Europe Trip…pictures, stories, and ruminations…
I tried to keep up with writing daily, I truly did…it just didn’t happen. We’ve been home for about 30 hours and I’m still wiped, but here goes…
The trip begins at good old DFW (airport), which has become somewhat of a regular for Mark and I. Having never flown outside the US (except for Costa Rica), I already knew Mark wasn’t thrilled for the 11 hour journey that lay ahead; but hey – that;s what Xanax and alcohol are for. Post purchasing a chicken finger dinner and having our first round of cocktails; Xanax + Vodka soda, things get a bit hazy. We got on the plane and as it filled up, there was one empty seat…right next to me. Hazy as I was, at this point, I really did think this could be a dream…open seat next to me on the way to Europe? Hell yea. I drift off only to be awakened by Mark asking me to have another “cocktail” as well as dinner. Cocktail was downed, dinner – YUCK. I ate the rest of the soggy chicken fingers we had brought on the plane. He filled me in; we had taken off about an hour late, circling the runway for that length of time. Eh, I didn’t care, I was on vacation…and had an empty seat next to me. Stretching across the empty seat, I put my head in Mark’s lap and the next thing I knew I was being told to put my seatbelt on – we were landing. SCORE! The flight felt like it was only 5 minutes. We landed in Madrid and were supposed to get on another connecting flight to Barcelona. Clusterfuck is the best thing I can say about Madrid’s airport – and that is being nice. As our flight was already running late, we were going to miss our connection. “No big deal,” thinks the dumb Americans who have been spoiled by American cultures and airports. It is far too long a tale to type, but picture this; 1 mile walk to AA’s counter as “American Airlines” is who we booked through. At the AA counter, we are told they cannot help us, that we must go to the Iberia counter as Iberia airlines is operating the last hour flight to Barcelona. Scene 2: The Iberia counter is in another terminal. Hence, another 1 mile walk + subway. Oh, and at this point, had a bunch of “bloody Americans” following us as we were all in the same boat. Waited in line for about an hour at the Iberia counter, we were actually chill (probably a remnant of our ‘cocktails’), but we were able to find the perfect depiction of why people hate “dumb Americans”… A lady had joined our ‘party’ from NY. Actually, my guess is she has a house in the Polo Club in Boca in the winter and Jersey in the summer (notice, I did not say NY). About 65 years old, you have to imagine a women that is half the coffeetalk lady from SNL and half Fran Dresher. She’s 5’1, probably 170 pounds =, and is wearing a “fake” JUICY sweat suit (who even knew they made those? I’m guessing it was someone in Jersey who designed them). Anyways, she was a screamer. All through the airport. At her husband. Even better – she thought that if she yelled at the Madrid Airport employees in ENGLISH, they would listen….WRONG. To put it mildly, I found the individual who gives American’s a bad name. We eventually got our tickets resolved and after another mile or so hike back to yet another terminal, had 25 minutes to spare before boarding. What better time to start getting immersed into the culture? We had our first Spaniard beer.
Score again – it was damn good. We landed in Barcelona and got to our hotel around 4 PM; immediately we shot off to the main plaza in the city. We had decided the best way to learn about the city is to walk it, see it, feel the people, etc. and that we did. The first day, we walked from the Plaza De Espana to (castle) in front of the Olympic Village.
Not only was it beautiful, but there was an amazing guiatarist playing and we sat and listened while overlooking the city. Breathtaking. We walked through the Olympic Village; which was incredible. The stadiums were open for us to see, we literally walked in the footprints of hundreds of athletes (see pictures below), and although the Olympics had not been in Barcelona since 1992, the area had been kept up beautifully.
We consulted our maps and saw it was only a 2 or 3 mile walk down to Los Ramblas, the famous tourist street in Barcelona. It begins about a mile from the beach and ends at the water; we headed strait for the water. The walk there was a blast. We saw cars we had never heard of, the city itself was clean; so so clean, it was refreshing…nothing like an American city. We had views over Barcelona the entire way down.
We eventually got to the huge “Christopher Colombus” statue which marks the ‘area you want to be at’. To your left is Las Ramblas and to the right is a long pier; the beach extends from both sides.
We walked out onto the pier which ended in a mall like building (maybe it was a mall?) that had restaurants adoring the outside. We sat ourselves down and feasted on tapas and sangria. Surprisingly, neither of us were hungry, but we surely managed to down 5 tapas and a liter of sangria; it was awesome. We got 4 dishes of shell fish and cheeses and one dish called patatas bravas, basically steak fries with sushi type spicy mayo, which is now my new favorite food.
Figures I would love the carbs. We watched the sun set and went back to our room, crashing by 10 PM. We awoke early the next morning to go to the gym…and immediately turned off the alarm and went back to sleep instead. Whoops. We decided we would walk everywhere we went that day and did; ended up walking about 12 miles. We started at the main Plaza with the plan to grab some brunch as we were walking to the Picasso Museum. After an hour of walking and peeking into about 100 different sidewalk cafes, we realized they were all the same (and I lamented to the fact that I would not be getting an egg white omelette for breakfast), we sat down around noon outside one where there was a group of younger (20-25 yr old) men. Clearly, these boys were overcoming a massive hangover, but nonetheless – they, as well as everyone else at this restaurant as well as the surrounding cafes, were all downing 3 drinks; coffee, orange juice, and beer. I thought maybe it was just these ‘boys’, but go figure – everywhere I looked everyone had beer for breakfast / lunch…with a side of coffee. Yuck. Mark happily participated in the custom while I stuck to the fresh squeezed orange juice. This same day was the day the value of the EURO dropped…significantly. Greece’s bankrupt economy was in shambles and had brought the EURO down with it. Good for us…bad for Europe. I picked up a newspaper at the café and after reading the Greece debacle, the next article talked about Spain’s economy. They are at a 20% unemployment rate. We, in the US, consider this to be a depression – but we never think to look at the rest of the world. It was a bit disconcerting. Walking down the famed Las Ramblas was fun; we went through all the sidewalk shops, mingled with the peeps, and continued to the Picasso Museum. I was shocked (pleasantly) at Mark’s navigating skills; more power to him, I wanted to pay someone to give us a ride ( ; When we got to The Picasso Museum…It was closed. Hahahaha. That was literally my reaction, “hahahaha”. We had been walking for 2 hours and lord knows how many miles and the place was closed; priceless. Mark and I both agreed that it was a damn good thing we’re so laid back because most people would’ve been pissed, but we said, “screw it – we go to see more of the city”, and proceeded to take the several mile walk to Gaudi’s famed La Sangrada Familia.
Besides the Sistine Chapel, there have only been one or two other places that were truly awe inspiring. This was one of them. Nerds that we are, we didn’t only want to tour and go up to the tower, but also always love to get the headsets / find out about the history of this magnificent architectural / art chapel. Far too much to delve into, but it is a damn good thing we did not go to the Picasso Museum as we would not have had time to spend the 4 hours we did exploring the chapel. Having started being built in the late 1800s, it was in the exact center of the city; the halfway point between the mountains and the ocean. Everyhing Gaudi did had a reason behind it; usually spiritual. This precise placement was to strike ‘balance’. The original design was for 12 towers (12 apostles), 4 smaller towers (4 evangelists) and ….On each said, the exact sculpting and atristitry is magnificent; similar to the sisitine chapel. You could look at each side for days and still find precise details. Each side told a story and each piece gave the story meaning. Incredible. Had I known that we could go to the top of the tower, I probably would have meditated beforehand…or at least medicated, but I didn’t realize that was an option until we got inside. Having been to the top of the Eiffel Tower (tried to go un-medicated…didn’t work…) as well as St. Paul’s Cathedral, it wasn’t the actual ‘height’ that freaks me out, but being outside, 100s of feet above the ground, with nothing under you…and only a 3-4 foot wide bridge. NOT my idea of a calming vacation…so between going to the top and climbing down the narrow, spiral staircase, I wasn’t thrilled…okay, I was about 50% in panic attack mode, but the view from the top made the fear worth every second.
We continued through the inside of the chapel, appreciating once again the significance everything held. At this point, it was about 6 PM and we were getting hungry. As we left Gaudi’s magnificent creation, we saw the FIRST STARBUCKS we had seen the entire time we had been in Spain. Compare that to London or NYC, where there is an average of 1 per block, and it speaks to both the economy and culture of the city. They are proud of their own and not into franchises from afar. The only other 2 franchises we saw were Subway and Dominos; it was refreshing.
We decided to trek back down towards the beaches figuring we would find a nice restaurant for dinner and on the way there passed a football (soccer) game as well as the FIFA World Cup 2010 EXPO. Having grown up playing competitive soccer, I have never understand why the US has not adopted this as part of its culture as the rest of the world has, so being in Europe and going to this world cup expo was fantastic. It’s amazing; even the ‘worst’ players on the field from Europe look better than most American players; it comes so naturally to them, I love it.
So down we went to Barcelona’s beaches; which remind me of a more laid back South Beach…or a “South Beach” without so many models. Our intention was two fold: 1) Find a place to eat dinner 2) Find “ICE BAR” – a recommendation from a friend. As luck would have it, ICE BAR turned out to be the third place along the strip. It’s similar to a bar they have in Vegas (name escapes me) where you go in and the entire room / bar is kept so cold that everything is literally ice. It keeps the vodka ‘fresh’. So, for an extra couple Euro, you get to have a drink in 30 degrees. It was fun, just to “do it”, but really not much different than drinking outside in Dallas this past winter.
On a nice buzz, we kicked off towards dinner; lobster paella, what could be better? Went back to the hotel and got ready to get onto the ship the next day.
Unlike the US (Miami or Ft. Lauderdale), Barcelona’s port is not as crowded nor did it have the long lines we were accustomed to waiting on prior to boarding the ship. Security was pretty lax; I walked onto the boat with two big bottles of water that had both been opened (this was an accident). Looking back, I probably could have filled both with vodka and saved some money, but…we live, we learn.
As a “ship”, I liked the layout with the promenade in the middle of the ship; we had a suite with a balcony which was great; and there were numerous activities from rock climbing to ice skating. As soon as we got on the ship, we took to exploring and found everything easily. We worked out during the day (great gym and spa) and got ready for dinner.
The day we spent “cruising” was fun. We had the ‘right idea’ in mind – stay active during the day, don’t sit around the pool and drink, etc. and there were certainly enough activities to keep us busy. Mark played the Pebble Beach golf course for an hour, we played ping pong, basketball, went in line skating, and participated in a 4 on 4 soccer tournament. Looking back, perhaps the 4 on 4 soccer tournament could have been broken up into an “American” league and a “European” league, as the Europeans wiped the floor with us; but it was all in good fun. No worries that we were so sore the next day neither of us could walk.
As we got ready for dinner, we received an amazing delivery; my parents are the best! They had purchased a package on the ship for us and we were brought 2 robes, a bottle of champagne, picture frames, flowers, canapes and petit fours (in english – appetizers and desserts). Thanks Mom and Dad!
Off to bed that night and onto the Amalfi Coast the next day.
We awoke to the enchanting views of Naples, Italy. Little did we know that was actually the least pretty place we were going to see that day. We got on our tour bus at 8 AM and drove through Naples and out to the Amalfi Coast. Naples, we were to learn, was very different from Northern Italy in that it was not industrial and the only real source of money was the tourism industry. Naples and its suburbs yielded a whopping 38% unemployment rate.
We drove past Mt. Vesuvias