Friday, August 31, 2012

Three by Gaudi

Silly Sand Architecture Meets Jules Verne

Anyone with a pulse who visits Barcelona inevitably becomes aware of the built work of architect Antoni Gaudi. Although he has been dead since 1926 his sinuous architecture has come to symbolize the very city he loved.

Deemed as either "a fool or a genius" by his architectural professors, his genius confirms that University training has always been marginally useful to those who refuse to conform to whatever is the pervasive style of their day.

In Gaudi's era Barcelona was a very progressive city. It was embarking on (in my opinion) the most successful experiment in modern city planning ever realized the L'Eixample district.

It also was fully embracing the Modernista or Modernisme movement. Modernisme was a variation of the Art Nouveau where architects synthesized their building and furniture designs with flowers, plant forms and the natural environment.

Today's we live in a world of digital generated modern architecture that features variations of rigid computer generated curves and razor straight lines.

Art nouveau eschewed straight lines and rigid geometry.

Gaudi designed everything using models. Architecture to him was pure sculpture. He integrated mythology in his designs and generously used fragments of broken tile to enable totally organic looks. He started with Modernisme and rode it many bus stops past where anyone else dared to go.

The result is visceral. People love it or hate it.

Gaudi died after being hit by a tram (I'll wager he was probably looking at the detail on some nearby building.) His funeral procession extended for blocks. He was buried in a crypt in the Segrada Familia.

Bust of Antoni Gaudi

During a visit three years ago I visited Gaudi's final project La Predera (Casa Mila) and his most famous commission, the Segrada Familia Cathedral. The cathedral was a dusty construction site.

Only one facade of the cathedral was complete when Gaudi died. The Spanish Civil War stopped construction for decades. So, after more than 100 years of on and off work, progress on the Segrada Familia is rapidly advancing (now 60% complete) and destined for completion by 2026. It may be the only building to earn designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site while still under construction.

In the intervening years since my last visit it has been consecrated as a basilica (instead of a cathedral.) To see the earlier photos of Segrada Familia and Casa Mila revisit my blog posts in February 2010.

Old and New Architectural Icons in Barcelona
From Parc Guell
The Bullet Shaped Agbar Tower (left) and The Segrada Familia (right)

The interior of the basilica is breathtaking and remains faithful to Gaudi's detailed sketches, while addressing modern building codes. The design team, now aided by computers, is still relying heavily upon Gaudi's preferred design method, the use of detailed models.

A Small Part of The Model Shop

The choir loft alone seats 1000. The stained glass is appearing a section at a time. and the altar and baldochino is in place.

The Main Church

The Incredible Ceiling

The Floating Baldochino
(Regrettably, It Leaves the Impression Jesus is Paragliding)

One of the Side Chapels

A Side Aisle
(Stairs to Choir Loft and Tower Beyond)

I'm planning a return trip back in 2026 to see it completed!

The next building we visited was the Casa Baltlo. Gaudi renovated this building from 1904-1906 for a wealthy Barcelona textile industrialist named Josep Baltlo. The building is sandwiched between two other trendsetting buildings buildings, Casa Amatlier and Casa Lleo Morera. These three wild buildings on the exclusive Passeig de Gracia earned the title "Block of Discord".

I have to say I find the "House of Bones" exterior pretty hideous, but the interiors are amazing. They have a Jules Verne sea monster feel to them with almost no straight lines.

The House of Bones

The Entrance

The Baltlo Apartment's Living Rooms

The Swirling Ceiling of the Living Room

A Tile Roof and Gaudi's Trademark Four Point Cross

The last of the three Gaudi masterworks in this post is the garden complex Parc Guell. It was built from 1900 to 1914 and was originally intended to be a fresh air housing development in the (then) barren hills above the city. The "Parc" was laced with a series of curving roadways designed to provide access to triangular shaped building pads.

While Gaudi's entrance, structures (in place when the parc was being built), aquaduct, plaza and famous lizard fountain still exist as a park, no one ever built a house.

If you visit here, be prepared for a significant hike and stair climb (even with the five outdoor escalators the city has installed to minimize ambulance runs for people like me.)

It was a fabulous place to people watch.

It was also a lot of fun to watch the cat and mouse game where the literally hundreds of illegal street venders (who sell anything and everything) all quickly snatch their wares up and dive into the bushes every time the policia drive by. The policia never made any effort to leave their air-conditioned cruisers, so it was all just fun and games.

Failed As a Housing Development for Humans
Succeeds As a Housing Development for Parrots!

The Entrance to Parc Guell

Everyone Mugging with
Gaudi's Famous Lizard 

I have to take a moment to thank Miss M for indulging Roadboy in his Gaudi fest. 

I'll add more photos at home when I'm not fighting Swisscom's lousy hotel upload limits...... 

Next up will be wrap up posts including lunch at Romero's, the Museum of Catalunya, perceptions of mass transit in Madrid, Lisbon, and Barcelona, and a retrospective of some of Barcelona's amazing street art.

Roadboy's Travels © 2012   

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Return to Barcelona

The Bari Gotic, Las Ramblas and the Marina

Last week in Madrid we wondered where everyone had gone.

Here in Barcelona we found them all!

We arrived kind of late at night, so we just went straight to the hotel and checked in. I splurged and cashed in a heroic amount of Marriott points to stay at the Ritz Carlton Barcelona Arts. It is 30 stories of grand luxe right on the beach. Cokes in the mini bar just $10. A full American breakfast only $55 each. The place is full of yanks all seemingly driving new glossy black german super cars. Fear not! The 1% is doing just fine.

So anyway, Day one we slept in and took it kind of easy. We set out to explore the Bari Gotic. This is the portion of Barcelona that was behind Roman walls. It is still a maze of little tiny meandering narrow streets. There are gargoyles galore and little shops selling virtually everything. On the edge of the Gotic is (in my humble opinion) one of the best building's in Barcelona - the Palau of Catalan Music. We just took a look at the outside this time (see Roadboy's Barcelona posts from February 2010 for more on the Palau.) I was hoping there might be someone performing, but it seems the calendar the Palau resumes in September.

The Streets of the Gotic

The Gargoyles

The Shops

We stopped for a sidewalk bocadillo (sandwich) at the Mercat de Santa Catarina. We made our way from the Gotic to join the crowd strolling down the Las Ramblas. It was the end of the day so the fruit venders in the La Bouqueria (mercado) were closing out fresh fruit salads and juice. We got big fruit bowls to take to the hotel for dinner. Not sure what one of the melons was, but it was just as sweet as sugar. The fresh kiwi / mango juice I got was pretty awesome too.

Fresh Squeezed Juices at the La Bouqueria

At the end of the Las Ramblas were all the human statues.

Mugging With a Human Statue

We finished at the tall Columbus statue and then started strolling along Barcelona's beautiful Port Veil marina. From here the cruise ships embark, the Los Golindrinas tour boats depart, and the old 1929 era aerial tram still wisks passengers from the port to a point midway up Montjuc!

Columbus Pointing to Sea

Port Tramway
We walked back to the hotel stopping more than once to admire the huge jellyfish seemingly everywhere.

One of the Big Colorful Jellyfish

Back in the room I snapped a picture from our aerie on the 24th floor. Pretty awesome view! The beach malecon is in the foreground. Barcelona's biomedical research campus is kind of in the middle. Down the way is the Barcelonetta neighborhhood and the sail shaped building is the new "W" hotel. The tower for the old tram is just to the left of Montjuc (mountain) on the right. A great view day or night.

The View From the Arts

Tomorrow I'll summarize two days of immersion in all things Gaudi!

Roadboy's Travels © 2012

Monday, August 27, 2012

Traveling - Credit Card and ATM Woes

Some Boring Practical Stuff....

Updated 2015
Updated 2013

I'm a dinosaur.

I grew up watching snub nosed Karl Malden warning us not to ever "leave home without American Express travelers checks". And back then American Express was a major worldwide company with customer service offices in major cities around the world. If you traveled with an AE gold card you could always cash a check worldwide. It was very comforting.

News flash, almost all American Express' worldwide offices are now closed. Today an AE card is really just another Visa or Master Card with a fancier name.

And today if you try to use a traveler's check you will simply get a very confused "what is that thing?" look from most merchants.

Visa, MC, AE Cards 

Like a good global hopper before this trip I notified credit card companies of travel plans and switched my Visa card out for the Marriott one with no foreign transaction fees. I requested a PIN (they always ask for a PIN in Europe) and was assured "no worries" in Europe your card will require no PIN.

But....on my 2012 trip, when we pulled out the old Visa, MasterCard or American Express card we were waived off.

The Barcelona Airbus shuttle? Nope.
The delicious and overpriced Lisbon gelato? Nope.
Entrance to the Segrada Familia? Nope.
All but the most expensive restaurants? Nope.
Metro tickets? The few ticket machines with Visa logos, all mysteriously "out of service".

The notion that American banks are integral members of the global banking network is a myth. Accept it. Unless equipped with a chip, only hotels, airport shops, big department stores, and a few museums still welcome standard US issued credit cards.

This was pretty striking to me.

Four years ago in Tokyo we came to realize that the days of worldwide reverence of the American Banking industry were over. Almost no one took our AE, Visa or MasterCard.

Three years ago in Spain, our credit cards were golden.

February of 2011 in France, Belgium and the Netherlands we noticed a few more rejections.

Summer of 2011 in Italy even more merchants and restauranteurs waived them off.

In, 2012 in Spain and Portugal we found American issued credit cards being rejected more often than being accepted.

The rule is this. If the meal, or the item to be purchased is high ticket - they take the US issued card without a PIN. Any smaller day to day transaction, they will ask for the PIN and you might as well keep the card in your wallet, since presently NO American cards have the PIN they re asking for. We are issued PIN's but on an American card the PIN is strictly to make a cash withdrawal. 

Update 2013
In anticipation of this years trip, I had an informative chat with the folks at Marriott Visa. I use this card because it is one of the few that offers a version with no foreign transaction fees. 

I asked why we could not get a card with a european PIN. They explained that the US is well behind the rest of the world in implementing the specialized high security cards with chips and linking transactions to PIN readers. 

They said the change is coming to US cards, but it will likely still be a couple more years before our cards will have both the added chip and PIN needed to assure worldwide acceptance.

We used to love the ease of which we collected euros from ATM's. If you saw a Visa or MasterCard symbol you knew your ATM card would work. Now half the time they don't work. And when they do they now charge a service fee and high foreign transaction fees.

This trip (despite bearing Visa logo's) most of the bank ATM's I tried (including ALL of the ATM's in the Madrid airport) simply barfed out my ATM card.

The exceptions were Banco Popular (based in Puerto Rico) and Barclays Bank.

On that earlier mentioned Tokyo trip, once we realized our credit cards were near worthless, we took solace that we'd be able to get cash from ATM's. Wrong! 

We abruptly realized that Japanese banks view US ATM cards simply as a slice of worthless plastic. We were literally told that American banks are "not honest" and not honored in Japan. I couldn't say I disagreed, but it was hard to swallow. Only at the end of the trip did an expat clue me in that the exception was the ATM's at 7-11's (found on almost every corner!)

Update 2015
I no longer rely on ATM's when traveling. Now, despite the risk, I convert a reasonable amount of money before I go. 

Here's why. 

Recently when I checked into foreign currency transactions with my bank (Wells Fargo), I found out that they offer their customers a direct conversion with no service fee and no foreign transaction fee. That is a screaming deal.

So I convert my money before I go. Then just like the locals, each day of my trip I load up my wallet with just what I think I'll need for that day, leaving the rest of my foreign travel cash in my hotel safe. 

When I return from a trip I go to the same bank and convert back what I did not use. 

I still register my ATM and credit cards for the dates of travel, so if need be I can supplement my cash reserves at local ATM's.  But this means I no longer have to rush to an ATM in the airport upon arrival to get cash for shuttles and subways etc.

Main thing is do this at your bank, not at the "Conversion" booth at the airport. They charge every fee imaginable.

I also bring a little US cash. Which I also leave it in the safe in your hotel room.

If you find your ATM card being kicked back, you will be happy you have some cash to convert (at ridiculous rates of conversion.)

If you don't need the cash, great, take it home, where It will still be good at full face value.

Oh for the good old days when overseas Marriott's would cash a small daily check for Platinum members.... That benefit quietly disappeared a long time ago.

Roadboy's Travels © 2012

A Day Trip to Sintra

Fairy Tale Castles, Fresh Air, and Royal Gardens

One thing all Lisbon guidebooks agree on is the essential need to make a side trip to the hilltown of Sintra. 

And it is so easy. Just take the subway to the Restauradores Plaza Metro station. From there walk a few yards to Lisbon's handsome Rossio train station (the one with the doors that look like big horseshoes.). From Rossio there are Sintra bound trains approximately every 30 minutes. The train fare this summer was 2.10 E each way. Sintra is the end of the line, so you can't mess it up.

Rossio Station in Lisbon

Upon arrival at Sintra Station just follow the signs for an easy walk to Sintra's "historico" district. You can't miss the giant conical chimney's of the Sintra's National Palace. Just walk toward the palace and then look for the signs that lead to Sintra's Information Center. Here, you can stock up on maps and ask the staff questions about transportation to the Pena Palace. 

Temporary Art - Walking to the Historic District

Sintra's Pena Palace resides at the top of a mountain (on a clear day you can see Pena Palace from Lisbon). Unless you are a fitness freak it is not walkable, so opt for a 5 E all day bus pass and marvel that the driver can get a big bus through tight single lane roads with many hairpin turns (one he has to stop and back up to make). The bus stops at the main Palace, the Castle of the Moors, the Palace Garden / Chalet of Countess Edla (King Ferdinand II's second wife.) The entry fees vary by what you want to see and if you want the audio guides etc. 

The Pena Palace itself is really an assemblage of parts. King Ferdinand II began by saving an abandoned 1493 era monastery. After 258 years of use it suffered from Lisbon's earthquake of 1755 and a lightning strike. 

He brought in Baron Wilhelm Ludvig von Eschwege a mining engineer and amateur architect (when combined those are two scary word's) to design a new wing and integrate it with the old monastery. The mining engineer part was a good choice as the whole place clings to rock outcroppings. 

But Ludvig was thinking "Bavarian" castle and Ferdinand was thinking "Moorish" palace. So after 7 years of construction the King stopped Ludvig and reworked the design to add Medieval and Islamic decoration and symbolism to the new structure. The total construction was 14 years. The Castle we see today was completed in 1854. So this was a castle built during relatively modern times. As such it was built with central heating, modern plumbing, and a telephone system. 

It was not built for safety from enemies, it was built as an elegant escape from hot Lisbon summers, to nurture the perception of royal power and impress visiting royalty.

What it became was an icon of the period when Portugal was falling out of love with its monarchy, mostly bankrupt, and releasing its conquered lands around the world.

The Approach Path to Pena Palace

The Gates to The Palace

The Lower Forecourt

A Big Wicked Looking Triton And A Lion
Guard Entry's

Happy Themes Portrayed in Tile

View of The Moors Castle Below

Part of the Hundreds of Acres of Palace Grounds 

After completion, the palace was owned by the monarchy for just 35 years. It was purchased by the Portuguese state in 1889. The last King to use the castle was King Carlos before he and his son were assassinated in Lisbon in 1908. King Carlos' surviving son became Portugal's last king.

The palace features a wonderful restaurant with a great view, lovely music, and delicious food in a delightful setting. Alas photography is prohibited in the Palace itself. So all I could take where outdoor shots.

This is one of Portugal's designated "7 wonders" and a Unesco World Heritage site. A full day spent in Sintra and the Pena Palace and gardens is a day well spent indeed.

Roadboy's Travels © 2012

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Lisbon - Old and New

Day Two in Lisboa

Our first day concentrated on the historic core of Lisbon. Our second day mixed old and new. We began by a trip to the Parque das Nocaes area of the city (the area created as a result of Lisbon's 1998 Worlds Fair) to see The Oceanario (aquarium.)

It was a joy to see the whole expo zone thriving. All of its buildings were pre-sold before the fair and a commitment was made to convert the site into a thrving live / work and entertainment zone. The entrance pavilion is now the bustling Vasco De Gama mall. The Future Building is Casino Lisboa and the Oriente Train Station by architect Santiago Calatrava is busy and bright. 

But the star is the Oceanario aquarium. And it was wonderful. The Building itself is built in its own lagoon. You access it via a bridge from a separate entrance pavilion with ticketing, food, gift shops and interpretive. The Aquarium has four distinct zones and is divided among the oceans.

The Oceanario

Home to Amazing Fish

My Favorite (The Otters)

Luminous Jelly's

Sea Dragons

Penguins With Miss M

The neat thing about the facility is how much research they do. They have a full hospital and have had success in their breeding programs.

The area is just alive with business people in the office towers, shoppers, travelers and families just out for a day.

Calatrava's Train Station

Distinctive Office and Living Towers

A Complete Mixed Use Neighborhood

All Linked by A Ribbon Park 
With a Series of "Volcano" Fountains

We still had some energy so we endeavored to experience two more "must do's" in Lisbon. 

First was ride the Santa Justa Lift. The lift dates back to 1902 and is a Victorian steel confection. It serves a practical purpose in providing a lift for residents up the hill (who can exit at the upper level) and also to tourists who can climb tight rusting lighthouse stairs to an observation deck providing amazing 360° views of Lisbon.

The Santa Justa Lift

The Climb to the Observation Deck

The Payoff 
Amazing Views in Every Direction

We wrapped up the night with a end to end ride on the Famous Tram 28. Wow, what a wild ride! These little dudes move. They also slide through spaces that leave (literally inches between cars, walls, doors to businesses, and trams going the other direction.

The Little Trams that Can 
and Do!

Tight Space Between Trams and Businesses

A long day, but what a day!

Roadboy's Travels © 2012