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
Pat had a much better idea: Spain. Spain is always sunny; there's a
law in the European Constitution.
Hey, great idea! said
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
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
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,
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
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 (
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.
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
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.