Friday, September 30, 2016

Lake Centenys, Girona and The Game of Thrones

 Cycling Spain's Costa Brava - Day 4 and 5

Spending the weekend in Barcelona during its biggest festival of the year was pretty wonderful, but I was ready on Day 4 to board our shuttle for the City of Girona to meet our cycle guides and commence the bicycle part of our tour.

Upon arrival we checked into our hotel and had a cava reception, history briefing followed by a tapas dinner with our guides.

Our Guides Oriol and Carlos 
Present an Overview of the Costa Brava

Girona From a Hike on the Roman Walls

A Morning Tour of Girona

Our tour of Girona began in the historic Jewish Quarter. We went on the pass the Church of St. Felix and Girona's Cathedral. The newer portions of the city are separated from the historic core by a river spanned by a metal bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel (yes, that Eiffel). It is a hub for world class bicylists to train as it has perfect training terrain, a great year round climate and is near the sea and snow skiing in winter. Lance Armstrong owned a home here when training in Europe. 

It is home to the Michelin 3 star restaurant dubbed 2015's best restaurant of the year and replaced Dubrovnik as 2015's filming location for HBO's Game of Thrones.

Girona's Jewish Quarter  

 Stairs to Girona's Cathedral

After the tour of Girona it was time to be fitted on our bikes and take a warm up ride to Lake Centenys where we ate a picnic lunch.

Lake Centenys 
(Site of the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympic Rowing Competitions) 

 Lunch at Lake Centenys

Prickly Pear Cactus Adorn a Mansion Near the Lake

My first impressions of the region fired happy on every front. Perfect weather, stunning scenery and Cactus that made a Phoenician feel right at home!

Tomorrow we begin with a tour of the castle Salvadore Dali purchased for his Russian wife Gala.

Roadboy's Travels © 2016

Monday, September 26, 2016

Fireworks, Human Pyramids and Dancing in the Street

Day 3 Sunday - A Day to Crash a Party in Barcelona

When my biological-clock awakened me early Sunday morning I decided to get up (rather than submit to a strong desire to roll over and try to catch a few more zzz's). I then used the time to wander around the area near the hotel.

For locals, Sunday's in Spain are reserved for family and many smaller stores remain closed until Monday. Even during La Merce, Barcelona kicks down a notch or two in the morning. And, instead of the usual throngs, there was just me, City trash crews and police officers on Las Ramblas.

Upon reaching the Plaza Reial I found a pervasive smell of sidewalk bleach, an iconic fountain (still switched off in night mode) and a whole bunch of sellers setting up for a Sunday Flea Market.

The Sunday Flea Market Begins

 The Paza Reial Fountain Hadn't Begun Operating

Now it was time to return to the hotel to enjoy a (pretty darned wonderful) Sunday Champagne brunch buffet. 

Rested and (very) well fed, it was time to begin a full day of exploring Barcelona during La Merce. And, now contrary to my early morning walk, Barcelona's  streets were beginning to get crowded.

First stop was the Cathedral where teams of all ages were performing traditional dance in large circles accompanied by a full band.

Dance Groups at the Cathedral

Then, we made our way (with seemingly everyone in the city) to Plaza Sant Jaume where there were teams creating human pyramids.  

 Crowds at Arriving to See The Human Stacks

 The Human Stacks

With crowds now reaching "overwhelming", we opted for some creative meandering to window shop, see the "giants" (the big iconic statues and beasts that are essential to La Merce parades) eventually arriving at the waterfront that afforded a chance to rest and watch the crowds from an outdoor cafe. 

 The Giants

More Giants

One of Many Human Sculptures

We returned to the hotel for a swim in the hotels almost ethereal basement spa pool. Recharged we sought out dinner (awesome hamburgers). We watched the crowds heading to the Fire Runs in their goggles and hats (I decided I was prepared enough to safely participate in that).

Finally, after sunset, La Merce 2016 ended with a spectacular pyrotechnical display at the Plaza De Espana which we were able to see from the hotel's roof top bar.

Fireworks Illuminating MontJuc's National Art Museum

It would be hard to have a more wonderful day in one of the world's best cities.

Roadboy's Travels © 2016

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Barcelona & La Merce

Day 2 
The Palau and La Merce

This morning I had a really lovely breakfast in my hotel in Madrid. Then it was time for my Vueling (pronounced "Welling") flight to Barcelona. 

 55 Minutes of Vueling Pain

Like many budget flights my knees were collateral damage. Recaro must be blamed for the most uncomfortable aviation seat ever created.  People literally screamed around me whenever any seat reclined.

Hola Barcelona!
Upon arrival in Barcelona I was met by a VBT (Vermont Bicycle Tours) representative for our shuttle to our hotel (Hotel 1898 La Ramblas).  

Now, when it comes to hotels Roadboy can be a bit hard to impress. But I can certainly attest that Hotel 1898 (built from the old Philippine Tobacco Company Office Building) is a beautiful hotel in a perfect location.  At the hotel I met up my biking buddy Beth who had arrived from Virginia.

Luck of Timing - La Merce!
When we selected bike tour dates last year, we could not be aware that they would align with Barcelona's biggest annual street festival "La Merce". This 5-day festival (celebrating the Patron Saint of Barcelona) has been held since 1902 to signal the end of summer / beginning of fall. 

To keep crowds manageable specific festival dates are not announced until early September. So our luck (in timing) was amazing. La Merce culminates with streets filled with parades, building illuminations and dazzling Correfocs (fire runs); where devils and giant dragons spray the crowds that line the Via Laietana with sparks, water and candy. An early fire run is tame for children, the later run is "at your own risk" with spectators strongly advised to wear hats, goggles, cover all skin possible and avoid any synthetic clothing.

The Correfocs Fire Runs
(Image of a previous Correfoc from the official La Merce Festival Brochure) 

The Palau
In past visits to Barcelona I've toured The Palace of Catalan Music (known locally simply as "The Palau"), but none coincided with a concert to experience the acoustics of the hall. So a highlight of this visit was the chance to attend a concert of classical guitar and flamenco.

The Palau at Night

The Palau is a one-of-a-kind classical theater space where immersive art and architecture are merged to create the wholeI can't help compare it to contemporary theaters that value being devoid of all ornamentation.

If architecture of each era synthesizes the values of the era itself (with a few exceptions such as Gehry and Hadid), I am confident history will certainly judge much current modern architecture as dull and vacuous.

 The Stage Area

 The Palau's Stained Glass Ceiling

 Side Chandeliers

 The Maestro's Mugging with Guests

Barcelona's clock is set late. Restaurants serve dinner from 9:00 pm to midnight and concerts begin at 9:00 pm. So at the end of each day you find yourself realizing that it is already tomorrow and you simply crash.

Roadboy's Travels © 2016

Friday, September 23, 2016

Get 'Em Together!

Get Instant Reciprocal Elite Status Between Starwood and Marriott

Hola, just a short note before Roadboy crashes.

I linked my Starwood and Marriott FF stay accounts today.  Was very please to see that my Marriott Platinum status was instantly given reciprocity with Starwood! It goes the other way too!

So if you have status with either get 'em linked. In the future when the programs are merged points earned under with program will also combine. 

Another nice bene. Starwood lets you link to Uber and get Starwood points on every ride. As much as I find myself using Uber nowadays, that is awesome too.

So while airline FF programs just get crappier, these two hotel chains seem to still value the loyatly of road warriors.

Roadboy's Travels © 2016

Sunrise Over Madrid

Arrival in Madrid and A Day to Crush Jetlag

So far everything went smoothly on this years journey to Spain.  Lots of AA points were shed in order for me to experience American's Business Class on their 767 (JFK to Madrid).  

Side Note: Business Class delivers access to American's Executive Lounge at JFK (which is utilizing temporary digs while it undergoes a much overdue facelift at JFK). I can confirm AA Lounges continue to serve up really mediocre "green eggs and ham" snacks. Hey AA, when your signature dish is gouda cheese soup that has been sitting in a kettle for hours......


767 Business Class Pod to Madrid

While American's 767 biz class pods offer a full lay-flat bed mode, the actual seating is way too narrow (which then makes the actual sleeping position a challenge). AA's pods just don't measure up when compared to most other international carrier configurations. I sure miss those "Envoy" pods that US Airways use to offer. 

AA"s In-flight entertainment is also lame. They still go through a time consuming drill of distributing Samsung tablets in lieu of installing built-in entertainment systems. The whole process is clunky and seems to always include a lecture about losing something. And, then when they get all set up you find out they are loaded with a truly marginal selection of movies. 

The tablets also lack a flight progress setting. I miss being able to see where we are and monitor our evolving ETA whenever I want.

Landing at Sunrise 

We had a major tailwind and arrived early enough to see the sunrise over Madrid and it was spectacular. The Sun was rising and the sky was on fire.

Although my bike trip begins and ends in Barcelona (which also has a nice airport), I love flying into Madrid. In fact, I like flying into the EU via Madrid to get to almost anywhere. Period. 

Madrid's airport is just wonderful. Immigration is a snap. There are lots of flights with frequent connections to anywhere in Europe. And from Madrid, connection prices to hop to Rome or Venice or Paris or London are really inexpensive. Plus, I really love Madrid. It is such an under rated city. The Prado is wonderful, the food is amazing and its residents are cosmopolitan and (when approached for directions) are really willing to help and smile.

I also love the Madrid Airport Hilton. I've stayed many times over the years. It offers a free shuttle to / from the airport, is walking distance to a Metro stop, offers an amazing breakfast and just seems to be consistently wonderful. It also has a great indoor / outdoor pool and the rooms are large and quiet.

 My JetLag Recovery Unit

Well time for bed. I'm off to Barcelona in the morning (highlights tomorrow include a walking tour with the day finished with a classical guitar / flamenco performance at the Palace of Catalan Music).

Roadboy's Travels © 2016

Monday, September 19, 2016

Bicycling The Costa Brava

Another Two Wheeled Adventure

Roadboy completed final packing last weekend as I am about to embark (next week) on a bike trip in Spain.

My itinerary begins with a flight to Madrid where I'll arrive early in the am, shower and take a swim in the indoor / outdoor pool at the Madrid Airport Hilton.

I really like flying into Madrid and taking my jetlag days there. Typically I just rest / relax and perhaps make a quick trip into the centro. 

Saturday morning I'll take a quick hop on a Vueling flight to Barcelona to join the rest of the bike tour.  There will be two sightseeing days in Barcelona with an evening performance of classical guitar and flamenco at the spectacular Palace of Catalonian Music (The Palau).

Then we catch an AVE (high speed rail) trip north to Girona where the bicycle tour will begin. There will be 6 days of bicycling with distances up to 22 miles each day. Highlights will be Roman ruins, a trip to Gaia's (Dali's wife) castle, rides along the Mediterranean all finished off with a cruise.

The group will then be transported back to Barcelona to overnight before return flights home.

The weather should be mild and sunny!

Stay tuned.

Roadboy's Travel's © 2016

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Roadboy Visits Arcosanti

Bells in Utopia

In 1949 Italian architect Paolo Soleri journeyed to Arizona to study under Frank Lloyd Wright at Wright's Taliesin Fellowship program.  He spent time in Spring Green Wisconsin at Taliesin East and at Taliesin West in Scottsdale.

The Taliesin program espoused Wright's philosophy of design in harmony with nature using indigenous materials. The Fellowship experience was presented in a commune type environment where students lived and worked. 

Soleri returned to Italy in 1950 to plan a ceramics factory. The synthesis of his experiences culminated in his eventual purchase of property in nearby Paradise Valley Arizona where, in 1959, he began Cosanti Studios where began one of his lifetime activities casting elaborate wind bells.

Examples of Cosanti Bells

Soleri, went on to create and refine his own philosophy of habitat based architecture which he titled "Arcology". His ideas found worldwide acceptance and led to his creation of Arcosanti; a living habitat laboratory near Cordes Junction Arizona where he could test his ideas.

 A Soleri Model Illustrating an Arcology Type Comunity
Arcosanti grew mainly through the use of student volunteers becoming a place where architects and allied artists could gather to explore Soleri's principals.
Although Soleri passed away in 2013 his legacy lives on. At any given time between 60-100 residents still live and work at Arcosanti. I won't try to present detailed information about Paolo Soleri as it is readily available on Wikipedia.

 Arcosanti's Amphitheater

I will note that it is clear that no major expansion of Arcosanti has taken place in the past since 1989, Arcosanti still hosts a variety of education and cultural activities along with the on-going casting of Soleri's unique and beautiful Cosanti bells.

An Arcosanti Residence

Large Wind Cooled Outdoor Activity Spaces

 Our Tour Guide From Brazil Demonstrates Casting Beds for the Bells

 Arcosanti's Foundry

 Some Cosanti Bell Molds
One of the Cosanti Metal Tiles

A Large Cosanti Bell

Arcosanti is an easy drive from Phoenix and tours are offered nearly every day of the year.  The bells, tiles and handicrafts offered make wonderful gifts.

Arcosanti is a fascinating place to visit, but to me it felt like it is still frozen in a strangely Utopian Idyll circa 1980.  Be aware that the last couple of miles of the approach road is washboard gravel (not suitable for a precision automobile), so take the SUV.

For more information on Arcosanti click here.

Roadboy's Travels © 2016