Day 27 - Sat Apr 30 to Barcelona (via Monterosso, Genoa, Nice, Port Bou, ugh!!)
(Jen) Today we had to say goodbye to Vernazza. We had such a great time and it was so relaxing, we both hate to leave. Life moves slower here and it's been a nice change of pace from the "what site do we need to see next" plan. I could easily have done another night or two. Ia in Greece and Vernazza are our favorites so far, but I think Vernazza would beat out Ia as my favorite of the two. Partly because we met Catherine & Morgan and it was fun to spend time with them. There is also more to do here than in Ia (just more people watching...), but that may be in larger part to the time of year we were in Ia. If we had arrived in Ia later in April I think it would have been more of a neck & neck race for my favorite destination so far.
We also said goodbye to Catherine & Morgan who are leaving Vernazza as well. Tonight they head to Pisa and then fly home tomorrow. They graciously took a packet of items to ship home for us and we also gave them two of our books we were finished with. Lucky for us that they took the "pack light" Rick Steves mantra seriously. Catherine said she was packing about 15 pounds. Amazing.
Our first train (of 4) for the 21 hour trek to Barcelona left at 2:55 PM. I think (and pray) this will be our longest train ride of the entire trip!
(Chris) 2 things I am jones-ing for: my own bed, Dr. Pepper and video gaming.
Day 28 - Sun May 1 Barcelona
(Chris) The sleeper car concept is very good, but in our case the execution leaves something to be desired. Leaving from Nice (France), we settled in for the overnight trip to Port Bou, France, which is right on the Spanish border. Everyone on the train was going to Barcelona, so I'm not sure why they stop at Port Bou, but since it's on the border we're guessing it's a government thing. Anyway back to the sleeper. The only sleepers on this particular train were 2nd class, which means bunks stacked 3 high on both sides (6 bunks total). Jen and I had the top bunks. The mid bunks were 2 fellows and the bottom 2 were empty. Well let me tell you it was hot and stuffy! I didn't mind the noise nor the motion, but I was sweating with only shorts, a t-shirt and no covers. Ick.
We have also been learning a lot about trains. I think naively we thought that there must be at least one train per day between every major city every day. Not so. So from now on when we're riding trains, booking the train becomes the priority, then the historical sites that have long queues, and then the hotels.
(Jen) After our night train to Port Bou we caught another 2 hour train to Barcelona. Once we arrived we immediately tried to book our night train for tomorrow night to Granada. No such luck, train full. Then we tried going to Sevilla instead - booked. Ugh. And to make matters worse we already had our Granada hotel booked so they were expecting us. Turns out we landed in Barcelona on Labor Day in the middle of a darn 3-day weekend. What (crappy) luck. We ended up re-arranging our itinerary to stay in Barcelona an additional night and then fly to Sevilla and visit Sevilla before Granada. I think we spent about an hour and a half in the train station trying to figure it all out. We did wizen up and book our overnight train from Madrid to Paris (due in larger part to Chris' ability to speak some Spanish) 2 weeks in advance - what do you know, it wasn't full, wonders never cease!
To our hotel we went, but about 2 hours before check in. We left our luggage and wandered to the Picasso Museum but it was closed due to the Labor Day holiday. Turns out it's a good thing we are staying an extra day in Barcelona because all the museums are closed on Monday (tomorrow) so we would have missed it, but now we can see it Tuesday before we get on the plane to Sevilla that evening.
On our way to and from the museum we walked along "Las Ramblas" - a pedestrian street about one mile long with tons of shops and cafes - and about a million performance artists. Literally every 100 feet or so there was a different person drawing a crowd and exchanging pictures for change. We saw two "soldiers" spray painted bronze, an Elvis spray painted silver, a mermaid, and tons of stuff we aren't even sure how to describe. Mostly they stand perfectly still until someone drops $$ in a can and then they briefly wave or smile or make a face and allow you to take a picture.
On Las Ramblas they also have little "pet shops" out on the street with small creatures like birds, hamsters, bunnies, and the tiniest little turtles I've ever seen. They are literally about the size of a silver dollar. I guess Barcelonans do not have much room for pets like dogs and cats so they go with smaller pets.
The weather is quite nice, about 75 mid-day, so perfect Jen weather. Chris was a bit hot.
We retuned to our hotel to check-in and get a much needed shower. Our room is quite nice, really more of an apartment. The bathroom is separate from the bedroom and there is even a small dining room with futon couch and refrigerator. We even have a deck off the bedroom. Downside, the hot water heater apparently doesn't work so no hot shower. Chris complained and they gave us a key to a room two floors down and told us to use that shower.
At about 8:30 this evening we were checking out a restaurant in the Rick book near Las Ramblas when I say to Chris "I think that's Rick Steves". He looks at me like I'm nuts and I said, he's right there, go follow him and see. Sure enough, Chris comes back 30 seconds later and says he thinks it's him. The restaurant didn't look interesting so we thought what the hell, let's tail Rick a bit, but then he turned around and started coming against us. We waved and said hello but he looked like he was on a serious mission. I'm starting to feel like a groupie. ;-) Chris said he wished he would have stopped him but we agreed next time we see him...
We had a pleasant dinner at La Crème Canela. The prices were less that Italy and the ambiance better than we're used to, I guess that is the Spain difference (it's supposed to be less expensive here). The food was unique and presented well, but some of the meat was a bit tough and the desserts were just plain weird. Oh, but we did have a yummy waffle with chocolate and whipped cream by the harbor just before dinner. Yum, I'm not sure I can ever have a waffle with (boring) syrup again. Chris would disagree of course.
Some random items that I keep forgetting to mention:
The napkins in Europe are very bizarre. They are quite small and more wax paper than absorbent cotton. When serving pastries on a plate, they put the napkin on the plate and then the pastry on top. Chris and I haven't quite figured out what we're supposed to do with our sticky fingers besides lick them.
We haven't seen any type of Kleenex since arriving - only TP. I assume Europeans use handkerchiefs?
On the trains, even in first class (which is the class we usually have to use because we are over 26), the bathrooms are horrid. Maybe it's the rocking motion of the train, but no one seems to be able to hit the toilet and it's quite gross. 80% of the time there is no TP - thank goodness I'm packing some.
I miss my damp Seattle environment if for no other reason than my skin is incredibly dry and scaly and I'm breaking out like mad. Oh, and my feet have gone from relatively cute to Hobitt-ish. Sexy, I know.
It seems the "spay & neuter your pet" campaign hasn't made its way to Europe. In every city we've been in the male cats or dogs are clearly still intact and the females seem to have recently nursed a litter - this includes most of the dogs we see being walked on a leash.
In Greece, Italy, and now Spain - restaurants will not bring you the check until you ask for it. Flagging down a waiter can be challenging. Maybe they should make a strategy video game based on this idea - trying to flag down a waiter to get your check, in a foreign language, when the locals are used to taking 4 hours to finish their meal.
Day 29 - Mon May 2 Barcelona
(Chris) Our 2nd day in Barcelona started with a walkabout to see the work of Gaudi, famous Spanish architect. We took the subway to get out there, and it started to rain. We ate a nice grocery store lunch in the rain (in the park there were 3-4 parrots who mixed in with the pigeons), and then started with Guadi's master work, a cathedral that is only 50% complete named Sagrada Familia. Keep in mind that Gaudi has been dead for decades, so this work continues on without him. La Familia is the most cool, unusual and bizarre church I have ever seen. The sculptures out front are very modern. The room is unlike anything save perhaps a Vegas hotel (very colorful but no neon). It is very hard to describe so either look at the pictures or hit the web. I hope they complete it in my lifetime.
Gaudi did lots of other works throughout Barcelona, mostly buildings, and we walked around and saw a few. They all feature lots of curves and most had bright colors. If we ever go back I hope to tour some of the more interesting ones, but we only had time (and foot capacity) to walk around. He was a genius, pure and simple.
(Jen) Chris forgot to mention that we saw Rick Steves again - he walked by when we were standing in line for Sagrada Familia.
Day 30 - Tue May 3 Barcelona, to Seville late
(Chris) After a quick trip through the produce market (which had butcher shops with any number of oddities on display - brains, whole pigs, other body parts), we had a nice tapas lunch. I found a new dish that I loved, Patatas Bravas, small crunchy potatoes with little lumps of spicy sausage, with sour cream and some kind of sweet & sour type sauce. Grub. Ditto for the 'cod with burnt garlic sauce.' Jen had a small run-in with a pigeon at lunch but all was fine.
The main event of the day was to visit the Picasso museum. Barcelona was Pablo Picasso's home town, so they had a ton of his work all in 1 place. At first he started painting typical stuff, people, landscapes, etc. Then he led the wave of cubism, which was somewhat abstract, but still attractive. Then he went over the edge, painting some stuff that Jen and I figure we could have done too. Super abstract for sure! Overall I think we liked some of the works in Florence a lot better.
We grabbed a 8pm flight to Seville, €47 before tax, so not bad. Like many of our European flights, we took a bus from the gate to get to the plane. Our airline, AirEurope, was so cheap that they charged €2.50 for soda on the flight. A glimpse of things to come I suppose.
On the ground in Seville we were poised to take a bus to downtown, but spotted 2 other Rick Steves (RS) folks and agreed to share a cab. The cabbie was keen to point out numerous Roman artifacts in the city... the Roman Empire was huge and it's pretty impressive that it still shows.
Our hotel was one of the nicest we've stayed in, which was great considering that I was developing a cold. We walked out and had tapas, bumping into the RS folks so shared a table with them. The tapas dishes are extremely interesting... among other things that night we tried cooked bull's tail - sort of like beef stew.