Saturday, February 27, 2010

Pickpockets in Spain

Thick as Thieves
(Update #3 August 2013 - Roadboy's off to Barcelona, Madrid, Venice, Vienna & Berlin)  
(Update #2 August 2012 - Again Enjoying Spain and Portugal)
(Update #1 February 2011 - After a Visit to Paris)

Before leaving for Barcelona in 2010 I was surprised how many friends alerted me to the pickpocket problem in Spain. I took their comments seriously and did a bit of research.

Overall, during our time in Spain I felt very safe. Cabbies give perfect change (one even returned the next day to return important travel documents I left on the back seat). Despite massive economic problems I saw a nation filled with people that work hard, produce exceptionally well designed and consistently high quality goods and are justifiably passionate in their love for their beautiful country.

But "petty" crime is a problem in Spain's main tourist destinations. Despite the presence of (seemingly ineffective) police officers everywhere, the problem remains. Jaded Spaniards grit their teeth and roll their eyes.

Unprepared or careless tourists? They are lambs awaiting slaughter.

During our ten days spent touring, despite preparation, we experienced four pickpocket attempts. Three in Barcelona and one in Madrid. In Granada we had no problems.

Since we knew what to look for we safely thwarted each attempt. But we now realize how slick and gutsy these crooks can be.

Roadboy's Tips:

1. If Arriving By Train
Be watchful especially outside train stations (most of the stations were well patrolled inside.) Once in a train, pickpockets focus on tourists dragging luggage. They know you are disoriented and distracted.

When we returned to Madrid from Granada we arrived by rail into Madrid's bustling Attoche Station. We then connected to the Metro subway. However, as we rolled our luggage onto the Metro, we were immediately targeted. The pickpocket stood awkwardly close to my traveling companion. He was local and well dressed. He carefully placed his coat across his arm concealing his hands. When my travel companion realized something was up he had already unflapped and unzipped her handbag. When she reached down to grab his wrist she realized his hand was already fishing around in her purse.

She prevented any theft, but he had timed his grab to coincide perfectly with the door of the subway opening and like vapor out he went.

2. If Arriving from the Airport
Spain Update (2012)
In Barcelona the safest option from the airport is always a cab. But in Barcelona (unless you have a large party) I find cab fare from the airport absurdly expensive.

Personally, I take the inexpensive and convenient Airbus from the Airport. It stops at Plaza EspaƱa or Plaza Catalunya. In Years past thieves used to wait and hit tourists as they waited for luggage to be off-loaded from beneath the bus. Hence, I used to advise against taking the airbus. The new Airbuses, however, have spacious luggage racks on the bus and you get off the bus with luggage securely in hand. So, I now highly recommend the Airbus.

And, once you've taken the Airbus into the heart of the city you can secure a cab for the short (and now inexpensive) ride direct to your hotel.

In the past I highly recommended the Renfe Train (Spanish National Rail) from the airport. But the train ticketing process and airport train station location is so confusing to a first time visitor I no longer recommend it - take the Airbus.

In Madrid there is a Metro stop right at the airport. However, make sure everything is secure as rolling your luggage makes you an immediate target. I put my manbag, wallet, money and passports in my luggage and then lock the luggage before boarding the Metro.

3. Mass Transit
Buy multi-day passes to scan at each station. This allows you to keep your wallet in your pocket.

4. Which Pocket?
If you put a wallet in your slacks, it should always go only in your front pocket. Never put a wallet in your back pocket. And, resist the unconscious urge to tap your wallet as you walk. Most men unconsciously do it and tip off an observant pickpocket exactly where the target is.

Frankly, I'm not a big fan of most money belts. When an aggressive group of pickpockets swarm you, they are known to slip a hand into your waist and when they feel that money belt, they simply grab the strap, jerk it hard, while running away.

Some travelers (me being one of them) carry an old wallet in their back pocket filled with those fake promo credit cards that come in the mail. When a pickpocket hits they go for the easy target. When you see them running away, you can take solace in the fact that they will soon realize they've been had. One point for you.

5. In Tourist Zones
Be vigilant in crowds. When you stroll Barcelona's La Ramblas (and you should) do it in the daylight hours. Know that If you return at night La Ramblas is gritty. If you go to the Magic Fountain (and you should), take a little cash, your bus pass, and consider leaving your room key at the hotel's front desk.

6. Dress Local
Residents of Spain's larger cities dress well. Tourists do not. They wear shorts, logo t-shirts and those comfy old white tennis shoes that scream "rip me off".

I Invest in a good pair of padded leather (Rockport) shoes (or better yet, wait and upon arrival in Spain invest in a great pair of new high quality shoes!). In winter I wear slacks and shirts with sleaves. In summer linen or cotton short sleeve shirts works well. Your clothes need not be expensive, just clean and well tailored. Handbags and manbags must have both a zipper and a flap. Wear them in front. Leave the fannypacks at home.

7. Leave Passports, Most Credit Cards, and Most Cash in the Hotel Room Safe
Make a photocopy of your passport and carry it to use for ID (shopkeeper's understand and accept the copies as ID). Also, and this is important leave a photocopy and a pdf of your passports with someone at home. If your passport gets lost or stolen you then have a place to start. Been there, done that......Not fun.

When sightseeing carry one credit card, and a little cash (travelers checks are deemed quaint and despised by shopkeepers nowadays), along with the passport photocopy.

Most American credit cards have PIN numbers issued only for cash advances. Most European credit cards use credit cards with PIN numbers for everyday transactions. 

I always call card companies to notify them where and when the card is to be used. I also get a PIN number issued on any card I plan to take. Also before you go research and consider obtaining at least one credit card that does not charge foreign transaction fees (Marriott Rewards offers one). Frankly, this past summer (2012) trying to use an American issued credit card proved to be very hard. Many merchants and restauranteurs no longer accept American issued credit cards except for large (or overpriced) purchases.

8. Outdoor Cafe's
Wrap your purse strap around your chair leg. Do not set your wallet, camera, or cell phone on the table. If anyone approaches your table to "sell a postcard", or is carrying a folded piece of cardboard, look to see what is attracting them and put it away. When they see you securing stuff they will suddenly move on to "sell" to someone else.

9. Looking at Maps in Public
This one is tough. You can't always walk into a store or cafe to look at a map. So, if you must open a map on the street, leave a halo of as much empty space around you as you can. When you see a group (frequently smiling teenage girls) start to move your way, immediately start moving away from them and preserve your open space.

In 2010 at the Arc de Triomphe Metro stop in Barcelona we opened a map and within seconds 10-12 girls started closing in. I spotted them, faced them, made direct unflinching eye contact with the obvious leader and scanned for the adult who they were working for. I gave her a good glare too. When they kept coming I yelled "back off". My raised voice drew lots of stares.

Thieves are human cockroaches, they hate bright light. I was rewarded with a chilling “you win this round” smirk as they moved on.

10. Bird Poop On Your Shoulder
It is a scam. Move on. Do not let anyone get close enough to "help" you or offer to "clean' your shoulder.

Paris Update (2011)
11. The String "Puzzle"
On a recent trip to Paris a smiling young fellow approached to show my daughter and I a string "trick". He held up colored strings and asked to tie them on a fingertip. The string is simply a distraction. While you are concentrating on the string, he'll be brushing against you. The contact desensitizes you as an accomplice will step up "to watch". You will then be pickpocketed.

12. The "Cause"
Another widespread Parisian scam is the "please sign my petition" scam. You will see teens clustered near bridges, Metro stations, or monuments carrying clipboards. Smiling, they approach, and in English ask you to support some important "cause" by signing some sort of petition.

Despite a firm "no" they will follow you imploring and touching your side, shoulder, and sleeves. The touch again is to desensitize you to contact. Once you take their clipboard, your hands will be busy, and you will be pickpocketed.

Sadly, the kids involved are frequently victims of human trafficking. When approached, move to a safe distance and look back. It won't be hard to see their adult handler nearby monitoring everything.

Our approach? We just muster up our best "I have no clue what you just said" look while babbling some gibberish. They assume you do not speak English and divert to some other mark.

More Spain (and Portugal) Update (2012)
Our 2012 trip was great. We only witnessed one pickpocket attempt in Madrid. One of the pickpockets was very pregnant (they always seem to work in teams.) The woman they "bumped" was clearly Spanish and was rolling a suitcase. After they bumped her, she tapped her pocket (they had missed the target) and issued a blood curdling scream at them even giving a short chase.

Everyone is just fed up. With a bad economy no one can afford to suffer from a rip off. We noticed great care by locals and tourists using purses and manbags with big flap over the zipper. They all wore them in front and held them cross armed on the subways. Men on subways frequently held their wallets tightly in their hands.

In Lisbon we rode the famous (or infamous) Tram 24 - no problem, but do be wary.

This trip, only one thief scoped us out and it was on the subway in Barcelona. I gave him a big focused look and his hands went down to his sides as he moved on.

Update (2013)
Our 2013 trip was amazing. I am very pleased to note that this year we witnessed zero pickpocket attempts. We all noticed how serious residents and many visitors were about protecting handbags etc. on the subways. We did see a number of tourists with unprotected backpacks that would have made a pickpockets day.

Although the street scene and overall temperament in Berlin at times felt edgy, an example being our English language "Alt Berlin" walking street art tour where we experienced a prolonged expletive filled shout down from a big SUV filled with Turks (who clearly did not want these walking tours in their Kreuzeberg neighborhood), I'd have to say overall I felt very safe this year.

In Sum

I am a contrarian traveler.

When people deserted Mexico’s beautiful beaches during the H1N1 flu scare, I was busy trying to figure out how to go there knowing the beaches would be empty and hotels would be cleaned meticulously. When Mad Cow disease hit Britain, we booked a trip to London. When would-be airborne terrorists lit up their underwear and my, otherwise logical, friends scaled back on travel, I started planning another trip.

Those that live in monochromatic guard gated communities and talk of building "border fences", while spending their lives transporting their families around in urban assault vehicles are just fooling themselves. They are the same people who demand our armed forces seek out and kill potential enemies “before they can reach our shores”.

Yet, history confirms any society that becomes paralyzed by fear, will perish.

Travel, like life, requires preparation. After you prepare, then venture into the world! Lean into your fears.

In my half century (plus) on this planet I have always found that If you practice honest, thoughtful, and principled behavior while traveling, you will almost always be rewarded by locals who are proud to show you the very best their culture has to offer!

Roadboy's Travels © 2010 / 2011 / 2012

Friday, February 19, 2010

Our Last Day

The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza 

For our last day in Spain we took it pretty easy. Slept in and then took the metro to see the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.

After a day of classics at the Prado, the Thyssen collection, with its modern works, rounded out our visit. I was able to see three wonderful paintings by Edward Hopper and two by Winslow Homer. When I tried to see Hopper's in two museums in the States, they were on loan! So I had to go to Spain to do it, but I finally got to see some real Hopper's.

The gallery is privately owned (considered by many to be the largest and most complete private art collection in the world). The gallery itself is housed in a historic palace near the Prado. Everything behind the facade facing the street is modern (all or part) designed by Rafeal Moneo.

They were setting up a new installation, so we also got to see Carmen Thyssen's very lovely (and very well protected) brand new Rolls Royce pull into the courtyard of her very own Museum. A unique perk.

The museum has a great cafe to linger in. I had a perfect dish of mushroom risotto. It was a perfect place to strike up a conversation with an Australian jewelry buyer that comes from Melbourne to Spain twice a year to "see what they are wearing in Madrid". She then buys product to take home. She sort of confirmed what we had heard; Spain has joined Milan as Europe's benchmark for fashion.

After leaving the Thyssen we walked a bit and I stumbled onto the plaza that contains the statue of author / playwright Garcia Lorca (the one I mentioned in my Granada post). In the sculpture he is about to release a bird and stands facing the theater. Perfect placement for one of Spain's most noteworthy playwrights. No kerchief at 5 PM, so I guess the rightists had already ritually removed it.

Lorca Releasing A Bird

Facing The Theater

I took one last walk around the Plaza Mayor as well. Since it was Friday it was shaping up for a lively night. Lots of human sculptures (and police) in attendance.

The Plaza Mayor Getting Ready for Another Friday Night

So with that, we returned to the hotel and got ourselves all packed. Tomorrow we start our long journey home. I'll miss Spain, but look forward to a few days of 78° F! 

Time to start collecting frequent flyer points again.

Roadboy's Travels © 2010

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Hola Madrid!

Getting Our Bearings

After my nice snooze on the train from Granada we pulled into Madrid's Attoche Renfe Train Station right on time. We also left perfectly on-time. The Spanish train system, like most in Europe, is superb. Since the taxi fare to the hotel from the train station would have been stunning (and since Roadboy is cheap) we made our way to our hotel using Madrid's clean and efficient subway system. 

While clean and efficient, within two minutes of boarding, we encountered another pickpocket attempt. 

So for anyone keeping score; the attempted pickpocket count for Team Roadboy stands at three in Barcelona and one in Madrid

And those are just the ones we detected and/or thwarted! So for you thieves out there you have just a few hours left before the big plane brings us back to Phoenix (where we just get panhandled!)

Well first off our hotel was a thing of inner beauty. I say inner because the outside is dreck. We are three for three on wonderful hotels. This one is the Madrid Hilton and is located near the Airport, this makes for an easy shuttle on Saturday.

The interior, while beautiful, was obviously designed by somebody whose undies were on way too tight. The only natural finish in the place are the hardwood floors in the room. Everything else is a fantasy in glass, chrome, black, and white.

Executive Floor at the Hilton Madrid

Note To Self 
Glass Sinks are Kinda Gross When One is Brushing One's Teeth.....

A Fireplace Fit for Austin Powers?

I must admit this hotel has just about the most amazing breakfast Roadboy has ever experienced. A seemingly endless buffet of fruits, salads, hams, smoothies, fish, eggs, and pastry. It is Fashion Week in Madrid and this hotel is filled with runway models. I have never seen so many long legged skinny people in my life. Watching them eat a chocolate covered churro, a bite of fruit, and call it good - was actually painful.

We started our sightseeing Wednesday with another hop-on, hop-off bus tour. Those have been great for getting our bearings in each city so far. We hardly ever actually hop-on or off. We just do them the first day and then use public transportation after that.

First impressions of Madrid were very different than what I had imagined for some reason. While I had seen photos, nothing really clicked. I just kind of thought of it as another big European city.

After a morning of touring I realized it is truly one of the world's most beautiful cities. Period. 

It has broad sweeping views, a huge palace, wide boulevards, gracious plazas, cathedral's, larger than life fountains, exquisite parks, and meticulously cared for formal gardens. It has magnificent public buildings and world class food, museums, shows, and shops.

The Gates to the Wonderful Retiro Park

The Ministry of Communications Building

Hemingway Said Madrid Sleeps 
Only After It has "Killed the Night"
He Was Spot On!

The Gilt Dome of The Metropolis Building

A City With A Great Skyline!

Loved This One!

 Ministry of Agriculture

Exquisite Architectural Detailing

Public Art is Everywhere
Thursday was spent (the entire day) in The Prado. 

What a gem! Before today I must admit I was not all that enamored with the likes of El Greco, Goya, and many of the Spanish masters. During today's visit I found myself deeply touched over and over. 

El Greco's purposeful proportions and use of bold color. Goya's moving from sanity to  insanity and back. Bosch's pure insanity. And then I found works like Sorolla's 1894 painting "And They Still Say Fish Are Expensive!" After reading the backstory about the piece I had to turn away and regain my composure after shedding some tears. 

So much passion, humanity, love, hate, war, and insanity all visualized in one place. The English descriptions were so well done I felt like Sister Wendy was there next to me explaining each masterpiece.

Tomorrow is our last day. I just had to say it to make it real. 

More reason for tears.

Our three days in Madrid will be inadequate to do anything but barely scrape the surface. So much more time would be needed to fully appreciate this city and its wonderful people.  

Oh well a good reason to come back!

Roadboy's Travels © 2010

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Stroll in Granada

A Beautiful City and Our Best Dinner So Far

While the reason to come to Granada for me was to see the amazing Alhambra, we quickly came to realize the City had much more to offer. It has a very well preserved (and huge) historic district. It houses a University with over 50,000 students. It has great museums and galleries, cathedrals, and plaza's and parks. The confluence of two rivers also adds interest to the City. 

Although we experienced chilly days in our February visit, the City clearly experiences blistering hot summers. We saw ripening oranges on the trees and the whitewashed color schemes consistent with hot climates (except for my hometown Phoenix which has unofficially adopted "Taco Bell" pink and beige with a clay tile roof as our municipal color scheme).

Little Plaza's Are Seemingly Everywhere

Loved the Guard Posts in Front of The Local Police Station
Look at the Rich Colors That Adorn the Building!

Queen Isabella Listening to Christopher Columbus 
Explain His Plans for Exploration

Granada's Historic Structures Display Many Generations
of Builders Each Adding Something to the One Before  

Small Cars and Nerves of Steel Are Required to Drive Here 

Loved the Light Standards
Supported by Cloven Hooves

Granada's Plaza De Toros

Concluding our time in Granada was a superb meal at the Puerta Del Carmen. Mary and I enjoyed sharing a selection of Tapas that was terrific. The standout was baby broad beans with trevelez ham cooked in local olive oil. We also had artichokes sauteed with bellota ham. The final dish was eggs with mushrooms, ham and rosemary. Ham is an essential ingredient in almost every dish in Spain. Shops offer literally hundreds of different types of ham.

We had local beer despite their offering of well over 400 spanish wines. This was a relatively simple, yet, perfect dinner. One we savored.

Puerta Del Carmen
(Note the coat hooks under the winebar counter - cool detail!)

The Decimated Egg, Ham, Mushroom, and Rosemary Dish

Arroz Con Leche

Since we arrived for dinner at 6:30 pm, which is a full 3 hours before the average Spaniard thinks about eating, We felt very lucky to score such a delightful meal.

I can't think of a more perfect way to end our visit to Granada. The next day we decided to see some countryside and travel to Madrid by train. 

Didn't work for me. As soon as the train started to move I fell asleep and snored blissfully for almost 4 hours. 

Roadboy's Travels © 2010

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Granada And The Alhambra

A Valentines Day to Remember 

After nearly a week in bustling Barcelona, the change of pace in Granada was welcome. The change was evident from the moment we got off the plane at the Garcia Lorca airport. It is tiny and you still walk down stairs from the jet. 

Garcia Lorca is beloved in Granada. It was the place he called home. Lorca was one of Spains most cherished modern era poets and playwrights. Prolific in a short life, he was murdered during the Civil War. Even in death Lorca is a mystery. When his family finally allowed his grave to be exhumed in 2008 no human remains were found. To this day his sculpture in Madrid has a fresh red kerchief tied to it each morning by the leftists. The rightists remove the kerchief before the end of each day.

Passion is not in short supply in Spain.

Our hotel was created out of a building in the heart of the historic district. It was only one year old and is operated by a wonderful Spanish hotel chain called Room-Mate. They have hotels (mostly) in Spain. But have opened new properties in New York and Argentina. The rooms looked into light wells instead of using on-street windows, so it was very quiet. I bought the room months ago on a pre-pay deal and could not have been more pleased with the quality of the place and services provided.

Valentines Day Mary and I walked to, and all over, the Alhambra. It was especially nice because they have a show with the works of Washington Irving. Irving's Alhambra writings 150 years ago were pivotal in starting the movement to save and preserve it.

I had always wanted to tour the place because I happen to love moorish style architecture. 

Looking Up to The Alhambra and Nasrid Palace
Sailing Above the City of Granada

The View From the Alhambra To Granada

The Alhambra Fortress

Another View of The Fortress

In reality what we now refer to as the Alhambra consists of a fortress, a palace, and beautiful gardens. The architectural references to the Alhambra are mostly in reference to the Nasrid Palace. This complex includes all of the living spaces for the Nasrid Sultan's and their family members. 

In reality the Alhambra for centuries was a self-contained city on a mountaintop. It was with temples (later replaced by Christian Churches), baths, graineries, dungeons, and all sorts of places for commerce.

To protect the site they carefully control the flow of visitors to the palace. If you miss your entrance time, you are out of luck. We loved the "rules" signage. "Rule 12: You may not remove all or part of your clothes and lay down on floors anywhere on the Alhambra". 


One must assume that this has happened with enough frequency to warrant a rule?  Obviously some folks have more fun touring ancient historic sites than I do.

So here are some images of the beloved Nasrid Palace.

Cool Water Moves Everywhere to Ease Hot Summers 
(There are pools ponds and streams running though nearly every indoor or outdoor space)

Looking Up is A Joy

All Palace Spaces Frame Gardens
Where Water Becomes Magical

We spent the whole day walking the site and taking in the views of the city below and the Sierra Nevada mountains off in the distance. Yes, I said Sierra Nevada. I'd have to guess that one of the Spanish Explorer's to California was reminded of this very scene and named the mountains of the west accordingly.

Roadboy's Travels © 2010

Monday, February 15, 2010

Last Day in Barcelona

An Extraordinary Photo Exhibition and Candy!

Some of the people I know leave the best things till last. They will eat a whole meal having pushed their favorite food aside in order to savor it for their last bite.

There are people that travel the same way. They look at this and that, saving the best stuff for last.

My philosophy corresponds with the saying: life is uncertain, eat desert first! Before I go somewhere I research it and make a list of the things I know I want to see and the restaurants I think I'd like to eat at. I then make sure to hit the biggies first. I also try to leave plenty of time unscheduled to sort of go with the flow. The list gives me my framework to start with, and after a few days, I've usually scrapped it, re-planning time to see other new things.

For our last day in Barcelona we decided to go back and stroll a bit aimlessly in the Gothic Quarter. We also wanted to tour one of Barcelona's famous Design Museum's.

Think of that, design is so important to people in Barcelona that they actually have museums to celebrate it! I say this since I come from the fifth largest City in America, a city where every new public art project is roundly ridiculed in Letters-to-the-Editor. The standard question being why we should spend money on art and quality design in our built world.

Why indeed? Maybe so ordinary day-to-day life need not be so UGLY?

Just a thought.

Well first up was our wonderful stroll. I just marvel at how harmonious it all looks despite sloped walls, narrow streets, and such amazing little spaces created seemingly at random. I could wander here for days. We stopped at a lovely shop to buy a knit hat since it was a cold morning. 

Balconies with Flowers Clamoring For 
The Soft Filtered Light That
Makes it to the Ground

The Land From The Time Before Cars

The Graffiti All Over Barcelona Was Interesting
Although I Found This One Strangely Creepy

The show we saw at The Design Hub was a 20 year retrospective of the work of fashion photographer Manual Outomoro. The photos were just dazzling. He had images he had created and captured all over the world for most of the planet's most prestigious fashion houses.

I found myself retracing my steps to go back twice to see a couple of the photos. This guy knows how to compose a photo and capture all of its beauty leaving in a little attitude for good measure. Of course we could not take photos inside the exhibit. Sorry bout that.

The Manual Outomoro Exhibition

We have determined that Irelands gift to the entire planet is a pub (or three) in every city! In Barcelona they even fill historic Art Nouveau buildings!

In Barcelona St. Paddy's Day is Safe

Since we had an evening flight to Granada lined up, we had to finish up early. We completed the day with a visit to the most famous of Barcelona's public markets La Boqueria. Here you can buy almost anything. While the market traces links back to 1217, its current configuration was finished in 1917. Saturday it was filled with the very finest fruits, vegetables, superb Spanish hams, and candy! Lots and lots of candy!

Bright, Fresh Produce From All Corners of the World

Amazing Spanish Hams

How Bout Some Candy?

More Candy

And Still More Candy

And with a couple of bags full of wonderful sweets we were ready to go hit the airport for Granada. My plan was to spend St. Valentines Day at the Alhambra!

Barcelona, till we meet again!

Roadboy's Travels © 2010