Barcelona Day 3 (Mostly Andorra)

When I was putting this trip together, I looked over several maps and saw that I was going to be a few hours away from Andorra. I would like to, by the time I have died, visit all the countries of the world. I will travel just about anywhere just to go check it out. If I win the lottery, so long suckers, I’m off to do this. Since I have yet to win the lottery, I have to take whatever I can get when it comes to travel.

I went back and forth on whether I should go to Andorra or use the day to see more of Barcelona, but in the end, I had to go to Andorra because it was still there. Why is it still there? Good question! My theory is this: most microstates are there because an army says, “Oh no, there is no way I’m marching over one more mountain. You don’t pay me enough for that.” or some navy says, “Why should go to that other island? What are we gonna find, more great beaches and coconuts? We got that here! You don’t pay me enough for that.”

That is probably an over simplification. I know more about Andorra than your average American, but that’s not saying much. Most Americans do not even know it exists. Before the Internet, the only way you would know about Andorra was to have a large map of Europe and scan it closely, or to read an almanac and scan the lists of the world’s smallest countries. Anyone want to guess what kind of kid I was? I was both kinds.

I was willing to give up a day in Barcelona, one of the great cities of the world, to take a bus ride to Andorra la Vella to see what it was all about. It is an odd place politically; it is a co-principality, its co-princes being the President of France and the Catholic Bishop of Urgell in Spain. It is a relic of Medieval Europe located in the Pyrenees Mountains. I did a little internet research but only found out that it was a tax haven, good for duty free shopping, and had snow skiing. These are three things I have almost no interest in. I’d like to be rich enough to peruse the world for tax havens, but I am not there yet.

I was able to book bus tickets to Andorra la Vella (the capital) direct from Barcelona via http://www.andorradirectbus.es/en (Directbus Andorra) for about 50 € round trip. They had an easy to use site and it was in English too. You print out a receipt and bring it to the offices at Barcelona Sants Station (actually across the street but easy to get to via metro or train) and get a boarding pass to get on the bus.

I got lucky when I planned this day trip for Friday, as I found out when I arrived in Barcelona that it was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is a big national holiday. Lots of things in town would be closed and almost everyone would be off work. This explained the large numbers well dressed, but slightly ruffled, and still drunk, young people on the metro at 6am. I arrived at Sants Station in plenty of time to head outside to the bus terminal.

The bus to Andorra was packed with people, which I figured was due to the holiday. It was comfortable and had Wi-Fi and a bathroom you accessed by going down some stairs near the middle exit. Either that, or it had a cellar. I didn’t explore. I was content to watch the scenery roll by. It was a very scenic trip through the Catalan countryside that hit a few small villages on its way to Urgell and was on target to be in Andorra la Vella on time until we hit traffic outside of Urgell. We were never sure what the issue was, but in the mountains roads tend to be of the “only” variety as in the only road into and out of a place. If there is only one road from Urgell to Andorra la Vella, you have to just wait it out. By the time we got moving again and got through passport control, we ended up arriving about an hour late.

fullsizeoutput_31e8
Lest you doubt me, I really was there.

So what did I find in Andorra la Vella? The city is in a valley straddling a stream and surrounded by mountains. The bus station was actually on top of the stream. It makes sense since most non-stream areas had structures on them. There were lots of places to buy things. Mostly high dollar items, but I was able to find a very small shop and buy some postcards and souvenirs for people back home.

I wandered around the shopping district for a while and grabbed some lunch at a Spanish place before heading back to take the bus back to Barcelona. The trip back was much less fun since it was in the dark to take in the scenery.

In the end, I was able to do what I wanted which was to visit Andorra and get some souvenirs. I’d like to go back and explore more in the future, but would like to do a better job planning the next trip. If you are ever in Barcelona and are looking for a day trip, it is an easy one to make and the scenery on the ride alone is well worth it.

DSC_0081
You build up the mountain until you get tired of climbing.
IMG_9342
An Andorran phone booth. About as rare as the Loch Ness Monster.

 

DSC_0082
I think they just picked an Andorran pope!
DSC_0079
Lots of mountains, not much snow.
DSC_0057
Am I the only one worried about that pile of rocks sliding down the mountain towards the hotel?
IMG_9343
Had lunch here. Would recommend.

 

Upon my return to the US, the customs guy asked me where I had been on my trip. I told him Spain and Andorra. “Where’s Andorra?”, he asked. I gave him the elevator pitch for Andorra. He did not seem moved, but did allow me to move on.

 

Barcelona Day Dos

I had purchased a Barcelona Card in advance of my trip. It gives you free entrance to many museums, discounts at others, and free travel on most local transit. (check it out and crunch the numbers to see if it would work for you, it did for me). I missed the opportunity to pick it up at the airport in my zombie-like state from lack of sleep, so I went to pick it up at the Barcelona Tourism offices at Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol.

The city was getting ready for Xmas and had a tree and an artful nativity set up in the square:

Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol
Here’s that cat! Keeping the fowl in check and ruling the vermin.

Not much to report huh, you town’s got one too? Well for me it was an epiphany, because for the first time I saw a cat in a nativity scene. It only makes sense, what kind of barn doesn’t have a cat or two? I was to learn soon, that the Catalans take their nativity scenes seriously….kind of.

It turns out, I was in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona and hadn’t realized it, Dumb luck, as I had wanted to see it anyway. Lots cool things to see. Small ally-ways and streets, and for some reason a Swedish flag. DSC_0971DSC_0987

I didn’t have anything planned for the day and decided to wander over to a food market I had read about and had someone I’d met in Geneva recommend to me, Mercado de La Boqueria. It was just of La Rambla, and I figured I’d grab a bite and then walk around and grab some postcards to send back home.

While en route, I came across this amazing building that had a Japanese theme. It’s a bank now, but looks very much like a stereotypical view of Japan from about 100 years ago as seen by a European architect.

The Info
Info on the building

DSC_0001DSC_0998DSC_0999

Photos do not do it justice. The giant dragon lamp is so impressive, a friend of mine’s husband got a tattoo of it. Once again, dumb luck I walked by it. I had no idea it existed.

 

Mercado de La Boqueria

I found the market and all of my senses received a shovel to the head. All the fruits, vegetables, and meats you can imagine are for sale in dozens of stalls. If you are vegan or vegetarian, be very wary. They have it all: tripe, kidneys, fish, jamón on the bone with hoof, and sheep’s heads with intact eyeballs (don’t worry, they did some of the work for you, they are at least skinned). If you are from America, or any other place where you food comes neatly wrapped in plastic, this will all be a jolt. But if you eat, you will find something here you like. They have a few bars serving food and drink as well.

IMG_9321

I picked up a few things to snack on and then decided to hit La Rambla. As I was walking towards a museum I wanted to check out, I found another that I had a hard time passing up, Museu Eròtic de Barcelona.  For those of you who do not speak Catalan, that is the Erotic Museum of Barcelona. I quick look through the Barcelona Card guidebook they gave me said that they have many exhibits showing erotic art from ancient times until today. You also get a discounted admission with the Barcelona Card. Fine. I’ll check it out, but only for educational aspects of erotica through the ages. It was all very interesting. Most of it I was somewhat familiar with, history studies is not all battles and even more battles, but I was shocked to learn Spain’s King Alfonso XIII produced silent porn films! Some of which still exist and are on a loop at the museum.

Once I was done at the Erotic Museum, or maybe Museum of Erotica, the museum itself wasn’t very erotic (unless museums are you thing), I decided to head towards the Jamón Experience. It was discounted with the card, but when I arrived it wasn’t open yet. I looked around the shop and grabbed a sandwich at their take away stall and palled my next move.

I was a few blocks away from Barcelona Cathedral and I had read there was an Xmas market there so I took off in that direction. While en route, I found another square where they had a few stalls set up where people were selling homemade foods. Jams, cheese, honey, etc. Can a man not walk a few blocks without being bombarded by foodstuffs he needs to buy?!?!?!

I finally found the cathedral and the annual Fira de Santa Llúcia Market. It was about lunchtime and it was packed. The day before was Constitution Day and the next day was The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, two big holidays here. I’m guessing kids were out of school and most people took off work to get a 5 day weekend. I did my best to look around for Xmas gifts for the folks back home but it was too crowded. I gambled it would be less crowded later in my trip.

I walked towards the cathedral which was less crowded than the market. I am a sucker for big, old churches. I took lots of photos of the outside statues.

 

I declined to go inside, as there seemed to be a steady crowd coming and going who were probably doing religious things so I figured I’d stay out of their way. The outside was nice enough.

While admiring the outside of the church, I happened to notice I was at the Museu d’Història de Barcelona MUHBA, or in Anglès, the Barcelona History Museum! I had wanted to check it out, and when I found out you got free admission with the Barcelona Card (I swear this is not an ad for it), I was sold.

The coolest thing is that you get to descend below ground and walk above the Roman era remains that were unearthed years ago. The audio guide was included and was quite interesting. There are many sites that are under the Museu d’Història de Barcelona MUHBA banner, which may cover other eras of the city’s history. The location covers mainly Roman era and a the period a few hundred years after the Romans split.

Having taken in the Gothic Quarter, food, erotic history, the Christmas maket, and Roman ruins, I decided I’d had enough for the day and hit the metro back to the hotel. Friday was to begin early with a bus ride to Andorra.

 

 

Barcelona Day Un

My first flight was at around 7am local time so I had to get up at about 4:30am to get ready and get to the airport. All went without a hitch and I got there in plenty of time.

The flight from Chattanooga to Atlanta is an annoying 20 minutes. It is annoying because you have to go through a lot with security, waiting, etc for just 20 minutes of air time. But, it still beats driving since Atlanta traffic is probably the worst in the US.

Got to Atlanta and got on my flight to Charlotte and then the delays began. There was poor visibility in Charlotte so they kept us in Atlanta for about half an hour. By the time I landed in Charlotte, after a 30 minute flight, Delta had rebooked me through Detroit instead of back to Atlanta for my flight to Amsterdam. Fine by me. I kind of prefer Detroit’s airport to Atlanta’s (sorry ATL, you can’t win one in this post [insert cheap Super Bowl joke here]).

The bad part of being sent through Detroit to get to Amsterdam was that instead of being on KLM as was my original flight from Atlanta, I was now on Delta. Delta is great, I just wanted to experience KLM’s long-haul service and see how it compared. Oh well, that’s what the future is for, right? The Detroit flight go there sooner, so I kind of won in the end.

The flight to Amsterdam was quick, about 7 hours. I got lots of reading done. I can’t sleep on planes. I look at people who can as if they have a super power. By the time I got to Amsterdam, I was dragging. I hit one of the KLM lounges to get some coffee and catch up with some work that came in while I was zooming across the Atlantic.

IMG_9320
If I’d had a window seat, and it was daytime, I might have seen Greenland!

One of the unpleasant side effects with me and sleep deprivation is that I start to say dumb things. Well, they make sense to me, but come out poorly worded. My answer at passport control in The Netherlands to “Are you going to Barcelona on business?” was “No, pleasure”. As soon as I’d said it I knew it sounded weird. As if all I planned to do in Barcelona was drink and go to brothels! That’s a half-truth. I’m going to drink and go to museums!

The KLM lounge was one of the nicest I’ve been in and most lounges are pretty nice. The internet wasn’t working for me but the coffee was. I was able to get a little work done, but got enough caffeine in me to keep me awake to Barcelona.

A short two-hour flight brought me to Spain. The flight over the Pyrenees was pretty cool as they have snow now and I’ve not seen much of that in my life from the air (or ground, I live in the American South).

I got my bags and grabbed a taxi. I was too tired to try to figure out the metro and wasn’t sure I could make the two blocks from the stop to my hotel. I’d been up for about 27 hours straight and at my age, that’s pushing the limits. The gods of travel (are (is) there any (one)?) grinned upon me and my room was ready two hours early. I checked in and slept from about noon until 2am Barcelona time. I hate to waste travel time asleep, but sleep is very important.

I’ll say this, late night Catalan / Spanish TV can give late night Japanese TV a run for its money.

Getting Ready For Barcelona

I am spending 6 days in Barcelona in early December. I was to have gone over New Years last year but had to cancel. I have not heard anyone say anything bad about Barcelona so I jumped at the chance to go this year.

I found an insane deal on my preferred airline out of Charlotte, NC. The only problem with that plan is that I don’t live in Charlotte. It’s about a 4 hour drive from my home city. I was able to find a decently priced ticket to Charlotte so I wouldn’t have to drive and pay for parking. I’m also about to bump up a status level with the airline, so the miles will help me get there before the end of the year.

It will mean a total of 5 transfers to end up in Barcelona. It is a good thing I don’t mind flying. I also kind of dig airports.

Here’s some info on the trip:

  • CHA to ATL to CLT to ATL to AMS to BCN on Delta. The longest leg is about 8 hours but I will spend about 24 hours total in the air or in airports.
  • Books: Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How the Russians Helped Donald Trump Win by Luke Harding. (If it’s as bad as I think, it may move me to ask for political asylum somewhere on this trip). Christmas: A Biography by Judith Flanders. (If it’s as bad as I think, I’m not sure what my options are, you can’t hide from Xmas in America).
  • Music: Trying To Live My Life Without You by Otis Clay, Silver / Lead by Wire, will get special attention along with the usual mix on my iPod.
  • TV: None, I’m going to read more
  • Guide Book: Lonely Planet Barcelona
  • My Mother’s Biggest Fear: as always, my safety. (Awwa, thanks Mom!)
  • My Biggest Fear: Communication. I know no Catalan. I took Spanish at university quite a while ago. I just got back from France. This will not go well. When I booked this trip it was going to be political turmoil, but it looks like they have calmed down a bit.
  • Plans: Sagrada Familia, museums, markets, a day trip to Andorra, try to fill out my euro coin collection.

 

 

 

 

Geneva

Why did we go to Geneva? Well, I have never been to Switzerland so I was up for it, but the main reason we went is that it is near a town called Tolochenaz which so happens to be the burial place of Audrey Hepburn. One of our traveling party this trip is a HUGE fan. She pointed out it was only a few hours by train from Paris, so her husband and I figured this was a worthy side trip seeing as how we got to do lots of stuff we wanted to do on this trip.

We arrived late on a Saturday night with plans to get up the next day and head to the site of the pilgrimage. Our hotel was close to the train station and had everything we needed for a short stay. After checking in we went in search of food since we had skipped dinner while on the train. Not much open late in that part of Geneva so we ended up in an Irish bar not too far from the hotel.

I’d been snacking so I wasn’t hungry but decided to get a beer. The bar was filled with Americans and Irish but we found a spot and I headed to the bar, I ordered an Irish beer and the bartender, who was a Canadian, told me it was 9.70 Swiss francs. Now the Swiss franc is worth a little more than a US dollar. I’m not sure what beer costs where you live, but almost $10 is stadium pricing in the US. We will pay it, but grumble about it the whole time. I paid it and then tipped the bartender after having a small discussion on if that was the culture there or not. This was my first lesson on the cost of things in Switzerland.

Switzerland has a reputation for being a very nice place. When you say something is Swiss, quality comes to mind. Nobody uses the term “Swiss”, to talk about the shoddiness of the construction of their watch. Over the next 24 hours, we saw that all of this quality has a price. We went to a souvenir shop at the train station and the cheapest of the cheap Chinese made souvenirs all seemed to be about 10 francs. I’m a sucker of souvenirs, I buy them for myself and for friends and family, but Switzerland made that tough. I’m sure there are cheaper places to be in the country but I didn’t find them. I will do more research for a trip I am making back there over New Years.

We woke up Sunday and headed to the train station to head to Tolochenaz and see Ms. Hepburn’s final resting place. Buying a train ticket to Morges, the nearest town with a train station, was easy at the self serve kiosk at the station. After a scenic ride of about an hour through Geneva suburbs and vineyards, we arrived at Morges and grabbed a bus to Tolochenaz.

IMG_9289

Pressed for time we just walked to the cemetery and paid our respects before we had to get a bus back to Morges and then a train back to Geneva. It being a Sunday, there were not as many buses and trains so we did not have time to see any other parts of Tolochenaz or Ms. Hepburn’s house.

Tolochenaz, Switzerland
Tolochenaz, Switzerland

Back in town we had some time to kill before the train and grabbed some lunch at a kebab place. It was  pretty good and they had Swiss beer in a can for 4 francs! We ate and then after hitting a Kwik-E-Mart for a few souvenirs and snacks, grabbed the train back to Geneva.

One of our party was coming down with a head cold so we dropped her back off at the hotel to rest and decided to stroll for a bit though Geneva. Almost everything that was not at the train station was closed on Sundays, so we walked down towards the lake and the river to see the sights. We found and park with monuments to people and events that I was unfamiliar with, which doesn’t happen to often since I have a degree in history, but one can’t know everything, right?

While walking along the lake an checking out the Jet d’Eau, which is as advertised in French.

DSC_0556

We were admiring an old boat moored by the lake and were approached by a friendly woman who began speaking to us in French. I stumbled through “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak French” in French and then she switched to perfect English and told us all about the old boat, She was French but lived most of her adult life in Geneva. We chatted for about an hour about the world, Switzerland, her love life and much, much more. We talked about travel and played a fun game where I told her where I was scheduled to go next and she told me why it was crap there!

I thanked her for her advice, but assured her that I would have to check those places out for myself. I’m hard headed like that. I took a great photo of her and my buddy.

DSC_0584

We also met some very friendly swans.

DSC_0597DSC_0577

The water of Lake Geneva was so clear you could even seen what they had thrown in it from the bridge, which was not much compared to what I would see back home.

DSC_0558

We walked back to the hotel, grabbed our travel companion and took the train back to Paris.

After a car ride to the hotel by the airport, we grabbed a short night’s sleep and then boarded our flight in the AM back to the US. The plane hadn’t even left the gate and I was planning my next trip back to Europe.