September 9 to 18 2014
This was my official 60th birthday trip. Because I wanted to dive for my birthday trip, and my wife wanted to go to Europe, we took a quick dive trip to Play del Carmen for my June birthday, followed by this trip to Spain in September. I’m a lucky guy.
We flew from Minneapolis to Atlanta and then on to Madrid. We landed in Madrid at 8 am. I am not sure why but there wasn’t any customs and immigration. We retrieved our bags from the luggage carousel and walked out of the airport looking back to make sure that no one was chasing after us because we bypassed immigration.
We grabbed a cab to our hotel in Madrid. The less than helpful driver dropped us at Plaza Major and gave us terrible directions how to get to our hotel from there. I’m not sure why he didn’t drop us at our hotel, he could have driven us down the street our hotel was located on. Yes we did give him a nice tip but wished we didn't once we figured it out.
We stayed at Hotel Francisco. It was a nice hotel but not as nice as the hotel Karen booked in Barcelona. The front desk was small and it appeared to be straight out of the 1950’s. The staff was nice but not overly nice or overly helpful.
It was too early to check in so we dropped our bags and went to find breakfast. We were amazed how cheap breakfast was. You could get a Spanish breakfast for 2.50 euro. It was only coffee con leche and pastry but that is cheap considering a coffee will cost you roughly the same amount in the US.
During our stay in Madrid we went to the Royal Palace or Palacio Real de Madrid if you speak Spanish. It is very large and ornate inside but not as nice as some buildings we saw in Italy.
I have seen all sorts of street performers in San Francisco, Vegas and Times Square. I haven't seen the one below. He was outside the palace and he looked like a copper statue of a guy falling off of a dirt bike. We had to tip him for originality.
We also caught a flamenco performance while in Madrid. It was at a small studio in a strip mall. It was a week night so it wasn’t very busy and we arrived early so we were seated in the front row. Flamenco uses dance and song to tell the story of two tragic lovers. We couldn’t understand the lyrics but we didn’t really need to. You may not think flamenco is your thing but give it a try, it was worth experiencing.
We went to the Mercado de San Miguel. This is a must see in Madrid. It is an enclosed market that has restaurants, bars, delis and much more.
We had an early dinner there one day. We also had tapas, oysters, beer and wine. We asked for the mild oysters, but we ended up with oysters that were extremely fishy. They were so strong that both Karen and I gave up oysters for about six months.
I loved the pig’s legs hanging throughout the Mercado. You could have them cut off slices of fresh jamon. I also like the sailfish head sticking out of the ice at one of the fish shops so much that I made Karen stand by it so I could take her picture. I’m sure the people that work there think the tourists are strange, taking pictures of the fish heads and pig’s legs.
Karen had bought Rick Steve’s tour book for Spain. The detail in the books is amazing. We had to buy tickets for the bullet train from Madrid to Barcelona. The book told us to go to El Corte Ingles, a local department store. It also told us which floor we could find the travel agency and even exactly where on that floor the travel agency was located.
We spent a day at the Prada. It wasn’t my favorite museum but still good. We did like the restaurant though.
Our niece had arrived in Madrid several days before we did for a semester at Madrid University. We spent a day touring Madrid with her. We went out for tapas and then to Riena Sophia museum so see the Picasso exhibit. I’m not an art critic but Guernica was amazing.
The funniest thing that happened at the museum was a twenty-something girl asked me to take her picture in front of The Great Masturbator. I suppose there is some humor in her showing her friends a picture of herself in front of the painting.
Jesse was nice enough to show us the Atocha train station. We were catching the train to Barcelona the following day so it was good to know how to navigate the station.
The following day we departed our hotel and took a cab to Atocha. It is large and you have to go through security to board the high speed trains. It was easy to find the track that our train was on but it seemed like the cars weren’t in the correct order, maybe it was just me.
For some reason the travel agent at El Corte Ingles had sold us tickets at a table with four seats facing each other. We had to spend the entire train ride sitting across from a Spanish couple who spoke as much English as we speak Spanish.
I first came to Spain in 1981 to visit my sister who was in the navy stationed in Rota. I had to take a train from Madrid to Rota. It was a very slow train that was about sixty years behind the US train technology. I went to use the bathroom and when I lifted the toilet seat I saw train tracks.
In thirty three years Spanish train technology went from being thirty behind the US to eclipsing anything we currently have. The train clipped along at 192 mph and when I used the toilet I could not see the tracks.
We arrived in Barcelona, retrieved our bags and exited the train station. The air was dry and a little cool when we left Madrid. Upon stepping out of the train in Barcelona we immediately noticed it was humid and borderline hot.
My wife had booked a fantastic hotel in the Gothic Quarter called Hotel Catalonia Catedral. Like a lot of European hotels the entrance was basic but the front desk area was large and modern. The people working the front desk were very friendly.
The hotel had a glass enclosed elevator. Our room was large by European standards, the furniture was new and the shower was spacious. The hotel also had a pool on the roof. We checked in and dropped our luggage in the room so we could go explore and have lunch.
The best thing about the hotel was the location. It was in the center of the Gothic Quarter. If you are a tourist, that is the area where you want to stay.
If you are coming to Barcelona you have to experience Las Ramblas. It is a wide boulevard that stretches for 1.3 km from the ocean inland. It was the middle of the day but it was packed with people. We followed it to the ocean and had mussels at a chain café called Tapas Tapas that overlooked the Mediterranean. It was one of our favorite meals in Barcelona.
Our favorite experience in Barcelona was, of course, Sagrada Familia . It’s a church that was designed by Gaudi. Construction was started in 1882 and it won’t be completed for roughly another twenty years.
One of the people I worked with was at Segrada Familia thirty years ago. It didn’t have a roof when he was there. He was amazed by my video of the interior.
One of the people at the front desk of our hotel clued us in that we needed to buy tickets on line so we wouldn’t have to stand in line for hours to get tickets. She even booked our tickets for us.
The exterior of the church entrance is ornate especially when compared to the stark exterior on the exit. The church is located just across the street from the subway station. We made our way out of the subway and turned to see the massive church surrounded by cranes. We crossed the street and looked for the entrance. It took us a while to find it. There was a long line of people waiting to buy tickets that wrapped around the building. We confused that line with the line for the entrance.
We took the audio tour. As you can see from the video above the interior of the church is stunningly beautiful. The stained glass windows filled the church with angelic light. The columns and roof are designed to make it appear that you are in a forest. If you are in Barcelona don’t miss Segrada Familia.
When we were in Sorrento Italy the previous year we discovered that taking a tour of the city was worthwhile. As much as Karen and I hate to look like complete tourists the information about the local area is really helpful.
Runner Bean Tours was highly recommended by the Rick Steve’s guide book and Trip Advisor. The tour is donation only. They meet at Placa Reial. Reservations are recommended but if you just show up they won’t turn you away.
We took the Gothic Quarter tour. The tour guide was Irish, even though, she was well versed in Spanish history. She was full of interesting facts. She showed us the oldest synagogue in Spain but it’s not a synagogue any longer. One of the more interesting things I learned was the Bishop Bridge was built in 1928. The bridge spans two very old buildings and appears to be the same vintage. We liked the tour so much that we booked the Gaudi tour the following day.
We gathered at Placa Reial for the beginning of the Gaudi tour. We started the same as the previous day by telling everyone our name and where we were from. There was a college student from North Dakota that was in our group.
Once she heard we were fellow Midwesterners she came over and joined us for the tour together. She was going to an eastern college and she was on vacation with her college roommates but they weren’t interested in the tour. It seemed that she just wanted to talk to another Midwesterner.
Our first stop was a house that Gaudi has designed called Casa Batllo. It is ornate, as you would expect. Our second stop was an apartment house called La Pedrera. The exterior looked plain compared to Casa Batllo. We didn’t get to go inside but I’ve seen video and it’s spectacular.
The guide told us that Gaudi caused massive budget over runs and building delays. When the building was finished the owner did not like it. It is currently a rent controlled building. I would like to live there if I was in Barcelona for a while.
The guide also said that George Lucas had visited the apartment before making Star Wars and Darth Vader’s helmet and face shield look a lot like like the chimneys on the apartment’s roof. Coincidence?
We caught the subway to Sagrada Familia. We walked around the church and the guide pointed out features that the audio tour had missed. The Runner Bean tours were my favorite things in Barcelona, next to Sagrada Familia.
Barcelona has a market called La Boqueria. It’s just off of Las Ramblas. It is larger than Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid. When we were there it was packed, we could barely make it through the aisles. There are many butcher shops, fish mongers and restaurants. My favorite butcher shop had lamb quarters with what I assumed was a picture of the lamb before it was slaughtered.
We also visited Park Guell. We toured Gaudi's house. We opted not to pay to tour the rest of the park. When we took the Runner Bean tour the following day they told us that they open the park gates several hours before closing so you can tour the entire park for free is you plan accordingly.
September 11, 2014
We didn't know it but September 11, 2014 is the national day of Catalonia. 300 years previous the Catalonians had lost to the Spanish and they to have not forgotten about it. two million Catalonians gathered in the streets of Barcelona wearing their yellow and orange striped shirts and waving their yellow and orange striped Catalonian flags. They also gave speeches and gathered in groups in the streets. It was interesting to be in Barcelona during this time especially since we have our own September 11th.
We liked Madrid. They had good museums, the food was decent and Mercado de San Miguel was worth visiting several times. I liked Barcelona better than Madrid just about from the moment that I exited the train station. It's not because I didn't like Madrid, I did, but I like Barcelona that much better. It took Karen a day or so before she agreed with me. Madrid felt like a small town compared to Barcelona. I felt Barcelona's energy as soon as we walked down Los Ramblas .It's definitely an international city.
The Gothic Quarter is the place to stay if you are a tourist. It is central to almost everything. There are plenty of good restaurants and bars that line the narrow walkways in the Gothic Quarter.
The subways in Madrid and Barcelona make it easy to explore the cities. You can take it to Segrada Familia which will amaze even secular people.
Some friends of ours drove from Paris to Barcelona and spent a week in the south of France along the way. They were only in Barcelona for one day before their flight back to the US. They wished they had shortened their stay in the south of France so they could spend more time in Barcelona. That is high praise; giving up time in the south of France to spend it in Barcelona.
We are hoping to go back to Barcelona someday, maybe when we retire and we will live there for six months or so.