Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Barcelona Wrap-up

The quieter highlights of our trip consisted of simply wandering from the Bario Gotico streets to Las Ramblas, popping into a church every now and then, climbing on some city statue, taking a coffee at one of the nearby plazas, or trying out new and interesting restaurants. Our favorite meals were the Iberian style tapa bars, whose "pinxtos" often looked too pretty to eat. And we must admit that we broke down and twice indulged in some great sushi (you just can't find a sushi place in Javea!). In a somewhat lopsided battle of wills, the kids often had the upper hand and easily finessed their way to an ice cream on the way back to our apartment. The ice cream here doesn't even come close to Italian gelatto, but it was good enough for them! Suzanne and I managed two nights out on the town sin ninos, and took advantage of the opportunity to catch up with Miguel and Laura and catch a concert at the Palau de Musica Catalunya, which was yet another a stunning architectural marvel. Luis Eduardo Aute, an iconic spanish singer-songwriter from the 60's, performed that evening. His music was a bit too dated and croony for our tastes - he reminded suzanne of a "Don Henley meets Julio Iglesias" - but to see any show in this incredible venue was well worth the price of admission. We loved Barcelona and we are finally figuring out that by spreading out our visit and not trying to cram everything in, we can all have a great experience.

Barca Futbol

Barca, Barca, Baaaaaarca!!! On our last night in Barcelona, Miguel treated Kellen, Christian and I to a very special evening - a chance to see F.C. (Club Futbol) Barcelona play in their home stadium. Futbol is everything here, and Barca is the top team in Spain - if not all of Europe - and they have been absolutely dominating the league this year. With over 110,000 seats, Camp Nou is the place to be during a soccer match and we were lucky enough to get the chance to see them play. It didn't matter that they were playing the worst team in the league - I was just happy to be there. The boys were thrilled too and they proudly wore their new Barca jerseys of Messi and Henry, two of the top players on the team. Miguel had season tickets through his family which were right on the midfield line and close enough that you could see all the action. Unfortunately, the magic didn't last long for Barca and they found themselves playing an ugly game, with many fouls and were down a man and two goals by the start of the second half. Things got exciting when they scored a late goal, but ultimately it wasn't enough and they lost the game 2-1. The boys were puzzled and they kept asking Miguel "How come if Barca is the best team in the world, they are still losing?" Miguel for once this week was at a loss for an explanation! For us, however, it was still a great experience and we will forever look back on our times with Miguel and his family in Barcelona with a warm heart.

Forget the Museums - Barcelona Parks Rock!

While we could have easily spent our entire week here touring the seemingly infinite and fascinating number of museums Barcelona has to offer, the cold hard reality is that our kids (particularly Christian and Casey) just don't dig museums, unless they show depictions of hell and/or mythical beasts and monsters. Perhaps we need to squeeze in the Prado at some point for that kind of stuff. They would much rather find a park and play hide 'n seek. Fortunately, we didn't have to settle on any old park - Barcelona has some fabulous offerings. Of particular note was the Park Guell, an "Alice in Wonderland meets Dr. Seuss" kind of place designed by Gaudi for the wealthy classses. I won't waste time trying to describe this place - only that it was whimsical, funky and surreal. I can't think of a better place for a kid to play hide 'n seek...that is until we discovered the Labrinto. The Labrinto, or Labrinth was a beautifully manicured garden, set on the outskirts of Barcelona and therefore, not heavily advertised nor visited. However, it was definitely worth the trip. While we have seen a few living mazes before, we have yet to visit one so large, tall and complicated. It warranted a discussion with the kids about staying calm and not panicking if they found themselves hopelessly lost. Unfortunately, their father should have heeded the same message, as it began to feel like I was back in the Barrio Gottico, wandering aimlessly through the winding streets, saying "I know our apartment is around here somewhere." And I felt the same tired-leg feeling that I seem to get so frequently when getting lost in a big city. After a while I just wanted to get out of the damned thing and considered cutting several large holes in the hedge and forcing my way out. too bad I didn't have any garden shears! Eventually we found our way out - not once, but several times, given that the kids didn't want to leave. By the time we finally left, Suzanne and I were ready for a spanish-style siesta!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Barcelona Museums and Buildings

Aahh, Barcelona... the land of Gaudi, Miro and Picasso. For anyone with even a passing interest in art and/or architecture, this is the place to be. What I did not fully appreciate until this week was that these artists have an ability to capture the imagination of not only us, but also our children, who stayed engaged far longer than Suzanne and I had expected. Perhaps Gaudi has made the largest imprint on the city, with his unmistakably unique architecture which can be seen many places throughout the city. Perhaps the most famous - and certainly the most controversial- is his "Sacrada Familia" cathedral which was started in the early 1900's, partially destroyed during the Spanish Civil War and to this day seems to be forever under construction. Not all that much has changed since I saw it 20 years ago. While a symbol of Barcelona, people enjoy debating whether it is a) a hideous monstrosity or b) the work of a genius (or perhaps a little of both). Either way, there is no doubt it generates passionate conversation. We told our kids that, at the current pace of construction, they could bring their children here someday and it still wouldn't be finished! For me, this is an interesting metaphor for modern spain - lots of construction and change, but nothing ever seems truly completed. Gaudi's next big hit in Barcelona is La Pedrera apartment, which looks like a wavy sand castle with bizarre rooftop chimney structures that resemble something out of Easter Island. Gaudi was an astute observer of nature and many of his most creative breakthroughs were gleaned from observing natural structures, such as the pillars inside La Sagrada Familia which resemble large tree trunks. The Picasso and Miro museums were also outstanding, with their distinctly characteristic styles. The kids in particular enjoyed Miro's quirky, cartoonish and colorful paintings (with just a touch of eroticism thrown in for the adults!). While initially turned off by Miro's often childlike simplicity, I gained a new appreciation for the depth of his work on this visit. Had the little ones not started to meltdown towards the end, Suzanne and I could have easily lingered there much longer. Another museum we really enjoyed was the Maritime museum, capturing the history of Barcelona through the ships that sailed from/to this port town over the years. Very well done, with stunning replicas and many original ships and figureheads. And that was pretty much the extent of our museum experience. Any more would have likely generated mutiny from the children and most certainly pushed their parents to the brink of exasperation/insanity.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Arrival in Barcelona

So after another stressful "adventure" (as I like to call it - Suzanne prefers a more colorful description) getting into town and finding our way through the Bario Gotico (thanks again, Miguel!), we finally arrived at our apartment. While the pictures on the web looked great, we were thrilled to find that the apartment exceeded expectations. Set in the heart of the old quarter, it was an old converted carriage house with huge 5 meter wood doors that opened up onto a small plaza for spectacular views of the original roman wall literally a few steps directly in front of us. This medieval wall was over 2,000 years old and originally contained the entire town, Barcino. The apartment was colorfully lit with moorish lamps and had huge ceilings and many funky details that made it all the more charming, particularly when the roman wall was lit up at night. It was just as pretty from the outside - on our first night, several passers-by stood on their toes to try to peak through the windows to see what was inside. Perhaps the most unusual feature was an outdoor bathroom and shower, housed in an open, semi-enclosed courtyard in the center of the building. While probably a lot of fun in the summer, let's say its charm quickly wore off when we had to make late night dashes to the toilet in the middle of the cold February night. And showers in the morning were "refreshing", for lack of a more colorful term! Other than that, it was a perfect setup for us and we were right in the heart of all the historic sites, with many cool bars, cafes and shops right around the corner. Many days we would just wander up and down the narrow medieval streets, perhaps stop and see a church or exhibit and then look for a cosy place to have a nice lunch, topped of by a cafe cortado (espresso with just a splash of milk). Other than the first day, we certainly had no use for our car and it pained me to no end to fork over 30 euros a day for parking. Next time, we will take the train!

Catching up with an old friend in Barcelona

The boys had a half-term break, so we packed up the Focus and headed off to Barcelona for the week. With the help of our neighbor Carmen, I was able to track down the phone number of a dear high school friend, Miguel Nadal, whom I haven't seen in 20 years. Miguel came to the states as an exchange student and lived with one of my best friends, Athar Siddiqee for a year. Miguel and I bonded quickly at Homestead, and he is one of the primary reasons I developed such a passion for Spain, visiting him twice in Barcelona during post-collegiate trans-EU backpack trips. Miguel took no time to start giving me grief, saying, "Stevie...why did you take so long to call me?... and why the heck are you living in Javea? should have checked with someone who actually knows something about Spain!" It was great to see that after all this time and now that we were both family men, he was still the same "Quel" that I remembered from so long ago. When I saw him, I had to laugh. Nothing much had changed except our hair - his is grey and mine is almost gone - a far cry from the 3 inch high afro I sported in high school! We decided to meet up at the Delta de L'Ebre, about halfway up the coast to Barcelona, where Miguel had recently purchased a home on the delta that he was fixing up for weekend getaways with family and friends. The delta is a vast, marshy wetland, full of river inlets, wild birds and seafood waiting to be caught. His property is quite large and is a functioning rice farm in the summer. We met up with Miguel, his wife Laura and son David (his two daughters were in Barcelona for a choral recital) and got a tour of their new home. They then took us out to a great lunch of arroz with squid ink, seafood fiduea and other spanish delicacies. It is wonderful to have someone who knows the local specialties do the ordering! Then we said goodbye and headed off to get settled into our apartment in Barcelona. But sure enough, like one of our excursions (led by a typical male who figured he could finesse his way into the city center), I got hopelessly lost. After about 45 minutes of aimless driving, I got a text from Miguel, saying, "if you need anything, do not hesitate to call". I did not hesitate - "help, Quel, we are terribly lost!" For the next 20 minutes, Miguel played the role of a virtual GPS, instructing us to turn around immediately (we were heading the wrong way, out of town) and he helped guide us back into the barrio gotico, where our apartment was. Oh what a relief to find our place - yet another leisurely drive to a new town becomes a stressful adventure! Ostia! The next day, we were invited to Miguel's apartment to spend a nice relaxing Sunday with his family and have a traditional Spanish mid-day meal. They have a beautiful and large apartment right near the University, with a nearby park, private pool, playground and tennis court (fairly unique in the center of a large city) where the kids could run around freely. Harkening back to old times, Miguel took me out to school me in tennis - something he used to do quite often at Homestead when we were on the team there. It didn't help that I haven't picked up a racquet in over 10 years! Later in the week, Suzanne and I met Miguel and Laura for a late night on the town in the Bario Gotico. Once again, we were treated to many Spanish delicacies - tapas to start the evening, followed by fresh anchovies in garlic oil, baby squid, morcilla, and a delicious tortilla (spanish omelete) with bacalao, onions and potatoes, topped off with a catalan rice pudding - all of which were fabulous. Both Miguel and Laura have had fascinating careers. They met in the university here in Barcelona, but both went to the east coast for graduate degrees. Miguel spent 10 years in the Spanish government as deputy Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs - not too shabby for an ex-Homestead alum! He showed us photos of him with Bush, Cheney (boo!), Colin Powel, Arafat, Putin and many other fascinating people. He has since left government life and is now heading up international development for the Spanish Automobile Association. Laura has also done well and just started a new job heading up Oncology R&D for a major hospital in Barcelona, with over 100 international clinical and scientific researchers under her watch. Suzanne's ears pricked up as she learned more about this, given her significant experience at Amgen managing oncology clinical teams. I only half-jokingly suggested she send her resume along to Laura - who knows, perhaps if the US job market is still in the tanks, perhaps another year in Espana might be warranted?!?! Furthermore, Barcelona has made significant investments in biotech research centers. Interesting to consider the possibilities... On our last morning, I went to visit Miguel at the Mercato de Boqueria, one of the largest food markets in all of Europe. It is a visual feast for the senses, with brightly colored and varied seafood and fruit/vegetable displays almost taking on an artistic flair. Miguel comes here every Saturday and buys food for the upcoming week: Fresh caught bonito filets, Sepia for arroz or fideua, monkfish steaks to be lightly breaded and pan-fried were just a few of the many options that day. Not to mention the berries, asparagus and artichokes that were in season. This is my kind of place! One interesting side note: Miguel said he would be there at 8:30 am which seemed awfully early by Spanish standards. When I started to push back to propose a later time to meet, he smirked and replied in a tone that might be inferred as sarcastic; "okay, Stevie, now I understand. You worked very hard for 15 years and now you need to rest. Please, take as much time as you need!" Miguel has had a hard time understanding how (and why) we've managed to walk away from our jobs and take a year off - in Spain, no less! He's a smart guy, he'll figure it out one day.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

More Cycling Bliss

While Javea has not turned out to be the quintessential Spanish town we might have hoped for, one of the key pleasures for me has been in the quality of the cycling in this region (Marina Alta). I have been pleasantly surprised to discover that a number of professional teams train out here during the winter. I have seen the Katusha (Russian), Post (Irish) and Vacances (Belgian) teams training through the local valleys earlier this year. It makes it all the more fun to go out riding because you never know who might show up. Furthermore, there seems to be lots of good local talent on the roads, which gives me all the more incentive to get in serious cycling shape. And the scenery really is spectacular. Now that the almond trees are in blossom and spring is in the air, the rides through the Jalon valley have been stunning and I enjoy the blend of steep mountain passes, lush valleys and quaint mountain towns (for an occasional pit stop). I have done some rides with the Club Ciclista Javea and have been introduced to the custom of enjoying a bocadillo, wine/beer and shot of espresso during the mid break on our rides - sure beats power bars and energy drinks!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Javea Windmills

On a recent weekend, we headed across the valley to Cap San Antonio to explore the remains of Javea's windmills. Javea has the largest concentration of windmills found in the Marina Alta district, which were built in the 17th century to harness the wind to mill grain into flour. These basic structures have been partially restored and now sit like sentry posts guarding the town below. Although some are now on private land, we were able to walk through a number of them to get a better appreciation of what they must have been like when functioning.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Weather woes

"I've lived here for 20 years, and this is the worst ___________ I have ever seen!" We hear this quote so often it is almost laughable, were it not for the fact that we are experiencing all of this at once. You name it - cold, clouds, rain (okay, except for the flash floods in 2007) and now wind. All setting local records. Yikes. Last week we had a wind storm that brought 75+mph winds. Javea was not built for this and hundreds upon hundreds of pine trees came down, causing widespread power outages and damage throughout the town. Signs were twisted or upended, tiles came off the roofs and canopies and garden pots were destroyed. In spite of crystal blue skies, we stayed indoors for fear of being struck by flying objects. Either there is something true to this global warming thing, or if you throw in the economic meltdown, perhaps this is a sign that the end is near! To be fair, this bizarre weather pattern is impacting all of Europe, not just Javea. When the weather is crappy here, it is often worse throughout all of Spain and the rest of EU (and apparently now the eastern US), but that is only a small consolation. It is ironic that we ruled out several great areas in Northern Spain part predominantly because of the weather - had we known things would be this bad, we pretty much could've lived just about anywhere. Oh well, chalk it up fate and perhaps another lesson learned. On the bright side, in spite of all our bad luck, it looks as if we might be turning the corner. Perhaps the weather "insurgents" are just lashing out at us - a sure sign that they are in the throes of defeat! Actually, spring looks like it will still come early to the Marina Alta as the almond and cherry trees are starting to blossom. In about a week or so, the valleys should be spectacular.