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December 26, 2014

Europe 2014 Day 1: Los Angeles to London

Friday December 26, 2014
As always when it’s time to travel, there is nothing like last minute planning and getting everything ready. I’ve been planning this trip since summer, but due to the fact I didn’t want to pay for anything up front, I’ve been procrastinating. A few days before Christmas, I realized through various articles that my connection I had planned in Madrid on Saturday was too short and I was going to have to change my flight to Sunday and, on top of it all, I was going to have to spend extra on a hotel that was not in the original plan. Several hundred dollars later, I had my travel arrangements revised and I was ready to go.

Since my flight didn’t leave until late in the day, I did some last minute shopping and errand running before heading to the airport. I discovered that I could not find the Visa travel cash card at the place they said I could get it. Again, this is probably the product of last minute errands. I did manage one good errand – getting my new camera! I’m very excited to have a working point and shoot camera. Not only that, but it has a Wi-Fi connection which allows me to send photos to my phone and tablet for easy uploading. No more waiting until I get home. When I bought my iPad back in 2011, I bought an SD card reader that turned into a bust. I never used it and the last time I tried, the new iOS didn’t recognize it. I totally could have saved myself some money. Now, I’m back in business!

The rest of the day consisted of eating my last US fast food for a while and scrambling to finish packing. We headed off to the airport and had no issues getting there on time with the post-holiday lack of traffic. Arriving at the newly remodeled Tom Bradley terminal, I noticed that the longest line in the building was for people who had checked in online and needed to check in luggage. I wonder if I had not checked in before I arrived at the airport, if I would have saved myself some time. After the 20-minute queue it was off to the concourse to wait for our departure. I don’t remember the last time I was in the departures area of the Bradley terminal (thinking Tahiti 2001), but the renovations are very nice and I’m glad LAX is updating the old claustrophobic terminals.

My plane was already at the gate – a British Airways A380. You really can’t appreciate how big this plane is unless you get close. Even in the sky these planes are huge, but up close they are gargantuan. I think the lettering on the livery is as tall as me if not more so. When we finally boarded the plane, it still felt big on the inside. I did notice everything was still new-ish and clean which was certainly a plus. It was a fairly full flight and I ended up next to an older British gentleman (who had no idea what plane he was aboard. I mean c’mon!) and a younger woman of indeterminate origin, but super nice.

During the flight, I was the guinea pig for the lavatory and opened the door to the supply closet first. It’s a weird configuration with the curtains dividing the cabins, so I didn’t realize that the lavatory was offset to the back a bit. I felt a lot better when I saw several people do the same thing before it was shut down for the sink being inoperative. Another embarrassing moment was when I went through the curtains later in the flight to the back of the plane. I could not find an opening and thought they were tied back. So I kept unsnapping the connectors and re-securing. It wasn’t until my third stretching trip that I followed a lady through the slit in the middle of the curtains.

On one of my stretch breaks I wandered up the stairs to see if I could take a look at the upper deck. There was a gate at the top of the stairs that reminded me of the gates on the Titanic which were used to keep the steerage travelers below decks. Since there were some economy folks upstairs, I think it was just used for fall protection so that the airline hostesses didn’t accidentally fall to their doom. Whenever I see spiral stairs on a plane, I think of the shot in Airport ’77 where the water is coming down them while they are awaiting rescue. As the flight progressed, I managed to watch Captain America 2 which I enjoyed although it was tough following all the details since it has been awhile since I saw the first one.

The rest of the flight was just me trying to sleep, and not having much luck. I finally managed to get a few hours towards the end – and I think that was just pure exhaustion. Every time I’d get comfy, my seat neighbor would violate the neutral zone, the British snoring (glad it wasn’t me!) would interrupt my music, or the super-cute toddler in front of me would have a meltdown.

December 27, 2014

Europe 2014 Day 2: London to Madrid

Saturday December 27, 2014
We sailed into London Heathrow a bit early so had no worries about making my connection to Madrid. Upon arrival, I was pleased to discover free Wi-Fi in the terminal so I was able to make connections with Daniel and Nathan to let them know I was on track. I had an hour to kill so I grabbed a sandwich and chips from the WH Smith. I had difficulty using my pound notes from 2007, but I didn’t know if it was my user error or if the notes were no longer accepted. I’ll have to check with Nathan when we meet up tomorrow. I contemplated buying a London magnet, but since I didn’t have any usable pounds I decided to pass.

En route to Madrid I was so exhausted that I passed out only to be awoken by my own snoring (D’oh!) or by this one nasty patch of turbulence that shook us for a bit. Other than that, it was a nice smooth flight.

I finally arrived in Madrid and boy was I glad I changed my flight! It took over 30 minutes for my bags to arrive so I would have never made the connection to the other terminal. By the way, Terminal 4 at Barajas is just stunning – such a beautiful terminal. It was unfortunate that during my bag wait time I couldn’t get their Wi-Fi to work for the life of me. After collecting my bags and clearing customs (a joy due to the lateness of my flight no queues at all), I then wandered around looking for my hotel bus (the Spanish Super Shuttle- a company called Aero City). It took me wandering for 20 minutes and being accosted by an Irishman who needed money to get his bags (??) before I found it. It was almost an hour after my flight landed before I left the airport on my Aero City shuttle. There were two other people in the coach with me. I got a good laugh because they were talking about how much they like to be out of their comfort zones when they travel and like to meet new people, but made no effort to talk to me. After dropping them off, we finally made it to my hotel.

The Room Mate Hotel Oscar is one of a chain of Room Mate hotels – each has a different name and a different personality. I picked this hotel based on Nathan’s recommendation plus it was near the city center and not a dull airport hotel. After checking in, the guy behind the counter gave me a view room since I was only there for a few hours. It was a nice look out over a square just below my room, but honestly I looked at it for a few minutes then shut the curtain. I loved the decor of my room and that was better than any view. The bed was nice and comfortable and I was tempted to just go to bed.

I wanted to make sure I got a chance to walk the streets of Madrid before I left since I did not know if I would have any time in Madrid on my way back at the end of my trip. That portion is still in flux. Before heading out, I went to the roof terrace, which has a very trendy bar in it. Not much was happening since it was only 1030pm but it was worth seeing the skyline lit up. I managed to try out my new camera and get some decent shots of the Telefónica Building Clock Tower.

I decided to walk around the small area called Chueca (where my hotel was located) first then head down to the Main Street aka The Grand Via, which had a bunch of lit up fountains and Christmas decorations I spied as we drove to the hotel. There were so many people out walking at night it was nice to be with my fellow night owls. I passed some interesting shops and restaurants I’d love to try, but no time this trip for more than just a quick peek. By the time I reached the La Grand Via all the Christmas lights were off and when I reached Palacio de Cibeles they had just shut off their lights too. By this point, it was after midnight so I decided to head back and crash. My extra walking felt good, but also meant now I only had a 6-hour turnaround before first alarm went off – but still worth it despite the lack of lights. Glad I was able to take photos with my camera from the roof before they were turned off.

December 28, 2014

Europe 2014 Day 3: Madrid to Madeira

Sunday December 28, 2014
Before I knew it the alarm was going off and it was time to get ready. Took a few minutes to figure out the Oscar Shower, but it felt so good to finally clean up and shave. Packed up and headed down to check out just as the airport shuttle arrived. We picked up another group on the way after he went around in circles for a bit. At first I thought he was just showing me the sights. I did notice that a homeless guy I saw last night asleep was still in his doorway. It occurs to me that he or she had more sleep in Madrid last night than I did!

Arriving at Terminal 2 I can tell you it is not nearly as nice as the stunning architecture of Terminal 4. Thankfully, it was still pretty early so there weren’t too many people around. Since it only took us 30 minutes to get to the airport, even with the grand circle tour, I had to stand at the TAP check in desk for 30 minutes to wait for them to open. There was an obnoxious group of want to be rough guy teenagers that were generally annoying the line but I used my patented blank stare when they approached me so I didn’t have to deal with them.

After clearing security, it was time to try and find something to eat. After going almost the full length of the terminal, I found the world market section of the food stalls. There was a croissant and coffee place with a huge line, but since I had plenty of time to kill I sucked it up and waited. I had two pan au chocolat, which made me miss Paris and the little cafe that Daniel and I discovered back in 2007. Food devoured and a little waiting more and it was off to Lisbon.

I had seen lots of Lisbon sights on TV so it was nice to recognize them on the flight into the airport. The flight from Madrid was just over an hour so it felt like flying to SF from LA. It was a small Fokker 100 and I’m glad I got a seat on the two-person side. My neighbor was nice enough to take some snaps out the window for me. I had a 3-hour layover at Lisbon so I spent the time exploring the shops, getting some duty free booze for the people staying at the villa, and resting. I found this quiet spot near the McDonalds and a Portuguese food stand with nice comfy chairs and relatively quiet. I chilled there and enjoyed my 30 min complimentary Wi-Fi and then a delicious McChicken sandwich. It wasn’t until I was mid-sandwich that some people started milling about and killed the vibe. Thankfully, they finally announced my gate assignment and I then purchased the booze and headed to board the plane.

I was quite tired by this point and did some hard-core head bobbing and snoring on the flight. Thankfully, the others in my row were doing the same thing. The approach to Madeira was beautiful! I wish I were back in the smaller plane with the nice guy taking snaps for me, as I would love to have seen more. After landing and disembarking the aircraft on the Tarmac, I was reminded of Bora Bora and their tiny airport. At baggage claim, I was happy to get my bag (first on, last off no doubt due to my layover) and then finally me up with Nathan. So good to see him after so many years.

We caught up and headed to the village had rented for the week. Due to people canceling, we all ended up in separate rooms in the huge place. We chilled and chatted and relaxed for a while and then headed down to this local beer garden Pancho do Calvario for dinner. We had two huge plates of food – beef with a mushroom sauce and chicken in the same sauce and both with fries. It was very delicious! After eating, we headed back to the villa and finally crashed. So glad to be here but also glad to finally sleep!!

December 29, 2014

Europe 2014 Day 4: Funchal

Monday December 29, 2014
Slept in today until after 9. Lots of ailments among Team Madeira so I need to make sure I keep plussing on my Emergen-C so I don’t get sick. After we got ready, one Mark had a headache so he slept some more and the rest of us headed to the supermarket/shopping mall. To me it was bizarre to see something like this here in Madeira, but I guess it’s shaping up to be more than I expected. After getting nibbles and dinner for tonight, we shopped a bit. I had to get a new adapter since I can’t find it in my bag, I think it’s somewhere at the hotel in Madrid. No worries, I managed to get one that not only has an outlet, but also a USB port for optimal charging. Also at the mall there were showing “The Interview”. I guess they are not worried about North Korea at taking the island.

We headed back and had some quick snacks before heading into Funchal for our whale watching adventure. We got our tickets and had a quick lunch (ham and toast for me) at this place on the harbor. It must be a happening place in the summer of when a cruise ship calls, but the people had the desperation barkers out front, which reminded me of Argentina. Before long, it was time to board our ship for our 2.5h cruise.

There were some big waves but it was still fairly calm compared to stormy white cap conditions, and the water was this awesome dark blue. We cruised around and it was making me so relaxed I almost fell asleep. Right near the end we managed to see one whale breech the surface and blow some air out. It’s the first time I have ever seen a whale that close and in the wild. It wasn’t a humpback whale, but rather a Bryde’s whale. After completing the cruise, we walked around Funchal to do some additional shopping as well as secure our tickets for a New Year’s Eve party at a hotel in Funchal with a big lounge on the roof with a great view of the pyro. A little gelato snack and some additional grocery shopping and we headed back to the villa.

We chatted a bit and it was getting late so we started making dinner. Well Nathan and one of the Marks started cooking and I volunteered to watch and give moral support. Nathan asked to have one of my allergy pills and when I came upstairs I was alarmed to see the entire floor of my room covered in water!!! Apparently the mechanism had broken that stops the water from draining out and the water kept trying to fill the toilet so it overflowed everywhere, I was so mortified….

The villa owner was quick to respond and Mark and I helped Nelson mop it up. Luckily just my shoes got wet along with some my toiletries. The towels and rugs that had to be removed took the brunt. Nelson told me he’s never seen anything like this in 30 years, and all I can think about is that he should be glad he doesn’t know me. Finally we all managed to get it mopped up and I’m sure it will all be totally dry by tomorrow afternoon. I salvaged what was left of my dinner and was ready to call it a night. I nervously used the bathroom again and it seems OK and hopefully there are no repeat incidents in the next few days.

December 30, 2014

Europe 2014 Day 5: Top of Madeira

Tuesday December 30, 2014
Today we were up and at ’em at are usual 11am departure time. Today we headed to the North side of Madeira to go to one of the highest points on the island. We drove around the base of the island towards Santana (queue lots of Santa Ana jokes from me). It didn’t take that long and I kept dozing along the way. When we were driving up the hills, we got a bit turned around managed to do a circle route in the foothills before finding the right path. I had to make a pee stop at a little bar where when I went in there was no one and when I came out there was a scary lady behind the bar staring at me who didn’t understand English. Back on the road we finally found the road up to Pico do Areeiro and a Miradouro aka look out point that gave us some great views above the clouds. We couldn’t see the bottom of the island, but it was a nice surreal experience. It started to rain while we were up there which cut short our photo ops, and we quickly retreated back to the car and headed back down the trail.

We ended up back in Funchal at the marina downtown and found a local restaurant for a quick lunch. I chose a steak, which in hindsight wasn’t the best choice. We then ended walking around the shops and area for a bit, and then took one of the Marks back to the airport. My steak had had its way with me and I was thankful for the airport restroom! We then headed back to the villa and stopped at the grocery store to pick up stuff to make dinner for the night.

Back at the villa, Mark made an excellent pasta with meat sauce that had a bit of a kick but was good. We ended the night watching some TV on the laptop and then time for bed. Tomorrow is New Years Eve so we need to get plenty of sleep!

December 31, 2014

Europe 2014 Day 6: Monte and Happy New Year

Wednesday December 31, 2014
Another late morning start, but hey, we are on vacation so it’s a-ok! We headed for the Jardim Botanico and the Teleférico. It was a few twists and turns rough the narrow streets, but we found the upper entrance. One thing I noticed is that there was a lot of cruise ships in the harbor for tonight’s festivities. This has led to a large number of shore excursion busses all over the place. We bought our tickets for the combo pack and headed into the gardens. They were nice, but simple and it was a nice relaxing walking tour.

It was time for lunch so we ate at the little mini-cafe at the base of the skyway. It’s had such a spectacular view and I’m sure it helped make my pizza that much tastier. I was surprised how much I liked it. Maybe I was just low on grease in my system. After a leisurely lunch it was time for the skyway (aka Teleférico). Nathan was a bit nervous but he was a trooper as we headed up the steep climb to Monte.

At the top of the skyway in Monte, it was clear there were a lot of cruise line passengers up there. The line for the traditional wicker sleds was huge so we skipped it, although I did get some fun photos. We toured the church (insert name here), which was nice, and they had a walk through nativity scene and Nathan pointed out that something must have happened to baby Jesus because he was a lot newer than the other figures. It was then time to head down the hill and to the villa. We decided to stop at the shopping center in Funchal, as Nathan needed to get some clothes to wear for the big night out. I tried to convince him to get the fun shirt, but he opted for practicality and repeat uses. After H&M we did some grocery shopping for tonight’s dinner.

Back at the villa, we took quick disco naps and then ate dinner. Nathan and Mark whipped up a tasty Fish dish that per my liking was unrecognizable as a fish (despite the occasional bone). They are both great in the kitchen and I felt pretty useless. It sure beat having to eat out every night. We then watched some RuPaul’s Drag Race on Mark’s laptop. I’ve never seen an episode before so it was fairly entertaining. Before we knew it, it was time to head into town for the mid it festivities.

We took the back road into Funchal hoping to avoid the huge traffic jam and for the most part we were successful, but it was slow going once we got close. The entire waterfront was blocked off with street vendors and pedestrians everywhere awaiting the show. We arrived into town just after 11 so we had to wait 30 min to gain access to our rooftop viewing party. Walking down to the waterfront we decided to try some Porcha (?) that was super strong! Back at the hotel sit was packed trying to get to the roof via only three elevators. It was almost 1145 before I convinced the guy to finally let us go up the stairs, which we asked to do at 1130. Thankfully, we made it in time to get our glass of champagne and see the show start. It was a great show with launch points all over Funchal. I can see how they set the Guinness record back in 2007(?) by just smoking up the show they have. It was a million euro show and a good 10 minutes of non-stop spectacular.

After the show we had a few more drinks and then decided to head out around 100. Down in the parking garage it was a cluster trying to get all of the merging cars out at the same time. It reminded me of the horrors at Universal Studios and their disastrous parking. After 45 min we finally made it back to the villa and after a few New Years texts it was time for bed. I finally got to sleep close to 3 am.

January 1, 2015

Europe 2014 Day 7: Ponta de Sao Lourenco

Thursday January 1, 2015
Another day, another sleep in – this time well deserved after the late night last night. Also, the sun not coming up until after 8 does not help. Today we set off for Point San Lourenco (sp?) and it’s famous cliff walk. I forgot to bring the water that really made for a long thirsty hike, but it was so spectacular. Before we set off, we found a tiny cafe in this new timeshare resort near the trail head. I opted for s hamburger that was a bit odd, but I was hungry so it was consumed rather quickly.

We spent a good 3-3.5 hours hiking to the farthest point and back. The last section between the visitor center and the top of the cliff was a real challenge. I was sore all over and lagging everyone else, but I finally made it to the top and it was so worth it. The pictures speak for themselves, but it was an exhilarating experience and a definite high light of the trip! On the way back, I fell behind again, but just took my time to make sure I didn’t pull anything. I was never happier to see the car as when I got back to the top of the trail head.

On the way back to the villa, we stopped at a rest stop to get some water and use the restroom. I splurged and got a Mars bar to boost my energy level. Along the motorway, I took some video and photos of the tunnels. Madeira has such cool highways through the tunnels and I wanted to make sure I recorded them for posterity. We finished the night with leftover pasta and some omelets with some more drag race episodes before calling it a night. It wasn’t a long day, but a tiring one and I need to make sure I pack in the morning as its my last night on the island before my weekend getaway to Barcelona.

January 2, 2015

Europe 2014 Day 8: Madeira to Barcelona

Friday January 2, 2015
Woke up and packed everything up. My suitcase is just this side of beginning to get that everything is dirty clothes smell I attribute to my sweaty jeans from yesterday’s hike. I’m sure they will get more rank as the weekend drags on. I piled all my stuff in the back of the car and bid farewell to Nelson who decided to show me where the water was seeping out of the side of the building from the great flood of 2014. I half expect to get a bill in the future. Before heading to the airport we headed up to Nun’s Valley to see where the nuns hid out for hundreds of years.

Along the way we decided to keep going to the top of the mountain to a lookout (insert name). We actually went past it thinking we were close to one of the peaks, but the road kept going and going and Nathan was really sweating the narrow roads with the Fiat. At our highest point, we were over 4800 feet. We retreated back to the lookout and got some photos before finally coming down the hill altogether. We found our way to the Nun’s village which, to be honest, was a bit of a disappointment. There really wasn’t much to see and we stopped in the center of the village for lunch. I’m not sure if we missed the big tourist draw in the area, but all we had time for was the long lunch where they forgot to bring us more bread until it was too late. But hey – at least they had free Wi-Fi!

With great sadness it was time to head to the airport. We made it just in time for check in for my flights. I bid Nathan and Mark goodbye and gave them some money to make up for my lack of lunch contributions so hopefully they either had a good dinner or more wine. I could not believe how long the check in line for TAP was until I realized they had two flights to Lisbon with only 15 minutes separating them. I barely had enough time to get through security and get some snacks for the plane before it was time to board. The weather was a perfect mix of clouds and sunshine as I boarded the plane. As we took off, the last bit of Madeira I saw was the point San Lorenzo where we had our walk yesterday. It disappeared just through the clouds like it was all a dream. No more perfect way to end a visit to the island.

The short flight to Lisbon was dominated by my napping and pleased to report I’m still perfect for having a screaming baby on each flight. We cruised into Lisbon just after sunset and I just had enough time to eat some food and do a spot of shopping before it was already time to board the flight to Barcelona. I thought it was going to take forever, but the connection really flew by and I was actually worried I wouldn’t get what I wanted before leaving.

The Barcelona flight was a bit longer on an older, smaller plane, but nice nonetheless. It was 11pm local time by the time we arrived and I was off the plane. I was stuck by how much nicer the Barcelona airport was – I guess hosting an Olympics will do that for you. Of course, being as late as we were, everything was closed in the terminal. Down at baggage claim, my bag was one of the last ones off the flight – almost a full hour after we landed. I’ve never seen a baggage claim that slow! On the plus side, the taxi stand was close by and I got a racecar driver who was doing 75-80 into the city. I made it to the hotel in only 25 minutes and I think some of that was just trying to find it.

Finally arrived at the hotel Banys Orientals (recommended by one of my Mom’s friends in the Born area of Barcelona) well past midnight and I just wanted to crash. I have to be up before dawn to walk to the place where my tour begins. Luckily using the Wi-Fi I saved it on my phone so that should help tomorrow. By the time I unpacked and was able to fall asleep, I only had 4 hours before I needed to get up. I did notice a lot of noise from outside of the hotel when I was trying to sleep. I hope it’s not like this all the time!

January 3, 2015

Europe 2014 Day 9: Three Countries in One Day

Saturday January 3, 2015
After about 4 hours of sleep – which really felt like instantaneous after hitting my pillow, I was up and ready to go for my 3 countries in one-day tour. I was half asleep and was glad that I had entered the location of the tour office last night onto my phone. Despite not having any cell phone data in Spain, I was able to have my GPS on (the phone was connected to the local telephone network with data switched off) so it allowed me to keep an eye on where I was supposed to go. I left the hotel and noticed a lot of people still sauntering back to their homes and hotels from a night out on the town. I passed a few little restaurants and shops that I made a note that I should check out when they are open. I passed one hotel and noticed a group of tourists up ready to go out to the airport or something.

I arrived at what I thought was the correct area for the tour office, but did not see anything that said Explore Catalunya on it. I did see a sign that said “Tourist info” so I followed that for another block or so and then was like, wait this doesn’t look anything like the map. Time was ticking away and I was getting nervous that despite my planning, I would get horribly lost (or as I like to say it, involved in a scenic detour) and miss my tour kick off. Sure enough, I checked my phone and I was way off course from where I needed to be. I headed back to the location where I had made a mental note the night before on where I thought the tour office would be. As I arrived at the square, I noticed a taxi driving around a building. On a gut instinct I followed it and sure enough that is where the office was. Whew! Much to my surprise, it was the same group from the hotel that I passed about 20 minutes earlier who were getting out of the taxi. I’m glad they showed up, as I don’t know if I would have found the office in time.

At 645 the office opened and we all checked in for our tours. There were 8 of us all together. 5 were in the group vacationing in Spain from the Philippines, 2 were from a military base in Spain, and then me. I think everyone assumed I was with the couple from the military base as they were American ex-pats working on a base. Still sizing up my travel companions for the day, I didn’t really say much and rolled with it. Our driver was Nico and we all piled into an 8-passenger van. I could tell the dad in the Philippine group was not happy. He mentioned to the driver that he was expecting a big bus. Of course, I was expecting a small bus, not quite as small as we were in, but hey, I’m on vacation so who really cares. It was Military couple in front with Nico, I was in the middle row with Dad and Daughter and then the two sons and the Mom were in the way back. I was glad I was next to the window and not trapped in a middle seat.

We headed out of Barcelona and by the time we were in the countryside, most of the people in the van were asleep. I may have closed my eyes for a bit as well, but I tried to stay focused on what Nico was saying. Most of the conversation in the van was in the front row as the Military couple was chitchatting away. We passed the scenic town of Montserrat – I really want to visit here and almost booked an afternoon tour to here, but I had to draw the line and at least give me some time to just relax on my own for the few short days I had in Barcelona.

Our first stop was in the small town of Baga just as the sun was coming up above the hill. Personally, I am not sure why we stopped here as most of the cafes and shops were still closed. They had a nice church – Paroquia de St Esteve de Baga which was also closed (you could peek inside). I spent the time freezing in the cold walking down to the river to take some photos and then wandering back down the small streets as I waited for the rendezvous time. There actually was a small bakery that was open and I was tempted to get something, but they did not have still water. So despite the warmth in the bakery, I went back into the cold and wandered around until it was time to meet back at the van. I found it amusing that a) Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” was blaring on the square loudspeakers and b) there was no sign of anyone else from my bus. I guess I missed something somewhere.

When we met back up again, both other groups came with big bags of snacks and drinks. Yep – I missed a memo somewhere. Oh well. One of the sons offered me some chips that I thought was super nice, but I declined and away we went. We weaved our way past some awesome scenery on our way to France. There were a multitude of nice lakes and amazing mountains. After an hour or so we finally arrived at the border. I do miss the old days of passport inspections and stamps, but I don’t miss the time delay and it was nice to just drive into France like I was traveling from California into Arizona.

Our France experience was the little town of Mont-Louis in the Pyrenees Mountains and being high up there was still some good snow on the ground. Nico told us that about two weeks prior the place was completely covered in snow and much more difficult to get around. We exited the van in the middle of the historic walled city and headed to a café where we got some excellent French hot chocolate and a pastry. I was disappointed that the French army had eaten all the Pan Au Chocolat, so I settled on a butter croissant. The combo of the two really took me back to my earlier visits to France and many a similar breakfast. After the breakfast, we were free to wander around and I made sure to pick up some magnets at the souvenir shop and then walked around. Again, like the first stop, not much to see in the town, but I made the best of it by heading up to the National Commando Training Center (army troop training not walking around sans underwear training). After that, I made the last minute decision to walk outside the main walls and really got some good photos. I am so glad I took that last minute hike outside the walls; it was really picturesque and made the stop in Mont-Louis.

It was then time to get back in the van again – bound for Andorra. I think the main reason for people to take this trip is the stop in Andorra. It’s a landlocked mini-country located between France and Spain and something to brag to people that you made the effort to go to. We drove back into Spain from France and headed to the Andorra border. Again, really beautiful scenery and then we ran into the weekly traffic jam. Apparently Andorra is super-popular on the weekends for its Tax-Free shopping. Similar to the outlets in the US – its hard to get into on the weekends. We inched our way to the border and then we pulled over. Nico apparently didn’t have a license to drive us into Andorra as a tour group, so he had to get two taxis to ferry the passengers into the center of town and he drove the van. It was at this point I learned that the normal bus was in the shop for repairs and that is why we were on the van of doom.

At the border, there was a delay – something with our Taxi drivers and the border patrol was going down. We ended up pulling over to the side of the road for about 5 minutes and the taxi drivers took our passports. I was thinking we were about to get arrested and deported, when they came back and all was well. I had made a sassy joke to the group in my taxi that if they were taking this long to deal with something, we better get our passports stamped. I had asked Nico about passport stamping in Andorra since they technically were not in the EU border agreement. Turns out the entire delay was because Nico had asked the taxi drivers to get our passports stamped! I was beyond excited when I got my passport and realized it had been stamped. Thanks Nico!

Finally, we arrived in the center of Andorra La Ville, the main city of the country. It was wall-to-wall shops and people and was not really what I expected. We had two hours in town and away everyone went. I was a bit disappointed as I remember from the Amazing Race the beautiful scenery in Andorra, but apparently we were about 4-5 miles away from that part of the country. I decided to forgo any local eateries, as I did not want to waste any time with food. I hiked to a McDonalds that was away from the super crowded parts of the main street and it was worth it. Good comfort food with Free Wi-Fi and I was able to post some photos I had taken and send a few iMessages. I had picked up my magnets and some postcards with stamps and spent some time quickly writing them out. Sorry if my prose was not that good!

After writing the postcards, I set off for the post office to drop them into the mail. The shopkeeper had said she could post them for me, but I wanted to make sure they found the right box. Also, even though I didn’t write anything racy, I didn’t feel like having her read my cards. The rest of the time in Andorra was spent doing some window-shopping and getting water for the ride back to Barcelona. The deals just were not that good to me due to the fact that despite the lack of taxes here, the exchange rate still made things more expensive then back at home. There was also nothing really that caught my eye that was a Must Have.

Back at the rendezvous, we met the taxi drivers and after a last second scolding by the police (resulting in a drive around to find the Military couple) we headed back to the border to meet Nico again. When we arrived we had to wait about 5 min before he showed up. Apparently he was getting hoodwinked by the Andorran Petrol station, claiming that he had filled up the tank with twice as much gas as he needed. They charged him for a full tank of gas even though he only needed half a tank. He had some choice words and promised to stop payment on the transaction when he got back to the office.

Back in the van we made the long trek back to Barcelona. The scenery was still stunning as we made a brief bathroom stop in La Seu d’Urgell. I took an obligatory church photo and then decided better safe then sorry and used the restroom in the pub. Nico was getting a coffee as the rest of the patrons were engaged in multiple poker games. A pretty amusing sight to say the least! On the road again, we made a quick stop for photo moment in the little town of Isona at a church that was 1800 years old (I think it was a Roman something or-other-that was converted, but I could not be sure).

Our last stop was at the Hotel Cal Petit near Oliana, Spain. The wife of the military couple convinced me to try Spanish Hot Chocolate that turned out to be something like hot pudding. It was rich and chocolaty. Not exactly my favorite, but it warmed me up nice and good. By the time we left the hotel stop the sun was setting on the hills and gave us some spectacular vistas as we ended the tour. Most of us fell asleep in the van on the way back to Barcelona, but I could hear Nico and the Military couple chatting away on topics such as slaughtering cows (it’s important to remove the testicles first otherwise your meat will be bitter..) and other wonders. The daughter next to me was watching what looked like make-up tutorials on her iPad as I decided to sleep some more.

We arrived back into Barcelona and as we made our way back to the tour office, we noticed a street festival and the group from the Philippines asked if they could be left of here. Nico was a bit puzzled but found a place he could quickly stop and let them off. Military couple figured they were near their hotel so they left as well just leaving me alone with Nico. I asked him if this was a normal thing and he said more times than you could imagine. I told him I needed to go back to the tour office since I had no idea where my hotel was since I had only come in the night before. He offered to drop me at my hotel, but when we got to the office I decided that I was OK to walk there on my own.

I stopped at a supermarket to get some water and a baguette for the morning and then headed back to the hotel to relax. The street that the hotel was on was so much livelier that I felt better about where I was staying. I rested for a bit before deciding to head out for something to eat and then to walk over to take a Gorn photo at the Hard Rock. Turns out that the Hard Rock was only a 10-minute walk away and so was Las Ramblas the famous street. After a quick bite to eat, I headed over and enjoyed the scenery. Everyone was telling me to be careful of pickpockets so I kept everything zipped up in my jacket. For a Saturday there certainly wasn’t that many people out and about. I did notice a lot of shady looking people just standing around aimlessly. Also there were these guys with 4 cokes on a six-pack ring. What were they doing? Selling them? Are they the Barcelona equivalent of the lady selling roses at the clubs? Also, the smell wasn’t very appealing. I’m thinking open sewers at their finest.

I decided to splurge on a gelato and then head back through the winding streets back to my hotel and call it a night. It was pushing 10pm and I was exhausted. Part of me wanted to stay up and see the nightlife, but the sensible side knew I had to get up early again tomorrow for another tour. Back at the hotel, I noticed I had neighbors tonight and they were loud. I was too exhausted to care and quickly fell asleep.

January 4, 2015

Europe 2014 Day 10: Barcelona

Sunday January 4, 2015
After the first decent sleep since Madeira, I was again up and out early – thankfully an hour later than yesterday and headed back to the Explore Catalunya office for my half-day Barcelona tour. I had gone back and forth on if I should do the half or the full day tour, but in the end, I decided I wanted to take the rest of today to just explore the city if there was anything on the tour that interested me.

Walking to the office, I noticed more and more shops open – wow there is even a Starbucks I completely missed the other night! At the office, I met our tour guide Anna and even saw poor Nico ready to do another tour. He probably had less sleep than I did. A much bigger group this time out – 3 groups of 4 families and then two couples and then me. We had to walk from the office to catch our bus. The fun part was that we headed back to the Hard Rock Café to get our bus. Along the way Anna pointed out things I missed last night. I found it amazing how a tour guide could bring the same area alive. Always get a guided tour of the city folks; it makes all the difference in the world.

We boarded the bus and headed off to our first stop Montjuic. Montjuic is a hill in the southern part of Barcelona and is home to many museums and the Olympic Stadium that hosted the 1992 Summer Games. It was those games that really made me want to visit Barcelona so it felt great to finally see the Olympic cauldron and stadium up close. Along the way up the hill we passed a former bullring that had been turned into a shopping mall. Apparently bull fighting was banned in Catalonia a few years back. Part of the reason is to prevent animal cruelty and the other part is that bullfighting is not a Catalonian tradition, but a Spanish one. Given the pro-independence movement, it was sort of a thumbing of the nose to Madrid. After some great stories by Anna, we reached Montjuic and did a slow drive by of the Olympic stadium as we headed to the lookout point.

Despite Anna still talking, half of the bus went to take photos of the viewpoint before she could tell us what to look at. I chuckled to myself as she just looked amazed. She finished her spiel and let us take 5 minutes to take some photos. They did not disappoint as the weather was spectacular today an all of Barcelona was there for the viewing. Anna pointed out a few places of interest including our next stop, La Sagrada de Familia. Like Andorra the day before, La Sagrada was probably why most of the people were on the tour today. I know I wanted the VIP timed entry ticket! We took the scenic route from Montjuic to LSF with Anna again telling us the history of some of the buildings and the streets that we cruised past. She pointed out old Olympic village apartments, harbor developments and other benefits to Barcelona from the Olympics as well as telling the story of Barcelona’s development from a small village with a wall around it to the big city we see today. Las Ramblas? Totally used to be a river.

Finally at La Sagrada Familia, we left the bus and had to walk a few blocks to the cathedral. Apparently a person not liking bus noise is a worldwide concern. Anna accidentally left our tickets on the bus so as she arranged a rendezvous; this American couple went for coffee and ended up delaying our tour as it took forever. Anna gave them a bad time and instead of rolling with it, the Americans got a bit defensive. I wanted to tell them to chill out, but whatever I let them feel bad. Finally, we headed into the cathedral. Anna didn’t join us, just giving us the time when to return to the bus.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Cathedral. I thought that it would be weird looking (and I was right in places) but overall I was stunned at how awesome the inside of the cathedral looked. It totally did not match my expectations from the outside. I guess its true – don’t judge the cathedral by its cover. I was a little disappointed our tour tickets didn’t include trips to the top of the cathedral (really no time for that) or access into the crypt below, but at least we got to see the main portion of the cathedral and the museum in the basement. I was completely captivated by this tile square so I ended up getting my first real souvenir of the trip along with my usual magnets.

We regrouped with Anna and then headed back to the bus. Our last stop was the Gothic quarter that turns out to be right next to my hotel! We zipped along in the bus almost exactly to where we picked it up in the morning- Plaza Catalunya Anna led us on a tour of the Gothic quarter and showing us the famous squares and government buildings. Among the highlights was the Kings Court archives, the Jewish Quarter, and St James Square where a lot of celebrations and protests are held in the city. Thankfully today it was just a Spanish equivalent of a craft market. This day trip really has helped me appreciate where I was staying and made me wish that I had done this tour on the first day. Oh- to have more time!!

At our final stop we actually walked right past my hotel to the Basilica de Saint Maria del Mar. Anna gave us some instructions for where to have lunch and then told me that if I wanted to go to the Parc Guell she would let me ride on the bus there and then I was on my own. I just needed to be back at the meeting point on time. I quickly toured the church and then headed back to my hotel. I stopped at a little place to have a pizza that was tasty and cheap! I wasn’t the only solo diner in the restaurant so it made me feel better. I popped into the hotel to unload my souvenir from earlier today and then do some quick emails and then decided to take Anna up on her offer and meet the tour group. I picked up a map from the front desk and got instructions on how to take the Metro from Parc Guell back to the hotel. Fresh faced and ready to go, I headed back to meet with the group.

On the bus to Parc Guell, Anna was giving out some more historical info and I felt guilty about listening to it, as I didn’t pay for this part of the tour. When we arrived at the park, I went to get a ticket and discovered it was a time entry to the fee area and I would have to wait two hours in order to get in to see the famous Gaudi landmarks. Anna tried to convince them to let me in with her group, but they were not having any of it. I thanked Anna for the great tour and her offers of assistance and then headed off to the free area of the park to wait. In a way, I was actually glad I had so much extra time in the park. I was tempted to just blow off the fee area since I was essentially burning two hours of my limited time in the city, but I was here and invested so I waited. Turns out, there were some great hiking trails and forested areas. The park was super crowded so they were nice retreats. I made it to the top of the Turó de Tres Creus (Hill of the three crosses), which had spectacular views of the city. Lots of typical park musicians, but it added to the atmosphere along with the totally illegal street vendors.

I had about 30 minutes to kill before my entry when I discovered the free Wi-Fi. The Internet was great at passing the time and then I finally got to go to the Gaudi fee area. It was like the running of the bulls as people raced to take photos of the famous areas. Not being an expert, I sauntered to the mosaic benches to take some photos – one was a recreation of a photo Matt took 20 years previous. I spent about an hour wandering in the fee area and was really impressed with the sculptures and the mosaics and the overall layout of the area. I recommend Parc Guell over the La Sagrada Familia and especially if you can visit on a non-Sunday. Apparently Sunday is the busiest day in the park!

Having my fill and having purchased my magnets, I headed down to the Metro station. It wasn’t that far of a walk and thankfully all down hill. I can see why Anna offered to take me up to the park – it was a steep climb! I took the Metro down to the Plaza Catalunya to do some shopping. I didn’t really need anything, but I wanted to stop into C&A that I last visited in Paris back in 2007. They didn’t have anything that was earth shattering, but I did manage to score some underwear and a pair of pants. I was ready to wear something different on the flight home! After C&A I headed to the Apple Store just to take some photos and steal their Wi-Fi.

Finally, it was time for dinner so I headed back to the hotel to see if I could locate a place for a quick bite to eat. I settled on nothing special (Fast Food) as I was trying to conserve what money I had left and I needed to start packing for tomorrow. I ended up back in the hotel around 9pm and began to get everything ready for the morning. I had to get up at 430 AM because the hotel suggested I leave at 530 to make a 740 train. I thought it was a bit excessive, but I didn’t want to argue with the front desk. I had everything packed and was in bed by 1030pm.

By this time, my neighbors had come back. Without going into graphic detail, let me just say, um, they had a good time. They were actually quite loud and went on a while. Before I knew it, I looked at my phone and it was past midnight. Ugh. This is not going to be a fully awake Josh for my trip home. I finally decided to turn on my music to drown out the sounds of love. They must have finished finally because I fell asleep to snoring from their room.