June 14, 2012: Barcelona Maintenance Day

One of the dangers of long term travel is that you need days dedicated to doing all kinds of utilitarian stuff, stuff that isn’t fun or interesting but needs your attention.  Today was not supposed to be that day for us but it ended up being it anyway, much to our chagrin.

We got up late today – I am guessing that the flight and then a day in the sun just took too much out of us.  You can only do so much before you need to sleep in and relax.  So we slept in too long and didn’t get started on doing logistical tasks from the hotel room until around nine or later.

Our big task today, as we have let it go until the last minute and now it is an emergency, is figuring out how we are going to get to Portugal.  We have been talking about renting a car and driving across Spain to give ourselves a way to go see Andalucia in the south of Spain which is not as much out of the way as it might seem.  This is one of the regions of Europe that we are going to be nearest too and that we really want to see but that we currently don’t have in the schedule at all.  Since we don’t have a train or a plane booked and no idea how we were going to do that it seemed like the best plan.

Well I called Avis and they were willing to rent us a car for a reasonable price – if we had a fax machine.  What?  Who has a fax machine today?  Even most businesses do not have one let alone private people, especially those on vacation wanting to rent a Fiat Panda with child seats!  So that did not work out and we are not happy with Avis.  No way to rent a car without a fax rules out using them in the States too.  How anti-customer service can you be?  And I had been so happy with them just a week ago in Italy.  Talk about turning away a real customer.  Insane.

So we tride Europcar but their website does not work at all and they don’t offer any means of communicating via telephone but only through email.  We sent them an email but did not get a response before we were able to get out of the door.

We decided that the best option was just to ride the red line tour bus up to Barcelona Sants, the main train station, and talk to the car rental places there, in person, to figure out what to do.

By the time that we actually left it was nearly noon.  Where does the morning go?

The red line is not the fastest way across town but it is really easy and low stress so we opted for that over the metro.  We already had both for either so it was totally a decision based on convenience.

We got the Barcelona Sants and found Avis.  We talked to them and they said that they could rent us a car but that it was be almost double the price that Avis had quoted on the phone.  They admitted that the price was horrible and said that the fax issue was ridiculous but that was that.  Just really bad customer service from Avis.  (Later we would get an email from Europcar saying that they would not rent us a car for Spain to Portugal at all.)

So since Avis was insane we decided to look into our original plan of taking a normal, high speed train to Madrid and taking the overnight train from Madrid to Lisbon.  We were already in the train station so this was the time to figure this out.

The original plan, from when we first left the States, was to go to Madrid via rail early tomorrow morning, spend the day sightseeing in Madrid then take the overnight tomorrow night.  So we are back to that plan.

We tried to book a train while we were there but we had not thought to bring our EURail pass with us as we were not looking to book a train when we set out so we had a dilemma.  I can move much faster than Dominica normally and way faster without the girls.  So I gave them my cash and took off alone (sans mobile as the phone had died in the morning and we had left it in the hotel plugged in to charge while we were out) to take the Metro across the city to the hotel, grab the EURail pass and get back to Sants.

To me the journey seemed to go pretty quickly.  But to Dominica and the girls it was a slow and painful afternoon.  I felt like the whole trip took under an hour but Dominica was later sure that it had taken closer to two and a half hours.  In any case, we burned up our day very quickly but I made it back with the EURail pass without any problems and without getting lost at all.

We found out that the overnight train for tomorrow night is booked.  Oh no, this isn’t good.  We decided quickly to book the next night, the night of the sixteenth, and figure everything else out from there.  This move from Barcelona to Lisbon is proving to be really hard.  At least now we definitely have a means to get across the international border which apparently cannot be done with a rental car so that hardest part is solved.   Now we have to cancel the first night of our hotel in Portugal and we have to figure out how to get to Madrid before it is time to catch the overnight train.

There was nothing to be done right away so we left Sants as quickly as we could.  Dominica just could not stand being there any longer.  Before we did, though, we stopped by the gift store to buy a little plastic dog for Liesl.  It is a little French bulldog, like many of her other plastic animals, but Dominica told her that we had to check with me first to see if it was too close to Oreo and if it would make me too sad.  Liesl was asleep at the time that we returned to the store but if she wants a reminder of Oreo to play with, I’m not going to tell her that she can’t have it.

Luciana was awake while we were shopping for Liesl’s toy and we know that she is noticing that Liesl has and gets more toys than her so we let her pick some stuff out.  She gravitated to some stuffed animals that were way too big to take with us but I found some small ones and she got crazy excited about a little stuffed wold and then a little stuffed lion.  She grabbed both and held them close and gave them kisses.  It was crazy adorable.  We couldn’t possibly say no to that.  She she got both.  What suckers we are.

We left Sants on the Metro and made our way up to the north west to go see one of the major sights of the city that is not visible from the buses – the Park Guell.  On the walk there we stopped at a quiet restaurant called StoreCafe (that’s just the name, it was not a part of a store or anything like that) where we got authentic Catalan paella.  To most of the world, paella is considered to be the national food of Spain but, in reality, the Spanish consider it to be a Catalan cuisine item, but like burritos in the US which most Americans consider to be regional to Texas but are available everywhere.  So getting paella here in Catalunya is exactly where we wanted to get it, and it was awesome.

Think of paella like the word “Yankee.”  To a foreigner, Yankee is a term for any American.  To a southerner it refers to a northerner.  To a northerner it refers to a New Englander.  It’s a specific, small region reference that has become famous and confused the farther out that you go.  Paella is just like that.  To an American it is the symbol of Spain.  But to the Spanish it is the symbol of a very distinct region where Spanish isn’t even the main language and the culture is very different.  To Catalans, it is specifically the food of their second city Valencia.

The walk from the Metro stop was pretty crazy – a horribly steep climb with these “traction” things in the sidewalk that made pushing the stroller nearly impossible.  It was too much for Dominica so I had to carry Luciana in the carrier while pushing Liesl in the stroller up this hill.

The park was simply amazing.  This is the park that Gaudi designed but did not complete.  It remains a masterpiece though and had tons of visitors and we really liked it.  We only walked around so much as it was full of vertical changes which were pretty exhausting and there were a lot of steps which are tough with the stroller.  We probably spent an hour in the park.  Very worthwhile going to visit.

From the park we decided to try walking halfway across the city, two kilometers, to the Sagrada Familia rather than trying to take the metro there.  We stopped and got gelato, which I had promised Liesl earlier in the day, near the Park Guell.  It was really good but still not Boppard.  Little chance of anything catching Boppard this late in our trip.

The walk was really nice.  We found some great neighbourhoods and Dominica managed to figure out where some of the places that we were shown from the tour bus were so we got to actually experience some of the famous bits of Barcelona like the famous strolling boulevard.

While on our walk we passed by a patisserie with the most amazing looking meringues in the window.  We all love meringues so I ran in to buy some.  We stopped along the boulevard and we all split one of them.  It was huge and it turned out to be filled with almonds.  Delicious.  We had no idea that you could even make a meringue like this.

It was a good hike to the Sagrada Familia but not too bad and we were both glad that we walked it rather than going down and riding the Metro again.  The exercise was good as was getting to see all of that part of the city between those points.  That gave us a much better feel for how the day to day parts of the city, not the tourist bits, actually functions.

We arrived at the Sagrada Familia and walked around for a while.  It was closed because we were so late but the important bit is seeing the outside, not the inside, so we were not too disappointed although we hope to return and do the inside too someday (not on this trip.)

The Sagrada Familia was started in 1882 with Gaudi taking over and making it is own, and his life work, in 1883.  So this year is the 130th year of construction there and it is this year that construction passed the halfway point.  When construction started it was estimated that it would take hundreds of years to complete.  The project is already something like one hundred years ahead of schedule and that is after losing many years in the middle of the century as construction stopped because of the Civil War.  And construction is completely funded by private donations, not by the city, state or the Church.  In 2010 the Pope, King and Queen consecrated the church as a minor basilica so it is now an “in use” church.

We walked to the other side where there is a park and a playground and let Liesl and Luciana play in the playground there next to a small dog park while Dominica and I took turns sitting on the park benches and contemplating what many consider the greatest architectural masterpiece in the world.  There is a reflecting pond there so that you can look at the basilica twice at once.  Really amazing.

We walked all of the way around very slowly.  It takes a lot of time to take in the Sagrada Familia.  You could spend all day just looking at it.  There is so much artistry to consider just in the facade!  The building actually seems to be alive, like it grew up out of the earth and might spring up and chase you at any moment.  Really amazing.

It was getting late and the tour buses were not running any longer.  So we walked to the Metro station and road the underground rail back to our hotel.

We stopped and got snacks at the supermercat on the way back and went to the hotel room to relax.  We were only there for a little bit when I suggested that it was pretty ridiculous to be sitting in our hotel room eating snack foods when this is prime food time in Barcelona and there are great tapas right down the street that I could bring back.

Dominica thought that that was wise so sent me back out to Adriatico to get take away tapas.

I have been seeing the guy at Adriatico a couple of times a day and say hello every time.  He definitely recognizes me.  When I bought food tonight we got a huge discount.  I’m guessing that these are the “customer” prices versus the “random tourist” prices.  Lots of tapas and a great sandwich for just ten Euros tonight.

We had to work on our travel plans tonight.  We decided that we wanted to stay in Barcelona another night so we talked to the hotel but they are sold out for tomorrow night.  Oh boy, this gets harder and harder.  So Dominica books a hotel in Madrid right at the main train station so that we can just walk to the night train from the hotel in two days.  The hotel has luggage storage service which is exactly what we need.  No risk from trying to use storage in lockers at a train station.  That would be really stressful.

So we lost a day in Lisbon but we are gaining a day in Madrid.  So our plan is to spend all of Saturday (the day after tomorrow) touring Madrid on a tour bus.  We will just be tourists but at least we will get to see Madrid which will be nice.  Madrid was not super high on my must see list but I am glad to get to see it, especially after Barcelona was so good.  Madrid is over twice the size of Barcelona and its metro area is nearly a million people larger than those of Houston or the DFW.  It is a massive city.

So tomorrow morning we are going to be packing up and heading to Barcelona Sants, again, and getting the high speed train heading to Madrid.  Dominica did her “night before packing” that she has been doing over and over again on this trip.  Tomorrow morning should be pretty easy – just do final packing, take the metro to Sants – a trip that we know well already – and grab tickets (seat reservations) for the first train that we can get heading west.  It is about a three hour train trip from Barcelona to Madrid on Renfe’s high velocity train.