Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Magical Land of Andorra

November 9

The same company I booked to take me to my hotel from the airport, I also booked to take me back to the airport. They got me from my hotel at 8 AM and dropped me at the airport. I wasn't there for a flight, though, I was there to catch a bus. The information desk was able to point me to the platform. I still had at least an hour, so I went to a cafe and had a doughnut and...iced tea (a bottle of Lipton with sugar and lemon). Then downstairs to the bus stop.

I was on my way to Andorra - not for any really good reason, but because if I was coming to Europe, why not squeeze in another country? 

For most of the bus ride I tried to either look at the scenery or sleep. We stopped in a town outside of Andorra Del Villa, which the bus driver didn't make clear, so I started to get off the bus along with a Frenchman who also didn't understand Spanish. The driver told us to get back on the bus, so we did. I spent a little bit of time talking with the Frenchman, Sam. He knew some English, I knew some French, so we each did our best to speak in the other's language, which seemed like a pretty good system. He was in Andorra for a job interview.

Typical view from the bus to Andorra.

My wonderful Spanish cell phone stopped working as soon as we hit Andorra. It kept sending me texts, though, to tell me I'm roaming and to ask if I want to send it more money somehow to cover the roaming. Too bad I understand none of the Spanish, or maybe I would have a working phone.

We got to Andorra in the early afternoon and I walked to my hotel. I once again got bad directions, but found a police officer as soon as I suspected things weren't right and he pointed me the right way. I have noticed that "left" and "right" are mistranslated a lot when it comes to someone who doesn't speak English trying to tell you a direction in English. Always have them point.

Andorra is the only stop on my trip where I stayed in a big chain hotel. The Holiday Inn. The room was very nice. Bigger than the other rooms I was expecting. But the walls were so thin I could hear everyone in the hallway and could hear when the people in the adjoining rooms were in the bathroom.

My hotel room.

I set out immediately to find something to eat. Andorra is a mountain town, so I walked up a very steep hill to the main area of commerce. I walked around and around looking for a place to eat and finally went to Mama Maria's pizzeria. I even picked up a little old man straggler who tried to talk to me, but he only knew Spanish, so we were in trouble. Even so, he wouldn't leave me alone until I ducked behind a sign. I had a TERRIBLE pizza and fried potatoes with garlic mayonnaise. And a coke.

Downtown was decorated for Christmas.

Researching online, Andorra was the only place where you were cautioned against drinking the water, so I went to a store and bought some water. The store was like a department store, like Macys, on the first two floors. On the third floor was a grocery store and on the fourth floor was Christmas land. Everything for sale for Christmas. I bought two bottles of Evian.

I saw, but did not eat at, the highest elevation McDonald's in Europe. 

Then I headed back toward the hotel. Not a lot was open in the city and I was still pretty tired. When I got to the steep hill I saw there was an elevator for it. I took the elevator down and learned I was on floor 7, which in Europe means the 8th floor because the ground floor is 0. I had walked up that. The temperature was 9 Celsius, for whatever that was worth, considering I don't know Celsius conversions to Fahrenheit. I was glad my suitcase, with my coat in it, had arrived though.

The view from on top of the hill, near the elevator.

Back at the hotel I took a bath and couldn't get the stopper out of the tub. I had to use the comb they provided to pry up the stopper to let the water out of the tub. They had a 6€ charge for room service, so I went down to the bar and got some food to bring back to my room. A toasted cheese sandwich, on par with what I can make at home in a toaster oven, and some chips. I also had a pot of chamomile tea, even though I wasn't sure about having water, heated or not.

The hotel had three English-language TV channels - CNN World News, BBC World News and cartoons. Both BBC and CNN were broadcasting the festivities from the Berlin Wall 25 anniversary, so I watched a little of that before going to bed.

I left my iPad plugged in to charge, but apparently when you turn off the light by the bed, all of the power in the room is cut to save on electricity. Yay! I had a terrible night sleep because it was so noisy, and had to be up at 4 AM to catch my bus to Toulouse. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Tour of Barcelona with a lot of Gaudi

November 8

Back up in the morning to go to the same tour office for a full-day tour of Barcelona. Veronica was our tour guide. She was from Chile and learned English from watching Friends and other US sitcoms. First stop - Montjuic. Pretty views of the city.

Second stop - Sagrada Familia. Amazing, but I quickly learned that Gaudi is not my cup of tea. The elements I liked the best were the stained-glass windows which were designed by someone other than Gaudi.

A woman who had just seen La Sagrada.

Third stop - Gothic Quarter - Because there is never enough walking, we went on a walking tour of the oldest part of the city, which used to be a walled fortress. The roads are too narrow for cars and people still live in all the ancient buildings.

There was a protest in the square over the impending vote over whether there should be a vote to make Catalunya an independent country.

Break for lunch. I ate at CheeseMe where I had ravioli with mushrooms and pears. They were delicious! And Yellow Tea. I also took a chance and went into a pharmacy with the package from my migraine medicine, which is prescription only in the US, and was able to buy it over the counter. You can't image how happy that made me. Having a migraine for my whole vacations was looking like a real possibility if I couldn't take care of it.

Fourth stop - Parc Guell - I liked it better than La Sagrada, but still I find Gaudi lacked the ability to edit himself. Some good ideas, but overdone. I would have bought a small souvenir of the "dragon" but without a suitcase I didn't want to worry about it breaking.

Fifth Stop - La Pedrera - I didn't want to walk another step, but we had to go up to the roof of this building where there is a series up steps going up and down, up and down. And some unique chimneys.

Then you go to the attic for a display about Gaudi, then down one more level to one of the apartments. I doubt they have ever had anyone go through the display and apartment faster than me. When I finally got back down to ground level there was a woman associated with the site who tried to direct me to another room for another exhibit, but I just left. I couldn't see anything else. That was the end of the official tour, not taking us back to the tour office, but rather leaving us in that same shopping area I had been two nights before.

I found a place to eat and sit for a while. I have gratinated provolone which was very good, and some not very good french fries. I ordered ice tea instead of yellow tea and got a bottle of Lipton with lemon and sugar. Better than nothing, but not what I wanted.

Since I now knew where H&M was, I set out to find it and buy still more clothes, because I had no suitcase and the weekend was coming up. In the US, that wouldn't be a concern, but I knew that I would be in France soon and it is really difficult to find stores open on a Sunday in France. I needed to be set until Monday. I didn't find anything I liked, so I bought more socks and underpants and a t-shirt and sweater. The skirt I bought in Cadaques would have to make another outing or two.

And then I had to walk back to the hotel. If you haven't been to Barcelona, there are not proper street corners. The buildings look like they've been cut on the ends and the crosswalks are all about a car's length in from the intersections. I figured out that I saved some walking if I went in a diagonal pattern rather than trying to go up and over to my hotel, because I didn't have to walk around these weird corners. Even though it was only a few blocks, I kept thinking I should just hail a cab and get it over with, but I didn't. I managed to get back to the hotel and call home and settle in for the night.

And...my suitcase had arrived!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

First Full Day - Dali Tour

November 7

I had to get up early for a tour to Cadaques and the Dali museum in Figueres. I walked the 7-8 blocks to the tour office, stopping to get a Coke on the way, which was served with a straw, and made it in time for my 8 AM tour. Unfortunately, my bus for my 8 AM tour made it at 10 AM. The tour company knew they were running a little late and sent everyone around the corner to a coffee shop. I got a really good cup of tea with ice (2 cubes) on the side. I learned from the barista, who didn't speak English, that I would get what I wanted in Spain if I ordered what sounded like Tea Yellow.

After the tea it was back around the corner to stand on the street waiting for the bus to arrive. The tour company was next to a spectacular building called the Palau de la Musica. They have musical events there, and if I had been in Barcelona longer I would have tried to see one.

Our tour guide, Fabian, was Basque. This company is owned by an Englishman and all of the tours are in English. We went to Figueres and to the Dali museum as our first stop.

Me, inside the Dali Museum.

Maybe it's wrong of me to say this, but the more museums I go to, the more I think that the great artists didn't only make masterpieces. Like, when I paint something, there is a better than 50% chance it will really be garbage, but I don't throw it away. What if in 100 years someone decides I was a great artist and they put all of these garbage paintings in a museum... There you have a lot of the Dali museum. None of his really famous works are even there. But Dali built the museum himself, so part of the visit is seeing what he thinks the layout of a museum should be.

A doorway in the museum.

Next to the main museum, there is a smaller museum with some of the jewelry Dali created. I thought this was a much more interesting place - although I think I would only wear something from there to tell everyone it was by Dali. Our ideas of beauty do not overlap.

After the museum, we went to Cadaques, where Dali lived most of the time. I had a terrible migraine and tried to buy some medicine, but the pharmacy was closed until 4 PM and we were leaving for our next stop at 3 PM. I had a smoothie and bought a skirt to wear the next day (with the shirt I was sleeping in), and sat down on the pebbly beach, watching the water. Interesting to me, some of the pebbles on the beach were actually worn-down brick, which is not something I remember seeing in the US.

Dali, dressed for the upcoming vote.

We got back in the bus and drove up the coast a little bit to Dali's house. It was 11€ to go on a tour inside of the house, where there was no artwork. It was literally just his house. I passed and spent the time on the beach.

Dali's House.

Dali's cat?

Me, on the beach, not feeling good.

When it came time to leave, we had a 3 hour drive back to Barcelona, but unless you took the tour of the house, you could not use the toilet. I walked up to the top of a steep hill past some restaurants, but they were all closed. There was a hotel at the top of the hill but they refused to let me use a restroom. Finally Fabian talked to the guard at the Dali toilets and they reluctantly let me use them.

Then there's nothing like a 3 hour bus ride with a migraine. I knew I had packed pills in my purse, but couldn't find them. This was going to be my last one, too, since the flight had already cause me to use up the other two I had in my purse. Six more were in the missing suitcase...

And then there's nothing like having to walk 7-8 blocks in the dark with a migraine after a day of walking. I was so happy to be back at the hotel. Room service, please! Cheese croquettes with fries and a small salad. They were not delicious, but I was relieved to not have to venture out to find food, and I did find my migraine pill in the bottom of my purse.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Thursday, November 6:

On the plane to Barcelona they offered a snack of either a cold cheese sandwich or a cold chicken sandwich. The bread was dry and there was Dijon mustard on the cheese sandwich, with a yellow cheese resembling cheddar. I ate a little bit, but that was my 4th meal in the past 13 or 14 hours, so I wasn't really hungry.

Since my luggage didn't arrive, I had to go make a claim at the lost baggage counter. They looked up my bags in the computer and had no record of them at all. The woman didn't seem alarmed by this and sent me on my way with a piece of paper with a claim number on it.

I had pre-booked a car, and saw a man holding a sign from the company (BTW, no customs in Barcelona) who was waiting for someone else. He had a German woman with her daughter already waiting and said, yes, he was also for me, but none of us knew why he didn't have my information. We waited about ten minutes for the person he was holding up the sign for, but he never showed, so we left.

My hotel in Barcelona was on a main street - Arago. The room was small, but had the best feature of all if you know me - a heater I could control! I signed into the internet and figured out about what temperature 80 would be in Celsius and programmed the heater! Yay! But there I was without my suitcase. I had to go shopping. I inquired with the concierge where I might find some shops, and he pointed me to the main shopping street about 5 blocks away. He specifically told me they had H&M and Zara right in the area he circled on the map, two shops which are vital when you need something cheap.

I found the street and started walking north. Chanel, Carolina Herrera, Tiffany...everything way too pricey. I walked around and around and around. I saw some Japanese girls with Zara shopping bags and they told me to go to the next block, La Ramba Catalunya, to find Zara. I went to La Ramba and found Sephora, where I bought some hair conditioner, and a place to buy a pre-paid mobile phone. At the mobile phone store they looked up where H&M and Zara were, and so far I had been given completely wrong directions by everyone I asked. I wasn't far from Zara, so I went over there.

I found a nice dress there which I think I'll wear again, and I got a t-shirt to sleep in. I still needed to find underwear and socks for the next day, but had passed a lingerie shop on my travels, so I headed back there. Women's Secret. LOL. I bought the cheapest underpants and socks I could find. Then, exhausted, I headed back to my hotel. There were still some things I needed to buy (like deodorant), so I stopped in one of the many pharmacies. A small bottle of deodorant was 7€, but I didn't know where else to go.

My new Spanish dress.

On the walk back to the hotel, coming at things from a different angle, I realized it was one block away from a small supermarket. I popped in to the market and got something to eat and bottled water and a couple other things from my shopping list. Had I seen it earlier, I would have saved a lot of money on conditioner and deodorant.

Back in the room I could FaceTime with my parents and got to sleep around 10 pm. And because I bought a cell phone, I had a USB charger for my iPad. Otherwise, things were looking grim with me and technology. With the iPad charging and a cell phone, I set the alarms on both so I would be up in time for my first tour the next morning.

These are the street tiles, designed by Gaudi, which comprise the sidewalk on La Rambla.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Trip to Europe, November 2014

November 5, 2014 - Leave for the airport.

Prime Time Shuttle picked me up about 10 minutes late, but I still made it to the airport with plenty of time. The check-in system at LAX does leave a little to be desired. You have to go to a machine and print a ticket, then get in line to check your bags - a line they only let you in if you have a ticket from the machine. Tickets printed at home, I found out from the disgruntled couple in line, mean nothing. So, I printed my ticket and got in line. The line moved pretty quickly and to my surprise, when I checked my bags they tore up the ticket I printed at the machine and printed a new ticket for me. What an amazingly efficient system. And good for the environment, too, with all the torn up and discarded tickets.

The security check was the same as on a domestic flight. The only delay was when a whole group of flight attendants from a Saudi airline showed up and had first priority going through the security screening. After that, just find your gate and wait to board. My phone didn't work at LAX, but they have free wi-fi, so I sent a few emails. The terminal area is like a giant shopping mall, and the only bad part about that was having to walk forever past the shops to actually get to the gate. I had time to get a pizza and iced tea before my flight, so I did.

Me waiting at LAX.

The plane was more cramped than I ever remember a plane being. For some reason, I thought when I was little if someone in the window seat wanted to leave the row, they others didn't actually have to get up, but did to be polite. Now my small carryon bag didn't even really fit beneath the seat in front of me. I put my skirt out to cover it so the flight attendant wouldn't make me move it, although I didn't end up needing anything from it anyway.

The back of the seat in front of you has a screen which offers tons of TV shows and movies, enough to entertain me for the whole 11 hour flight to Paris. I watched 5 movies - Edge of Tomorrow, The Lego Movie, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Sex Tape and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the one episode of Veep that was available.

The most alarming thing the screens have available is a view from three cameras mounted outside the plane - one looking straight down and the other two to front and back. Every seat can be a window seat! I just thought about how much my sister would have hated to be able to see outside the whole plane for the whole journey, although most of the time it was clouds, so nothing to see.

The earth, as seen from the back of an airline seat.

I pre-ordered a vegetarian meal and for the most part I'm glad I did. I got my meal first, before the food cart came down the aisle. And even though there was a choice of cheese ravioli for the lunch meal, they ran out just before my row and only had chicken left. Also, instead of a pastry, the vegetarian meal had fresh fruit. The vegetarian breakfast, however, was not good at all. Sure, there was a muffin and apple sauce. Bread and butter. Orange juice. But along with that there was a tray of boiled veggies - mushrooms, carrots, asparagus. Just what you want first thing in the morning.

My layover in Paris was very short - just shy of an hour. It was in Paris where we went through customs and got our passports stamped. Then a change of terminal. My flight gate was at F51, but all of the signs directed you to terminal F2. You just had to have faith that since they both said F, it was the right thing to do. Luckily, my connecting flight was delayed by 40 minutes or I would not have made it to Barcelona. And, unfortunately, my luggage did not make the connection.

The gate in Barcelona had two ramps for two different planes at the same gate, boarding at almost the same time, causing great crowds and mass confusion. I looked at the other gates and it seemed to be standard operating procedure to have two planes at each gate. I think they might need a bigger airport...