Sunny Barcelona

The main entrance to Parc Guell, framed by Gaudi's fantastic (in both senses!) architecture.  Photo by Pat.

The mobile crane that was set up outside our hotel room in Girona. The placement of this crane is a masterpiece of positioning: when it swings counterclockwise it clears the buildings on the left by about 6 inches, and the main boom can then lift things into the narrow alley on the right.  If you look closely, you can see green cantilever lying on the ground of that alley; this is part of the stork crane that the mobile crane was erecting atop the building to the upper right of the photograph. A Moorish-influenced passageway leads to sunlight in Girona. The Capella [chapel] (1704-1708) and Retaule [altarpiece] (1709-1718) de la Puríssima Concepció [of the Immaculate Conception], by Paul Costa, in the Girona cathedral. An architectural clash in Barcelona.  The middle building was designed by Gaudi.  Photo by Pat. Xandie playing at the Barcelona Zoo. Pat photographs a curious elephant at the Barcelona Zoo while it tries to figure out whether she's offering any food. A white peacock at the Barcelona Zoo. Xandie, Pat, and our host at the little hole-in-the-wall tapas restaurant where we had our best Spanish meal. Geoff and Xandie atop a Gaudi-designed stone wall at Parc Guell. Xandie at the serpentine wall at Parc Guell.  Photo by Pat. Gaudi buildings at the edge of Parc Guell. Xandie climbs an oddly inclined wall at Parc Guell.  Photo by Pat. The Gaudi-designed stone wall at the edge of the Parc Guell plaza. Xandie after climbing the wall in a very odd passageway in Parc Guell.  Pat can be seen photographing her (and me). Xandie shows off the Spanish fan she picked up in Parc Guell.  The guy was selling them from 2 Euros each, or 3 Euros for 2.  Xandie walked up, showed him the remaining 1.50 from her allowance, and looked cute.  That was all it took!
The river through Girona.  Despite its peaceful appearance, it was very swift-flowing.  On the right, you can see the main Girona cathedral, which we visited (and in which we froze).  On the left is the tower of another cathedral, but one was enough for us. Pat and Xandie try out the Victorian-era elevator in our Barcelona hotel.  The elevator could hold all three of us, but not with luggage.  Xandie loved playing elevator operator. Detail of the Capella [chapel] (1704-1708) and Retaule [altarpiece] (1709-1718) de la Puríssima Concepció [of the Immaculate Conception], by Paul Costa, in the Girona cathedral. A Gaudi-designed building in Barcelona.  The curves are intended to suggest the waves of the ocean; the balcony railings are like seaweed. Photo by Pat. Xandie playing at the Barcelona zoo.  Photo by Pat. An elephant at the Barcelona zoo comes to visit Pat.  Photo by Pat. Pink and orange flamingos at the Barcelona zoo.  Photo by Pat. Fat drips off ham hocks at a Barcelona restaurant. A view of the Parc Guell plaza, showing two different Gaudi-designed walls; the serpentine wall is to the right.  Photo by Pat. Detail of the cracked-pottery mosaic that covers the famous serpentine wall at Parc Guell. A "gingerbread" Gaudi house at Parc Guell.  Photo by Pat. A stone column that is also a sculpture, in Parc Guell.  Photo by Pat. Pat photographs the very odd columns that support part of the plaza at Parc Guell. A mosaic lizard at the entrance to Parc Guell.  Photo by Pat. A flamenco dancer in Barcelona.

After Christmas, winter arrived in Karlsruhe with a vengeance. It didn't snow a lot at first, but it was consistently cold. The other thing we Southern Californians tend to forget is what the German winter does to sunlight. For reasons unexplained by science, the sun rises about two hours after you wake up (no matter what time your alarm is set for) and sets about six hours before dinner. If, like me, you get up at noon, this means that the total amount of sunlight in a winter day is actually negative.

Let's go someplace sunny, said Pat. It sounded good to me. Italy is close. I checked the temperature in Milan and found a photograph of a snow-covered city. Apparently Italy had been moved to Northern Europe.

Pat had a much better idea: Spain. Spain is always sunny; there's a law in the European Constitution. Hey, great idea! said Xandie. Then I'll have been to three of the four places I'm from! (She's equal parts German, British, Spanish, and Indian.) Great, that's just what I need. So when is she gonna want me to pay for a ticket to India?

I pointed out that Spain isn't next to Germany. You have to take a train across France, and it's about a 20-hour ride—unless there's a French train strike, in which case it's a 20-week ride.

Pat refused to listen. What about flying? she asked. Well, I'd recently discovered that Karlsruhe has an airport. More accurately, there's an airport between Karlsruhe and Baden-Baden. They have something like five flights a day. One is operated by a Hungarian airline whose very name will scare you into walking. The others are on RyanAir.

If you're American, you've probably never heard of RyanAir. They put Southwest to shame. What's this garbage about $39.95 from LA to San Francisco? The heck with that! We'll sell you a ticket to London for €9.99! No, wait! 99 cents! No, wait! ONE cent!

I'm not kidding, folks. You really can buy a ticket on RyanAir for just a penny. Plus taxes and airport fees, and you're expected to bring a can of jet fuel to pour in the tank, but it's still dirt cheap. I don't know how they make their money; I think they've dug a tunnel to Bill Gates' bank vault.

RyanAir doesn't fly many places. From Karlsruhe you have three choices: London, Rome, and Barcelona. Hmmm...Barcelona. Maybe that's warm. So off we went, not for a penny, but for a pretty impressively low price.

One of the ways RyanAir cuts prices is by flying to obscure airports. You've heard of Heathrow and Gatwick. RyanAir doesn't go there, nor to Frankfurt here in Germany. And it doesn't actually go to Barcelona, either. Instead, they found a nearby town called Girona, hung out a big Welcome to Barcelona sign, and started selling tickets.

The funny thing, though, is that in many ways Girona is a better place to go than Barcelona. It's quieter, with fascinating Moorish architecture and plenty of things to do. It's also where Lance Armstrong trains in the winter. We walked right by a cyclist all decked out in Lance's team clothes. Hmmm, I thought, This guy even has shoe covers with the team logo. He must be a huge fan. It wasn't until he left with two matching guys that I figured out who it was. Yep, that's me, been a cycling fan for 30 years and still can't recognize a star when I see one.

Pat wanted to see the Girona Cathedral, so she dragged Xandie and me along. She neglected to mention that Girona was built on a mountainside. (I don't know HOW they got the Himalayas to Spain...) The cathedral was pretty cool, though—literally. After three hours there, they had to stick us in a microwave to thaw.

Having explored Girona, we took a train to our true destination, Barcelona. I can't say enough good things about this place. Once we found our hotel (That's east. No, Geoff, that's east. See the ocean?) we discovered zillions of things to do and see. I think we could have spent a couple of weeks there without exhausting the possibilities.

One of the neatest things about Barcelona is the architecture. Now I don't know about you, but when I think about architecture, one man comes to mind, a man who towers over everyone else like a giant, who revolutionized design, who set an example nobody else can match: Donald Trump.

OK, I'm lying. I couldn't name an important architect if my life depended on it. But, having visited Barcelona, I can name a really weird one: Antoni Gaudi. According to his official biography, Gaudi got his start designing wedding cakes, but was fired because they were too frilly. Then he tried his hand as a hair stylist for Farrah Fawcett (remember her?) and Tammy Faye Baker. Again, he overdid it. He finished with a stint at Mattel, doing Barbie dresses, with the same result, before turning his hand to architecture.

Yes, I'm making all that up. But his buildings do have a wedding-cake aspect, and they are way more fun to look at than Donald Trump's hair. Fortunately for Gaudi, the citizens of Barcelona were apparently all at the beach when his buildings were built, so there was nobody around to point out that they didn't match the boring stuff that was already there. By the time anybody figured it out, Gaudi had fled to Anaheim, where he became the principal designer of Disneyland.

No, seriously, he spent his whole life in Barcelona. He designed a housing development (now a park) that was a massive failure, but also many successful buildings. His final work was a cathedral that's still unfinished after 100 years (every time they add a section, somebody thinks it's gingerbread and eats it).

Like all good cities, Barcelona has a zoo, which we visited at Xandie's behest. We also went to a museum that featured only one artist, some obscure guy Xandie had studied in kindergarten. I don't remember his name exactly. Ricasso? Picazzo? Something like that. Anyway, we all liked it, even if he only used blue paint and had a tendency to draw two-faced women.

The trip home was a bit more adventurous than planned. Remember how RyanAir doesn't fly from the real airport? Since Girona is far away, there's a bus to get you there. (They conveniently neglected to mention that the bus isn't included in your 1-cent ticket.) So off we went to the train station to catch our ride. I'd previously checked the schedule, and we got there 30 minutes ahead of time. (Amusingly, the buses are tied to specific flights: ours was explicitly listed as being the one to catch for the Karlsruhe plane.)

Oddly, we couldn't find the bus stop. I asked around. Nobody seemed to know. I left Pat and Xandie in a one of the ubiquitous McDonald's that seem to dot Europe's train stations, and went off on a hurried search. After asking in three different places, I finally got an answer: the buses didn't leave from the train station, they left from an obscure hotel two miles away. A helpful stranger told me how we could take two different subway connections and then walk a block to get there. Right. With all our luggage in tow.

I raced back to McDonald's, where Pat and Xandie had happily settled down to a leisurely lunch. Grab your food; we're in the wrong place! I yelled. After a quick conference, we decided that a taxi was a much safer bet than taking the subway. Maybe that was true, but we hadn't thought about traffic. We jumped in a cab and started creeping toward our destination. I looked at my watch. The bus left at 12:40; it was 12:34. 12:35. 12:36. Maybe we'd miss the bus. How much to go directly to the Girona Airport? I asked the driver in my incredibly broken Spanish. (It probably came out as Girona Airport cost Euro much how? but he figured it out.) I can't give you an exact price, he replied. Just guess! I screamed. Oh, probably 140, 150 Euros.

Hoo boy. We could get a hotel and stay an extra night for less than that. 12:37. Let's hope the traffic clears. 12:38.

At 12:41, we turned a corner and spotted the bus, still parked. But it was on the other side of the street, and we could see that it would take another five minutes to make a U-turn. The heck with that. We paid off the cabbie, dodged through the stuck cars, and frantically waved the bus driver down.

He didn't have a clue why we were so excited; he was running on Spanish time. It turned out that we couldn't buy tickets on the bus; I had to go to a corner store at the other end of the block. Not a problem; when I got back they were still loading luggage.

Sweaty and stressed, we climbed aboard and slowly relaxed as the bus got on the freeway. I double-checked the departure time, then looked at the bus schedule. We would arrive more than two hours before departure—plenty of time...Oh, wait a minute. There was a bus every half an hour? We had two hours' leeway? And RyanAir's counter was open until 40 minutes before the flight?

It's a good thing I hadn't paid the taxi to take us directly there. Pat wouldn't have been too happy about spending €140 to just barely make the flight only to find we could have caught the next bus. Even so, she still hasn't let me live that one down. But that's OK; I've outsmarted her. I hired Antoni Gaudi to remodel our kitchen.