Saturday, February 26, 2005

All About Spain

So, I’m back in Stevenage after my week’s holiday in Spain. I was able to post a bit from Spain but my posting was limited due to trouble finding Internet cafes. Here are some observations I made. Some are expanded from my journal. Others were originally scribbled down on the back of my flight schedule. Some of things have already been mentioned in earlier posts. But, since I’m typing this at home on a non-Internet-connected laptop, I don’t have access to what I’ve written already. So, you may end up having to read some things twice.

Saturday, 12 February
Simon (one of my co-workers) picked me up and drove me to Luton airport. Luton is one of the smaller London airports and seems to be used mainly by some of the smaller budget airlines. I flew on Ryanair, one of those smaller budget airlines. One mark of a small budget airline appears to be open seating – you line up roughly in the order you checked in (‘roughly’ meaning ‘boarding cards 1-90 here, the rest of you there’) and you walk out to the plane and pick a seat.

I was able to get a seat on the front row, guaranteeing me plenty of legroom. I slept for a bit during the flight, but I was awake as we flew over Montserrat (or what I think is Montserrat), a place described in my tourist guide as ‘a mountain massif located 95 km from Salou.’ Another travel guide mentions it as a ‘great grey craggy outcrop.’

Upon arriving at the Reus airport in Spain, I was the first off the plane. Pausing at the top of the steps, I looked out at the airport. It reminded me of one of those 1950s movies where the famous celebrity or important leader arrives at an airport and greets the cheering throngs. All that was missing was the cheering throng. Well, that and the black and white film.

So, it was down the steps of the airplane and onto the tarmac (runway, taxiway, whatever it’s called). And then where? There weren’t any signs. No security cordons. It was just me and the people behind me guessing we were supposed to head where we decided to call ‘that way.’ As it turns out, we needn’t have worried. The Reus airport is so small, there is pretty much only one way to go. The passport control booth was empty. We all gathered around one of the two luggage carousels and waited a few minutes for our bags. Then we left the airport. That was it…nobody checked passports, nobody checked our luggage, nobody seemed too concerned that a planeload consisting mainly of British families on half-term holidays had just descended on their country.

My fears about not being able to get from the airport to Salou were laid to rest as soon as I entered the luggage collection area. (Well, what do you call that place? Baggage pickup? Stand-and-wait-for-your-suitcase-to-go-round-the belt?) The helpful people of Spain had provided a desk where people sold very reasonably-priced bus tickets to Salou. In fact, for less than €10, I was able to be both dropped off at my hotel and picked up a week later. (The nice retired English couple next to me on the plane booked a ride on the Internet and paid £50 for a round-trip car ride to the same hotel. And £50 would be about €70.)

Several of us were staying at the same hotel. The bus driver dropped us off just around the block and told up to ‘go to that sign there, yeah, and turn right, yeah, and bang on the door and someone will be with you in a minute, yeah.’ (Did I mention that the bus driver was English, yeah?) Luckily, we were able to find the check-in lady on a balcony two floors above and we could just shout up to her, thereby saving any necessary pounding.

And thus it was that I checked into my home for the next week, room 324 of the Los Pesces Hotel. I had made reservations in a self-catering apartment. I now know that means that I make my own bed and buy my own toilet paper (after the first roll). But I did have a nice-sized living room with a couch, table, and television, a bedroom, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a balcony. Sure, that balcony only had a view of the street and then nearby hotels, but so what?

After putting down my things, I decided to go and wander about. Salou is a bustling summertime resort with warm weather and plenty of shops and restaurants. Unfortunately, I visited in February, a time when Salou is decidedly not bustling. The weather was warmer than in England, but not what I would describe as ‘warm.’ On the way to the beach, I passed quite a few shuttered shops and restaurants. Most of these places, I would come to find out, weren’t just closed for the daily siesta; they were closed for the winter. In fact, I was beginning to think I had booked myself into a ghost town or one of those post-apocalyptic cities. If you have ever seen the movie 28 Days Later, you may remember the shots of London in which there were absolutely no people. I was beginning to think Salou would be the same way.

Luckily, however, as I reached the Juame I Promenade, I encountered quite a few older Spanish couples walking along the beach. The Promenade is actually quite nice (or, as we say in England, well nice). Located along the beach, it stretches for 1200 meters of palm tree-lined splendour. Midway along the Promenade stands the large monument to Juame I, ‘the conqueror king who, in the year 1229, chose the port of Salou from which to recapture the island of Mallorca from the Moors’ (from the Salou tourist book). Despite the gentle ribbing I later gave this town (‘Salou: Where Old Spanish Couples Go to Shuffle Along the Beach’), the Promenade at sunset is absolutely wonderful. There’s the blue water, the golden sand, the palm trees, a long and well-kept promenade, people walking and enjoying life…wonderful.

While I was walking, however, I began to worry. While passing so many closed restaurants, I began to worry that I would starve during the week since nothing was open. As I began to pass more and more open restaurants, I began to worry that I would starve during the week since I couldn’t speak Spanish. The thought of having to go into a restaurant and figure out what the food was and how to ask for it had me in an ever-increasing panic. So I kept walking. And walking.

Until I came to a supermarket (or ‘supermerkat’) called SUMA, which is Spanish for ‘Sumathing to eat so you don’t starve.’ And so, I went grocery shopping at the supermerkat which was actually rather small…in fact, I would be hardpressed to even call it a merkat…perhaps a minimerkat. But whatever the name, I got the essentials: a 2 litre bottle of Coca-Cola Light, a packet of Kinder chocolate bars, some Principe De Beukalaer Double Choc cookies, a box of Special K Chocolate (yes, that’s three things with chocolate), a bag of Mandarin oranges, and a box of something marked ‘Leche Uht Semidesnatada’ which I really hoped would be semi-skimmed milk.

Buoyed by my success in actually surviving an encounter conducted totally in Spanish, I decided to find a place for dinner. Of course, shopping in a supermerkat is much easier than a restaurant. In a supermerkat, you get to roam the aisles, pick up products, turn them over, stare at the pictures, search in vain for English on the label, stare some more at the pictures, and read the price listed on the shelf. At the check out stand, you say, ‘¡Hola!’ and watch for the total on the register. Then you hand a wad of brightly-coloured Euros to the cashier. At a restaurant, you can’t just walk through the kitchen, and handle the ingredients (trust me, you can’t). You have to say, ‘¡Hola!’ and gesture towards a table, all the while nodding in a questioning manner which means, ‘Hello, I’m new here. ¿Do I sit first or order first?’ Then, someone brings you a menu and says something in Spanish. If you’re lucky, you make enough grunts and nods and pointing gestures to earn yourself a Diet Coke (or Cola Light). Then, you’re left to read the menu, trying to remember if ‘liver’ is ‘cerdo,’ ‘pulpo,’ or ‘higado.’

So I decided to skip all of that for Saturday night and just have a pizza. Luckily, the menu had pages in Spanish, English, and German. That, combined with waving cash, ensured I was able to obtain food and postpone the language-barrier-inspired hunger for another day.

Walking back to the hotel, I realized I was lost. But the hotel had to be within a block or two…or twelve…or not. So I backtracked and eventually found it. But imagine my surprise the next morning to discover that the place where I thought the hotel should have been, really was. I was just on the other side. How funny! At least it was funny the next morning…in daylight…while not lugging groceries.

The rest of the evening was spent examining my Spanish groceries and watching some Spanish telly. Many of my groceries had writing in two languages. I think the languages were Spanish and Catalan, but I could be wrong. Many things I saw later in the week, at least tourist-based things, were written in Catalan, Castilian, French, English, German, Italian, and Russian. I watched the nightly Spanish Lottery (El Combo) draw. This involved two twenty-somethings standing totally still and unsure of themselves while six clear plastic globes rotated. Every so often, a ball would pop out of one of those globes and the twenty-something would pick it up, study it intently, and then hold it next to his or her face. Grinning broadly, the person would proclaim the number (‘¡El Uno!’).

Later, while making my bed, I was putting the pillow into its case. You know how that works, right? Stuff the pillow in and then shake the case to get the pillow fully inside. So, imagine my confusion when I shake and shake and the pillow just keeps going. It turns out that the pillowcases were all open at both ends.

But, I finally managed to figure out enough to get the bed made and to go to sleep.

Monday, 13 February
I slept well despite the pillowcases with the dual openings. I figured out my new ‘continental adapter’ for my shaver so that I could plug my shaver into the voltage converter so as not to fry its 120 volt insides with Europe’s 240 volts, the voltage converter into the plug adapter so that my voltage converter’s two-pronged plug would fit into the differently-spaced two-pronged Spanish outlet, and then plugging the whole bit into the wall.

Luckily, due to a small surprise, I was well awake for my morning electrical engineering project. This small surprise came in the form of a distinct lack of hot water. None. Not a drop. Plenty of cold water, though. Very cold. Icy, in fact.

So, after a very, very quick shower and some major electrical conversions, I was ready to make sure that the Leche Uht Semidesnatada I bought the night before really was milk. And it was. So I settled down to a breakfast of Special K Chocolate and Coke Light. I truly am the Good Nutrition Poster Child.

While wandering, I found yet another grocery store (um…supermerkat) and couldn’t resist…I got some dried apricots and some barbecued-flavoured roasted corn (in America, we call them Corn Nuts, but these were a different brand).

I went to the noon Catalan-language Mass at St. Marie del Mar church.

Later, I actually managed to order lunch in a real Spanish restaurant. I think I ordered chicken. It came with chips (ok, fries), a tomato, and a fried egg. And while we’re on the topic…what is it with fried eggs? Those things have to be the worst, most vile form of egg product known to humankind. And the way it just lays there and stares up at you… It gives me a right shudder just to think about it.

After lunch, I explored some. I walked through a neighbourhood and kept moving up. Eventually I ended up on a hillside overlooking a road. Walking through a break in the fence (hey, I didn’t make the break in the fence…it was there already…), I headed towards the road. It was a rather nice road, really…well paved, two lanes, new-looking tarmac, well good pavements (in American that would be ‘really nice sidewalks’), clear signage. The only thing missing was the cars. I just stood there and looked for a bit. At one point a bus came along. The driver saw me and slowed down. The passengers and I stared at each other, each obviously surprised to see one another on the road. I followed the pavement (sidewalk) a bit more. There was a marvellous view overlooking a Spanish trailer park.

Note: Urban planning question ahead. What is it about lowlands and trailer parks? Is it that the less-desirable properties are harder to sell and nobody wants them except for trailer park developers? Or is it that trailer park developers cause properties to become less-desirable and harder to sell?

Just a bit further down the road, there was a wide area in the sidewalk. Placed on the wide area were several chairs. In the middle of nowhere. The odd thing (aside from nearly no traffic at all on this road) was that in order to get to these chairs, you would have had to walk quite a bit. I can’t foresee anyone walking there just to sit. The chairs had no picturesque view (not even of the trailer park). And they were permanently placed – they wouldn’t move – I tried. Maybe you don’t think it’s odd but I certainly did. I took a few pictures that I’ll try to post soon.

Eventually, I ended up at the beach. It was so windy that I nearly was blown over at times. I found a few shells. I sat in the sun. I did not do any lesson planning.

Monday, 14 February
After another icy shower and another quality breakfast, I headed out. My first stop was the office at the hotel. Why did I wait until today, you ask? Simple. The office was closed on Sunday.

Note to self: Contact Lonely Planet and explain that although some people will find it useful that their Spanish phrasebook tells me how to say ‘this drug is for personal use,’ it neglects the phrase, ‘I have no hot water.’

I decided to take the bus to Reus, the closest city. Again, I did some exploring. I found a nice church in the old part of the city. I walked to the central market. The market building itself houses a number of food stalls – fish, meat, fruit, vegetables, things like that. Outside, however, was a bit more exciting for me. A number of stalls were set up around the building. The first stall I saw was selling birds…lots of birds - chickens, pigeons, tropical birds. They also had rabbits, mice, goldfish, and snakes. A few of the stalls sold housewares, but most of the other stalls were selling clothes. It was a bit odd to see people buying bras on the street from grungy guys. But that’s just me, I suppose. I settled for buying some churros to eat as I walked.

I did some more exploring, sat for a while and read in a park, went to the post office, and checked my email. I took the bus back to Salou.

I did have hot water when I returned.

Tuesday, 15 February
Most of Tuesday’s adventures have been chronicled earlier. So, I’ll just add a few things. First, I took a hot shower in the morning. Well, actually, the left side of my body took a hot shower. I ran out of hot water about halfway through.

I saw quite a few nice Roman ruins in Tarragona.

I had dinner at McDonald’s. Yes, it’s true. But I think I’ve figured out part of the appeal of McDonald’s. People eat there not because they think the food is great (unless you’re seven). Instead, they eat there because they have an idea what to expect. I’ve eaten at McDonald’s around the world and each time, a Big Mac was a Big Mac. And to get one, all you say is ‘Big Mac.’ So, McDonald’s is easy. It’s also fairly cheap. For less that €5, you get a sandwich, fries, and a drink. It’s cheap and easy. It’s also full of fat and cholesterol. But that’s another post.

Wednesday, 16 February
I decided to go to Barcelona today. Since the trip to Barcelona takes two hours, I walked to the bus station before dawn to catch the 7:00 bus. I got there early and it was cold. Very cold. But I caught the bus.

Arriving in Barcelona, I really had only one definite destination in mind. I wanted to visit the Temple de la Sagrada Familia – the Temple of the Holy Family. You may have seen pictures of this before – it’s a huge church with four tall spires in the front. Unfortunately, the front also looks like it was made from chocolate that’s been sitting in the sun too long and melted a bit. I didn’t realize until I got there (step one: you should actually READ the guidebook you’re schlepping about the country) but the church is still under construction. Begin in 1882, it only has about 40 more years until it is finshed. It costs €8 to enter, but it is probably the best €8 I spent all week. I walked in to the as yet unfinished sanctuary and looked up. The architect, Gaudi, has designed the columns and ceiling to look like a huge forest canopy. It is beautiful.

Visitors can also climb up and look down into the sanctuary from above. More adventurous visitors can continue upwards into the spires. So you climb. And climb. And climb some more. Spaced every little bit are openings to the outside. There are also a few small balconies to step out on. A highlight, though, it the small span that goes between two of the spires. The view of Barcelona is simply great.

Also included in the entry fee is the museum showing many of the natural things upon which Gaudi based his designs. One can easily spend hours there. My suggestion is to go early. I got there at about 9:30 and there was no waiting. When I left at about noon (or a bit later), there was a nice-sized line waiting to get in. There are also fewer people to jostle you on the climb to the top. This is especially nice if you have begun the climb and realize halfway up that you really are a bit afraid of heights. And then, combine your latent fear of heights with your obsessive compulsion to photograph each and every thing you see, resulting in an iron death grip on the camera as you hug the stones, sweating in the cold Barcelona morning. Trust me, it really is better without people to jostle you. Oh, and just remember…each step up that you climb means one step down you have to descend. That’s another thing I quite forgot until I was halfway up.

Well, I did safely make it down to the ground. I also stopped by the gift shop on the way out. I have been steadfastly refusing to buy tons of souvenir crap during my trip (I’ve been looking, but not buying). Postcards, yes. Large, brightly-coloured Spanish spoons marked ‘Salou,’ no. But I did buy a small model of the front of the Sagrada. It’s probably no bigger than 4 inches tall and it sits on my desk in my room.

I ate lunch sitting on a bench at the Placa de Tetuan. Then I walked under the Arc de Triomf (that’s how it’s spelled…really…that’s the troof) and walked through a market. I wandered through the Barri Gotic, an area of the city with very narrow and winding streets and small shops. While there, I went into the La Seu cathedral. I also got to go onto the roof but it wasn’t nearly so nerve-wracking as the Sagrada. This time there was no spiral staircase and they kept us quite far from the edge.

I walked along the Las Ramblas, a street with a lot of shops, some street vendors, and living statues – people dressed as various characters which come to life when you put a coin in the bucket. I bought a few strawberries from the market there. After safely washing them back in Salou, I had a few. They were some of the best strawberries I’ve ever had.

On the way back to the bus stop, a passed a swarm of pigeons. Yes, I’m aware that pigeon groups are not normally referred to as swarms, but this one was. There were hundred of pigeons with one thin on their tiny bird minds: the seed that guy is tossing out. Heaven forbid anything, or anyone, get in their way.

Back in Salou, I had a Tasty McBacon, medianas, por favor, with a Cola Light. Gracias.

Thursday, 17 February, and Friday, 18 February

For these two days, I decided to sleep late and rest up. I also sampled some actual Spanish cuisine. Thursday, I had a lovely meal of salad, paella, a pork chop with chips, flan, and a drink for €7.40. Ordering this consisted of pointing towards the daily special chalked on the board near the door and nodding a bit. The problem came when I had more than one choice. The key here is to do some more nodding and repeat back anything that sounds remotely familiar. The paella had a huge prawn (ok, shrimp) with its head and legs still on. It was surrounded by calamari and mussels. It was tasty.

Friday, having mastered the point-and-nod method of obtaining food, I returned to the same restaurant for the daily special. I had a salad, some kind of soup with bits of meats in it, chicken, and some pudding thing for dessert.

Friday afternoon was spend walking to Cambrils, a town just down the road from Salou. It has the unique quality of making sleepy Salou seem like a bustling metropolis. On the way back, I collected shells on the beach. I found quite a few, including several very, very nice ones which are currently sitting on my desk in my room.

During my trip, I also managed to read three books: High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, Take One Young Man by Vivien Kelly, and Empire State by Henry Porter.

Saturday, 19 February

I packed. I walked along the beach one last time. I finished reading the third book. I had lunch. I walked about a bit more.

And then I flew back to England where it was snowing.


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