, and the whole building is almost the same size as Sandton mall, but the 'mall' doesn't consist of multiple specialist or chain store shops. You could rather compare it to something like sportsman warehouse, where each different type of sport equipment section is a different 'store', and you can pay across sections for al your items together.

Our days in Valnecia were lazy, spent walking the streets and markets, watching kids play, drinking coffee in coffee shops or at restaurants. We had a combination meal at a restaurant which consisted of Tapas and Paella and dessert for R150 each. Considering the amount of food, it was cheap, and delicious. I also finally had my chocolate con curos. For the regular Vida visitors, Vida sells what they call a fatura - it is a long dough type pastry with cinnamon sugar on it. Chocolate con curos is a cup of melted chocolate, with similar dough type pastries, only shorter and thinner, that you dunk in the chocolate. Delicious! We also found what became our regular coffee shop on our street corner, where we basically had pies, but filled with a napolitana type filling, or cheese and potato or ham and cheese - Leon usually gets heartburn from pies, but not from these, so we'll call them pastries.

Valencia has a park running through the centre of it that spans 10km through the city. There are coffee shops every 1km or so and play parks even closer to each other. It can be compared to emerentia and this is where the runners and occasional casual cyclists, the walkers and those taking their dogs for a walk or take the kids to the park spend their time. We finally started running again, so this was a very nice spot to run in. On the beach front their are also similar parks for kids, but what we were impressed with is that there is 'equipment' along the beach front that can be used for exercise. E.g. There was one of those arm bicycle things, there was one of those machines which you found in our old gyms where you stand on a platform and then rotate your body to exercise your middle and more...

Valencia was a good rest for us, with so little to do, except for getting around. Valencia is very difficult to figure out where the buses and metros go and where you'll eventually end up unless you know the city very well. In Barcelona each bus stop had a clear name on it and you could easily tie it back to the map on the iPad. Here some of the metros are considered trams on the map, which technically speaking they are, since they are above the ground, but on the metro/bus maps at the bus stops or metros they are marked as metro. The location of each stop also doesn't tie up to the street name, I'm still not sure what it ties up to... So we hopped on the wrong bus a couple of times. Leon eventually figured it out, but it would probably take me another month to figure out what goes where. We also found that a lot less people here speak English, but they were still just as willing to assist us.

We also had quite an interesting market experience. We decided on a butcher to get meat cut from, some butchers look like they only have heads and spleens and paws, so I look for the one that grosses me out the least and that's usually where we buy. After waiting 20 mins we finally realized we should rather join the que on the other side to get help. There was only two ladies working in this butcher stall, and they make fresh mince and cut meat as you ask, and assuming because it is Christmas some people ask for quite a lot, so it can take quite long for one person'as order to be completed. At some point the que (which looks more like people standing around a bar for a drink) got confused in who is first and why we're waiting so long etc. I'm standing right in the middle of a bunch of old ladies fighting with a young gentleman about who should be next, not understanding one word. They were arguing so hard that the lady working behind the counter was waiting to help someone. Not understanding one word, I looked up at her and we both just shrugged and giggled.

We decided to try the night life one night, but staying up till one is a stretch for us, so we weren't too successful. In Valencia people have dinner quite late, as in 22:00 or even later. So pubs only start filling up at about 12:30, 1 in the morning, and then close at 2 after which everyone goes to the disco-clubs for dancing and more drinking, and then the full on night clubs only open at 4. We lasted till about 2 and then went home, but we enjoyed watching the people. We might try again in Madrid, but we might sleep from 19:00 to 23:00 and then wake up to go party. Christmas eve in Valencia is almost as big as new years eve in that it is a huge party night for them as well.

Our apartment was not as luxurious as the one in Barcelona, still just as clean, but quite a bit smaller. Downstairs was actually quite live-able, but upstairs had space for the bed and a cupboard, and the access upstairs is a tiny narrow steep twisting (more like spiraling) staircase with no railing. I have nightmares of these kind of inevitably our suitcases stayed downstairs and the only thing we did upstairs was sleep.

To end off...Valencia is definitely quieter than Barcelona, the diversity of people is a bit less, and it almost seems as if people party more here. It was definitely worth the visit, but we don't leave a piece of our hearts behind as we did in Barcelona.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy and sad

How do you give expression to exceptional differing emotions? On the one hand, we are having a blast during our holiday ... and so is my bank manager. On the other, my dad is burying his brother today, on Christmas eve. During a time of giving, some of us will be giving away more than just a present - we will be giving away something or someone very close to us. I guess in some instances there is really no joy in the giving. My heart goes out to my family, who this morning will have to say goodbye to a loved one, and tonight share in the joy of the children as they receive their christmas presents.

RIP - Uncle Arrie.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Leaving Barcelona

For Leon it is with a great sadness that we leave Barcelona, for me it is with a thrill to see what hidden treasures Valencia holds. Don't get me wrong, I loved Barcelona as much, but Valencia might be even better. As we leave on the bus out of Barcelona and look outside, we realize and know that there is a lot still to do and see here. When we were standing on top of towers and cliffs we knew Barcelona was too big to see all in 6 days, unless you did it at an amazing race speed. If I had to compare it in size it would be Jhb plus Sandton, Bryanston, Fourways, Randburg together, and then still multiplied by two.

Interesting things we have noticed:
Schools are still in full swing even though Christmas is only 3 days away. Many shops are open from 10 to 22:00, especially restaurants and coffee shops, but most shops operate from 10 to 14:00, and then again from 17:00 to 22:00. Based on this I would then assume that Spaniards are big on lunch and siestas. Many stalls and shops have items that can be used to build a miniature birth of Jesus scene. You can buy the stables, some grass and hay bales, figurines, animals, palm trees, all kinds of other trees, baskets, we even saw miniature fruit and vegetables and farming equipment. It looks like it is a big thing here. They sell lots of Pointsettias with the red leaves on top and green bottom. They also have a thing for tree stumps with a face stuck on the one end of it, the stump propped up by two smaller stumps as if it has arms - I still don't get it...will still google...

There is a very popular song here - Ai se te Pego. We saw it on our tv on their music channel a couple of times (it's the only channel we understood) and could see the girls loved it from the music video - very catchy tune (that today is stuck in my head). We only realized how big it was when a worker at the train station in Montserrat cellphone rang and I realized the ringtone is this song. After some googling we read it is so popular that after a score in some game Ronaldo did the steps to this song, it was released in Nov this year and jumped straight to no 1.

As Leon already blogged, people here are exceptionally friendly and will help out if they see you need some help with directions or to understand something. The people are also very proud of their country and you can see many flags. Lots of hippies, lots of arty Melville type people, my kind of heaven. Shoes are awesome here - yup, I bought too much already. There are one or two franchise type shops - Pans is a sandwich shop, there is Subway, McDonalds, Burger King. We saw one or two Mango stores, but then all of the other shops selling clothes, bakery, take aways, restaurants, shoes, you name it are small self owned shops. There are lots of these little shops everywhere, and this looks like the way most people make their living. This and the market stalls that can be found everywhere. What is nice about this is that you have a huge variety in clothing and places to buy things from.

We also saw a lot more moms with babies out walking, in Italy it seemed that all moms were hidden away from life. There are beautiful women and men here, but fashion is similar to SA in that some people dress according to fashion trends, some classic fashion that still look very trendy and classy, some just where jeans and a top, and some people couldn't care less about looking fashionable. I was surprised at how popular tracksuit pants are here, one item of clothing you'll never see me wear outside of the house. People are generally lean, not necesarily skinny but a healthy weight. There are some overweight people, but obesity doesn't seem to be a problem here. To my dismay, I am a Large when it comes to clothing here... To Leon's dismay, my blonde head got many a glance from guys and girls alike, so much so that Leon was a bit annoyed that the girls rather check me out than him! I'm not sure if it is purely because of my fair head, but that's the story I'm sticking too. There aren't many blondes here, and if there are the colour very rarely comes out as light as mine. There are lots of beautiful dark haired heads though, what's the saying - we're never happy with what we have!

There are many people that commute with bicycles, we saw plenty of roller bladers and skate boarders, many musicians making music inside the metros or on busy streets to make some money. A couple of beggars but not more than I can count on two hands. Lots of bars! The streets however are surprisingly clean, and street sweepers are normal Spaniards same as one that would work in a coffee shop, vegetable market, bank or the JSE.

The weather was good, apparently warmer than usually this time of year, no rain, yay! Temperatures were on average between 14 and 16, with the mornings and evenings very fresh but midday not too cold. Only Montserrat was really freezing to the extent that my shoulder with the plate in gave me some proper grief.

Prices of food is very similar to SA, although Leon thinks a bit more expensive. I must be honest in that I'm not always sure what the prices are of the day to day things we buy at home, so I could be wrong. One thing I do however think is way more expensive than at home are sweets and chocolates. In the market we paid R120 for four strips of about 1/2 a meter long sweets that look like liquorice but the red ones, and another two of the same length but flat thin strips. We also paid quite a lot for strawberries and cherries, but they were huge - strawberries about 2/3rds the size of my fist and cherries very close to that size, and they're delicious! Clothing is also like SA, some shops ridiculously expensive, some on par with Truworths, and then we found some stores where you pay 1 euro for a shirt and 2 euros for a skirt, but better fashion than Mr. Price or Pep. I bought a skirt, two short sleeve shirts, a sleeveless jacket and some winter fashion socks for under 20 euros. Shoes same thing.

I'll finish off my bits and bobs post with something we both think is quite a novel concept. They have a thing here called Bicing. The concept is that all over the city, generally close to metros and train/bus stations there is a station where you can pick up and drop off a bicycle. The idea is that people use these bicycles for short 15 minute trips to get from one point to another. Membership is 35 euros a year, and you get an access card that you swipe to unlock a bicycle. The first half hour of usage is free of charge, every half an hour after 50 cents (i.e. R5), but if you use it for more than 2 hours you get fined 20 euros, and if you do it repetitively they revoke your membership. The idea is to reduce the carbon footprint of people by only using the bicycles for short journeys to get around the city. I would use something like this if we had it in SA, they would just have to increase the 30 minute periods as our style of living means we need to ride a bit further than just 10 blocks to get from one point to another.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

La Sagrada Familia - Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family

A couple of days ago we hopped from one metro to another to find all the recommended buildings to go see here in Barcelona to take pictures, and since we're not big on museums, to decide which ones we'll explore inside. When we got off the metro at La Sagrada Familia I looked left as we came up the stairs and saw shops, and then looked right only to have my breath taken away. This time not from cold, but rather awe at the beauty and the magnificence of the church standing next to me - La Sagrada Familia. We took a couple of pictures but then decided it is too late to go inside and will do so another day.

Today was that day, and the reaction as I came up the stairs was exactly the same. All churches in Europe are awe-inspiring, but this one is different. From the outside the only thing that makes it look like a typical church is it's size. Other than that the architecture is different. It almost looks rough and crude and un-rounded, and if I look at it from where I'm sitting right now (a coffee shop) I can imagine a whole bunch of serious soldiers in their medieval armour, old and weather beaten, standing in front of the gates and intimidating any passers by. There is however parts of the building that are newer, and this brings a softness to the old rough parts, which is what makes this church so intriguing.

Again, some background and history before I continue. A committee was formed in the early 1800s who decided to build this church. It is called an expiatory church, meaning the church is built purely on donations from the public. Today this money comes from people and probably companies or richer families donating money, as well as the 2.5 million people that visit a year. The original architect that designed and started building the church lasted about 30 years, and after a disagreement with the committee he was replaced by Gaudi. Initially Gaudi stuck to the original design, but after a large donation he improved and added to it. Gaudi was run over by a tram 1926, and only lived to see one tower (out of 20) being erected. This church is still not completed today and there are cranes and builders working as I type. The plan is that the church will be completed in the first quarter of the 21st century. This is why the outside buildings have mostly old sections to it, weather beaten and aged, but new sections as well.

Back to our experience of the church - we went inside and once you're inside the picture is completely different. Every stone looks new, smooth, un-stained, untouched. In part the size of the church inside and the windows that have stained glass in reminds you that the church is old and has come from almost two centuries ago. But in another part the structures are modern and reminds me of some of the modern designed apartments you see in some of the home make-over shows on the Discovery channel. The architecture and design and detail is of such a nature that you can choose a starting point, slowly look at the church by turning a full circle, then walk 10 steps further, slowly look at all angles of the church again by turning a full circle, and see new angles, new shapes, new patterns and designs, and you could do this all the way around the church till you're back where you started, and you'll see new things all the way around. It is probably a photographer heaven if they are into architecture in that they could probably visit the church every day for at least a year and get different shots of different designs every day.

It's hard to describe all the shapes and designs, so google pictures (or wait for us to return and we'll post them), but I'll try to explain by what I read from how Gaudi designed the church. Gaudi was very sickly as a child so he spent a lot of his time indoors studying nature on the wine farm he grew up in. His designs are inspired by taking on shapes and forms created by nature. At the entrances, a lot of the detail looks like water falling from leaves and trees on a rainy day. He also used flowers such as lavender and wheat to build the spear like shapes on top of the pinnacles. There are many grape like shapes on pinnacles as well, and he uses animals like chameleons, crocodiles, tortoises and more in the graphic detail. The one entrance is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, with lots of detail in people and animals celebrating his birth.

There is also a lot of hard lines, mostly triangular or diamond shaped, mimicking the way crystallization occurs and plants with the straighter pointier type leaves grow, or also similar to stars. The staircases and a lot of the interior and exterior design mimick that of shells or water creating spirals when churning in a whirlpool or waterfall. We took the lift to one of the top towers, and then walked the stairs down (our knees are recovering after rubbing in something similar to deep heat), and if you look down the centre of the stairs it spirals all the way down to the bottom. The pillars inside the church are built according to 5 standard types of designs, with from 5 to 12 corners and measuring 1.05 to 2.4 meter in diameter. When standing from an angle where you can see most of the pillars, it gives the illusion of trees in a forest.

What makes Gaudi even more of a genius, is that instead of the pillars being built from the bottom up, he has built them from the top down. To explain, one of the models they show in the museum is a structure whereby pieces of string are fastened to a basic structure and then intertwined with each other. Little bags are then filled with a lead weight and hung from the strings to eventually drape themselves into a pillar format. The inside of the church is built based on this concept. Google it for the exact architectural details, my explanation is a very basic explanation of it.

He also built the roof and windows in such a way that they create a lot of sunlight in the church. In the balconies of the church there is enough benches to fit 1,000 choir singers and the church roof and window design also resonates the sound of their voices perfectly through the church.

There is also a school built in one of the corners of the church' grounds utilized by children of builders of the church as well as the children of the popes and ministers that are part of the church. This school was built by Gaudi in the 1800s, but during the Spanish civil war this school and Gaudi's workshop was burnt down together with all the drawings for the building design. They managed to restore a couple of the clay models that Gaudi made and rebuild them to keep the church as close to his design as possible.

We close off our visit to the church by waiting for the sun to set and the spotlights onto the towers to come on to get a couple of night photos from the outside of the church. I think another thing that makes Spain a lot more special than Italy is that in Italy you expect to find and visit the Colloseum, Vatican city etc. Spain has all these hidden treasures that we weren't aware of and finding them is a surprise every time. La Sagrada Familia was a wonderful way to end our last day in Barcelona, filling me with another funny/spiritual/inspired feeling but this time in the pit of my stomach, and keeping me wondering whether it is the will of God or a Higher Power that has kept the building of this church going, or if it is the will power and faith of humans that kept it going, and if it even really makes a difference which one it is.

Time to think

During one of our many walks through the city of Barcelona, we came acros a homeless man that had a little puppy and a fully grown cat with him. A sudden feeling of sadness filled me from the inside. I felt extremely sorry but also helpless toward the animals and this man.

The first thought that came into my mind was that the animals could always go somewhere else to receive proper food and a warm place to sleep. But that would never happen. This is the life they know; nothing worse and noting better. This person they are with is their master, and they will love him till the end of time. At the end of the day, it is them that bring some happiness and laughter into the life of this man. All of his earthly bellongings fit into a small trolley: 1 pitch black cat; 1 little playfully puppy; very old, used, soiled clothing; a blanket or two and a carton box for the coldest of cold nights. Yet he looks content.

What is it that make people give up to live a life like this? Or is he the one that can turn around and ask what makes people like us live the lifes we do? Constantly on the run, trying to outwit our competition, our neighbour and sometimes even our own brother. Should we feel sorry for him, or he for us? Was this a conscious choice on his side, or was he forced into this life?

Leaving Barcelona (aka Home?)

Barcelona can definitely one day be called home. I have fallen in love with the city. In comparison with Italy where we were home sick after just 3 days, I have no such desires after 6 days in Barcelona. Tomorrow morning we will leave Barcelona on the next leg of our holiday to Valencia, and I actually feel sad knowing that we are leaving. It is a similar feeling to meeting someone special during a school holiday, and then leaving for home, knowing you might never see that person again.

It is impossible to compare the Spaniards with the Italians - their whole demeanor is different. The Spanish are helpfull, friendly and as a whole just a very accommodating nation. They find pride in assisting people and providing information; even if just helping you get on the correct train when you seem to be lost.

Barcelona is a very clean city. Almost every corner you turn there is a municipal worker sweeping the street or cleaning out one of many dustbins placed all over the city.

This is one place that has definitely made a lasting impression.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Putting our hiking shoes to good use in Montserrat

We planned a half day trip to Montserrat - a monastery built on top of a rocky cliff. We took a train to get there, and after first getting on the wrong train and then realizing it just before taking off, jumping off the train and eventually on the right train, we arrived at Montserrat. Although I haven't rock climbed for a while, it is still a great love for me. Montserrat is a climber's heaven. We took a cable car form the station up to the cliffs, and our breath was taken away by the beauty of the place itself, the view from up top, and the freezing cold!

We went into the the outside buildings of the chapel. There is a circle in the centre that apparently hosts the energy of the cliffs. I felt something in my diaphragm standing there, things like that move me quite easily, so make of it what you want. Before I go on, the story about Montserrat is that ages ago children were playing at the base of the cliffs when they heard angel song and saw shimmering lights. They told their parents who then went to seek this out and found the same occurrence. That was when they made the cliffs sacred and built various buildings in the cliffs. I think there are a couple of other stories too, but this was the first one I saw googling it.

Let me tell you, it could not have been easy to carry building materials up to where some of the houses and old monasteries were built. Most of them are built half way out of a cliff, with the initial overhang of the cliff being part of the home. Most of them aren't there anymore, but you can see some tiles still stuck to the cliff with cement or whatever they used. You can also see in some places where walls divided rooms or where water catching holes were made. From further down many of them still have the outside wall, which then makes it much clearer to see where these buildings were. There is even a church that is still in tact today against the rock. In this church there is a room where people leave momentos if something they asked for came true. In this church we found a motorbike mirror with Marco Simoncelli's number (58) with Spanish writing on it. For those reading that don't know biking - he was a 23/24 year old brilliant MotoGP racer who tragically died this year on the track. Thinking about it, this wall also had a number of helmets - it could all be for him or other people who left it there for other reasons. There were also pictures, baby shoes, jewelry and many arb and random things lft by people.

To get to the various buildings we did some proper hiking. There were routes that are all pathed, but then we found foot paths amongst the rocks and trees, and not beating around the bush we went straight into the bush. The walk was fun, not easy, and we climbed Jacobs' steps to get to the Magdalena monastery that was broken down in the Spanish war. It has been built up again, but in a different location. We were pleasantly surprised to find bolts against the rock, which means only one thing - rock climbing! We have no gear here and your hands would freeze in the current temperatures, but we have found a perfect excuse (amongst some other ones too) to return here again. At some point we walked more looking for climbing bolts than looking at the art built along the path next to the rock...

There is a hotel, hostel and restaurant as well, which we all skipped due to enjoying the hiking so much. The sights from the top, bottom and amongst the rock is beautiful, and the walk was refreshing, but on the train on the way home we also realized how tiring it was. Another memory I'll keep is the sound of the bells in Montserrat. The church bells are always beautiful, but amongst the cliffs they rebound and the sound is held much longer and much clearer.

I can't help but wonder if one can come and live in the monastery for a period of time to find yourself, hiking and climbing and performing daily monk tasks - it could be awesome...

Monday, December 19, 2011

The artist's market

Accidentally we went into a market where all kinds of arty people display their goods. I've seen some of the South African black street vendors doing just as much with their creative minds and hands, but I think here in Spain they provide opportunities for these people to make a living. There was lots of beautiful clothes, and if it wasn't as expensive I would have bought some of it. There were people selling the All Star tekkies but they painted and beaded them to be different and creative. A girl was selling Alice Bands but placed a pretty bow or flower on it - if you wear it right you don't see the band, just the flower sticking out. There was lots of jewelry and ornaments as well, and all these people sell things they make themselves.

A second thing that will stay with me about Spain is that people have the freedom and the courage here to be creative and different to the norm, and they still make a living from it. What we have both noticed is that arty people in South Africa look the same as arty people here, so it seems like arty worldwide is actually the same fashion.

They even have 'malls' for these people where they can setup stalls during shopping hours to sell their wares. Maybe a lesson we can learn in job creation?

The Chocolate Museum

The entry ticket to the chocolate museum is a chocolate :). Now that's a good start. The chocolate museum has slides about where chocolate originated from, and from the looks of it, chocolate was very much a delicacy reserved for the rich and famous. It tells a story of how a queen brought her maiden with her to another castle because she was an expert at making chocolate. Interestingly the dark bitter chocolate was the only chocolate available for many years - filled with spices such as chillies and cloves which give it the strong taste. It's only in the 18th or 19th century that nuns started adding sugar to it.

The second part of the chocolate museum is that it is a showcase of chocolate art. There is a scene from asterix and obelix, Mickey mouse, sponge bob and square pants, don coyote, a girl and guy on a horse with the guy's spear through a dragon, and many more. These art pieces are not flat pictures, but actual sculptures all made from only chocolate. It's awesome!

The third part to the museum which we didn't get to experience was classes and cooking workshops. They were busy having one for children while we were there. As I said before - they are really creative here!

New Experiences

We can proudly say that in one day we have enriched our lives with numerous new experiences, and I (author - Maria :) - have done a couple of things that scared me! We walked and metro'ed ourselves to the Arc de Triomph - yes there is one in Barcelona too. Accidentally we found a group of old people standing in various groups in a circle repeating about 12 steps to music played by an orchestra. All of this outside in a park, unrehearsed - it might be a Sunday get together thing. 20 minutes later they all packed up and left and you would have never known they were there...

We then got really hungry, after having already been to the erotica museum - funny and weird, and the chocolate museum (omg we'll write a separate blog for this one). So we tried our first lunch in a true Spanish restaurant - non speaking English, although luckily they had an English menu - phew! Second new experience for the day - Spanish Sangria - yum yum! Leon had roasted chicken - the best I have ever tasted, and I tried lamb chops which were tender and just as delicious!

Being a little drunk and feeling a little braver than usual - we went to Park Montjuic to go book ourselves for a Flamenco show. By the time we actually found the venue we had walked away all the alcohol, but maybe that's not such a bad thing, since Leon's sore knee and my worry for him walking so far with the sore knee could have turned, and nearly did, into a sense of humor failure. After I got us lost (as would be expected) and Leon got us unlost, we booked our spot for the show and did some sight seeing in the old Castle where the show is hosted. Leon made an interesting observation - the Italians have restored or left the historic buildings as ruins and make them pure tourist attractions. The Spanish restore all the old buildings and convert the rooms of castles and old buildings into little shops or venues. My preference is what the Spanish have done - you still see and experience the history, but at the same time it feels like you are now part of the history as you still utilize these buildings.

The Flamenco show is preceded by more Sangria, hic, and Tapas - our third new experience for the day. Tapas are basically a couple of small plates with different foods on it. We had some kind of cheese, bread, some cured meat, some kind of green vegetable that looks like a short fat chilli but has a bitter taste to it, calamari, and potatoes with a delicious garlic cheese type sauce. I thought Tappas are smaller portions, but I couldn't finish my half of all the plates they put down.

Our next new experience was the Flamenco show, and this will definitely be something imprinted in my memory for a very long time. Flamenco is a Spanish dance and song filled with lots of emotion and passion. After googling a bit more, one of the namings is something like 'To consist of or be consumed by Fire'. We saw three female dancers and one male. Due to the aggression and anger expressed in this dance, it is one of the few dances, in my mind, that a man can dance and not seem feminine in. The ladies dance it just as well, but it is definitely not always graceful. Flamenco is filled with lots of hard stomping and sometimes very fast tap like feet movements, arms raised above the head and used in different ways. Some movements are beautiful, but they always end up fierce and angry. The ladies also seem to have a frown of anger or sometimes sadness in their faces. This fascinated me terribly, and after reading up about it, this dance is danced to songs that are similar to blues - doom and gloom and sadness. To learn this style of dancing dancers need to learn to let their emotions come out. The dance is also not choriographed or done in a standard set of steps. The dancers either listen to the song and then based on the emotion they experience do a set of steps and movements, or they dictate to the singers what song they are looking for purely by the initial taps they make or by an indication of their clapping. There is also a lot of hand clapping and finger clicking. If there is one thing I intend on doing in my life, it is to learn this dance!

After lots of food, more sangria, desert and coffee and being inspired by the show, we decided that we were not up for the walk back to the metro and that we would figure out how the buses work. 5th experience for the day done, and now we can get around the city much easier than before! So easy that today we even hopped on one metro and onto another to go one block (in our defence it was quite a large block as the metro took about 3 minutes).

A fulfilled and well utilized day in Spain!

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Us humans usually create an expectation of what to expect when we go somewhere new for the first time - and this is based on some pre-conception set-up from either experience or movies/photos. The same happened to me. I had a pre-conception of what to expect when we got to Barcelona based on what we experienced when we last visited a part of Europe - Italy.

Sometimes doing this is good, but sometimes it can be a bit disappointing. Well, I am not disappointed; I did learn however that you should travel with an open mind.

Barcelona is a beautiful place in it's own rights. There are not as many historical sites as you might find in Rome - and only about a 1/4 of the amount of museums, churches and old buildings. However, where these sites do exist, they make up for the quantity which is available. While walking through the Gothic area, you can sense the history in the buildings and narrow passages, the stone clad walkways and even the locals that make a living in these areas; from the peep show shop to the guy sitting in the street outside his shop making clothes.

The people in Barcelona are way friendlier than those in Italy. They treat visitors with a lot more respect, and are happy to assist even with the apparent language barrier. It is quite interesting how sign language is a universal communication tool. And this is a big help when it comes to ordering food!

My only disappointing moment was when we found out that the harbour tour operators were closed for the holidays - I would think that this is the most profitable time to be open!

And the most memorable so far: the church bells! It's been a year since waking up and going to sleep with these. It almost adds to the 'medieval' feel! It almost makes you anticipate the sound of horses riding past with the klank-klank of the knight's armor as it moves about.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Metro still beats walking

After walking almost an hour to La Ramblas - we decided that we'll figure out the metro - trip home was 15 minutes :). After first getting lost on our supposed to be 30 min run, we went for breakfast, bought some Happy Pills and then went to explore La Ramblas and Gothica. Europeans don't seem to be big on breakfast, as here you get mostly pastries in cafe shops. Something unique to Spain is a sandwich that is made on about a 6 inch loaf that looks similar to a garlic loaf, but about 2/3s the width, which is then toasted with toppings.

La Ramblas is a very popular street filled with stalls and a huge fresh produce market, my favorite! We didn't buy anything fresh, since we wanted to explore Gothica first and then come back on our way home to buy food. Needless to say, by the time we got back market was already packed up, so we'll return tomorrow. Gothica is also known as Old Barcelona - this is where the old buildings that were built centuries ago still reside. We went into the Barcelona cathedral, a stunning building from both inside and out. The old part of Barceloana has many high buildings - all of them are apartments for about three or four stories with shops, restaurants, bars etc. on the ground floor. The streets are made of slate stone and have no side walks, the doors open straight onto the streets. The streets are also narrow and fit maximum one car in it, with space for a person to walk through on either side. At one shop a car was idling and blocking the way for a cyclist who stood shouting at the owner. Unlike Italy where most of the strets are still like this, modern Barcelona have huge sidewalks similar to what we're used to in SA. The buildings in old Barcelona are beautiful though - with many photo opportunities.

On our way to La Ramblas a bag pipe band gathered on a side walk and played - probably 25 big from very young to about our age. The band consisted of the bag pipers, drummers, symbols, some other funny instrument that looks like shells. Interstingly, a certain drum as part of the drumming they spin the drum stick which is attached with a band to their arm every time before she bangs it on the drum. Talking of drums - we saw a set of Mapex drums (which from my knowledge are pretty good) in the window display of a hair salon - pretty random!

Today was once again filled with some very arty people, pushing the fashion limits, love it! There seems to be a trend amongst some people (probably hippies) where they have a short fringe from about half way of their head, and then a disgustingly dirty dreadlock mullet. We're surprised by the number of restaurants here,and the cost of eating out is surprisingly reasonable. StarBucks is expensive though - R26 for a tall cappuccino. There were many people walking dogs on this street, both big and small - some of them so well trained that in the busy streets they don't need a leash and stick to the owner's side. There are also many interesting shops with jewelery, sweets, chocolate, electronics, photographic stuff, lots of spa type places, perfume shops, cosmetic shops, swords and knives, clothing, shoes, some sport shops and more. There is an erotica museum which we might brave while we're here... I bought some clothes, got my first pair of shoes (yes, first, last time I left with 5 pairs), got perfume - our normal brand but much cheaper here, and nougat. Nougat is cheap, but different from ours in that it is rock hard.

We saw real mistletoe for the first time in our life - it has a very strong but nice smell to it. We also saw something I'll definitely do for next Christmas - the plant called peace in home with a little snowman in the middle, and the plant is sprinkled with white or silver glitter - then it looks like snow, very creative. The people here are in general creative and there's a lot of things here that you can see it in.

Just before we left La Ramblas there was a group of guys who did street dancing - they're very good, one or two hot ones as well! Their final trick was summersaulting over 4 girls.

Tonight we're resting Leon's 48 minute not used to it probably only stiff but incredibly sore knees, thankfully, 'cos my calves and hips are just as sore!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Our new Barcelona home

We just finished our first late lunch in our Barcelona apartment. We're still trying to find our feeNt - Barcelona is much bigger than the Italian cities we've been to.

We stopped over in the UK for a very short coffee - it's the second time in my life I stop over in the UK on my way to somewhere else, and low and behold, the weather was the same as the first time - wet and miserable. What I missed about Europe was the creative fashion. People in Europe are more daring to deviate from the typical Paris Hilton Barbie look, and it's fun to see them and pick up some new looks!

Our place in Barcelona is beautiful, with a stunning touch of vintage mixed with upmarket modern style. Once again there are beautiful women every where to be seen, but for a change there is lots of male eye candy for me too, whoo hoo! There are many shops, many shopping centres, many restaurants - lots for us to explore! There are bicycle lanes everywhere, and some old steel framed bicycles still being ridden! We saw a guy roller blading down a very busy street with his dog in the bicycle lane - awesome!

What I'll remember from today - a small shop called Happy Pills - it's a candy shop!
What Leon will remember - the snow lying white on the mountain peaks as we flew in to Barcelona

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Our Next Trip

We have bright red, snow white and blossomy orange roses in our garden, the sun rises before 5 in the morning, the birds start chirping early - this only means one thing - it is Summer!

And soon we will be on our way to the Northern hemisphere - where it is winter!

This year we decided to plan our holiday over the festive season, and to go to Spain. I can just picture it - men fighting bulls with their shiny thin metal swords, and the ladies, well, dancing all over the place in the big, bright colorful dresses.

So keep your eyes on this blog, as we will post a daily update of our experiences.