Thursday, May 15, 2014

Mediterranean Madness Part XIV Back to Barcelona


This is just plain sad...
We arrived at Barcelona sometime during the night. On day 9 or 10 they had passed out an exit form (that was to be turned back in to guest services) and we were allowed to choose our time-slot for disembarking. We had no planes to catch, or reason to hurry, so we chose the last time slot, making our departure at 8:30 that morning. Sarah's parents chose to enjoy the late checkout, which meant they could stay on the ship until that afternoon. I don't know more about that particular option, but they were happy with it. Me, personally, I was ready to get off the ship and start exploring Barcelona again, and the 8:30 time-slot worked splendidly for that. Our check out occurred with minimal difficulty, and we were off the ship in less than 20 minutes, with our bags, and standing in the taxi line. (There was no Custom's declaration that I could identify.) The line for a cab was fairly long, but it moved quickly. We took our taxi straight from the terminal to Hotel Regina, and I think it cost about 25 Euros, more or less. The hotel was expecting us, and made the check in process painless. They didn't have our room ready at 9:30, but promised it would be ready within an hour. So, we left our bags with the front desk and walked a few blocks to a café that was already open for breakfast.


Barcelona doesn't really get an early start on the day. In fact, the Starbucks, which was located next to our hotel, didn't even open its doors until 7:30, and even then, I was the only person moving on the entire street. So, we found that café and ordered more of that power-punch coffee and a few pastries, and waited (buzzed) an hour. When we returned to the hotel, our room was ready and we were able to explore again.
Our main plan was to tour the Sagrada Familia, so we stepped onto the street and hailed a cab. The doorman at the hotel would have done that for us, but the cab rides are cheaper if you grab one off the street, as the driver starts the fare from the moment he receives the call. From our hotel to the cathedral was only a few miles, and the fare was not expensive. Upon arrival at the cathedral, Sarah immediately began to say, "oh, no." She said it several times. It seems that she forgot to go online and purchase our tickets to enter, and we were now doomed to stand in line with the general population. Ugh. Quite a negative turn to our day. So, we got in line, which wrapped from the front entrance, around the corner, and around the next corner. And there was no joy in Mudville. We talked about skipping the cathedral, but so many people insisted that we had to work that into our vacation, that we shrugged and committed to waiting. And while we were waiting in a line that took about an hour and a half, we realized that we also forgot our camera! Fortunately, we had our iPhones, which saved our bacon. For when we finally got into the Sagrada Familia, it was one of the most incredible places we've ever visited.
The line was long, and it seemed as though is wasn't moving. But it was worth the wait!

You might remember from the first of the review when I mentioned how disconcerting the architecture designed by Antoni Gaudi was? Well, the closer you stand to the cathedral, the more schizophrenic his work becomes. Half of the building appears to take on the shape of molten wax, while the other part seems be the constructed in Mine Craft. And how he manages to blend such contrasting themes is mind boggling.  Not only that, the outside of the structure is NOTHING like the inside. There is no comparison.
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These photos are just two examples of how extreme the outside of the cathedral is, and these shots are fairly close together.

First, let me tell you that there are restrooms available, but the line is a bit long. The restrooms are clean, though. They can be found on the outside of the cathedral, and at the entrance to the museum.

You will have several choices for various tours. Visitors can access the Nave, Crypt, Museum, Shop, and the Passion and Nativity towers. We purchased tickets to tour both the cathedral and the museum, and to ride the elevator to the top of the Passion Tower. I highly encourage you to ride the elevator to the top. That was an amazing experience.
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I won't try to demonstrate the majesty of this church with photos...It just won't work. You actually have to see it to believe it. The second shot is looking up at the columns. See how they form a canopy?

And now—the cathedral interior. Gaudi used nature and Creation to reflect God's glory, and he does so masterfully. The first thing you notice as you enter the interior is the sense of peace that settles upon you, drawing you deeper into the room. The next sensation is that of awe. The Nave (sanctuary) itself is massive, and cavernous, and it suggests that it is an extension of eternity itself. The natural lighting and the columns work in concert to create the impression that you have stepped outdoors. The columns are designed to imitate trees, and the trees rise from the floor and became branches, which became a canopy, and the canopy is the ceiling, the top of which rises more than two hundred feet in the air. Your eyes immediately lift to the sky, and you stand in awe of the majesty that is the Sagrada Familia. Hundreds of people are walking and talking, but I immediately had the sensation that I was alone in the room, and that there was plenty of space for all of us.
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See how massive the columns are? They rival the redwoods in California! One of the columns fell, and Seth jumped in to stick his finger in the dike.

035We tried taking photos, but the building was so grandiose that our shots couldn't capture what we saw. Somewhere in the far corner, I could hear a choir softly singing a song which sounded like monks singing an ancient Latin hymn, and theirs was an angelic performance.

I began to take inventory of the room. On the farthest side, I could see a spiral staircase that looked as though it was the actual staircase to Heaven. The walls and ceiling were replete with magnificent stained glass that told the story of Christ, and documented the lives of many past saints.

I stood transfixed in my corner of the sanctuary, overwhelmed that human hands could have created such a masterpiece. I don't have a Catholic background, and I have only attended Catholic services that were funerals, so I've had limited exposure to cathedrals, but what I experienced in that Basilica fostered a yearning in me to worship God at that very moment. I know that God is not a building, and that the people are His true temple, but there was something Divine and inspiring in the Sagrada Familia, and my own wretched grasp of the English language leaves my desire to express those inspirations wanton.

Gaudi's desire was to honor God, and the sacrifice Jesus made for our sins, and what he designed was the greatest human achievement in that regard. Least I bore you with more of my efforts to describe the indescribable; I will continue our chronicle of the day. We toured the sanctuary for an hour, with our eyes continually uplifted. When our time came for us to explore the tower via elevator, I was somewhat intimidated by the simplicity of the elevator designated for our use. About ten people crammed into the tiny lift, and we were transported to the rafters and up into the tower itself. When we arrived at the top, the operator told us that we could return by the elevator or we could walk down the stairs to the bottom. Be advised, there are more than 400 steps from top to bottom.

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A good example of the waist high railings

Not sure which tower we ascended.
We stepped outside and quickly realized we were 250 feet high, which is about 25 stories off the ground. I'm not a big fan of heights. My stomach sank when I saw that there were no rails or safety precautions to prevent me from going over the edge and falling to the ground. Oh, it's a safe place; a waist-high wall guarded the path, but I felt very exposed. If one was so inclined, one could easily circumvent the path. The kids were eager to run to the edge and look over, and Sarah and I spent much of our time holding our breath! The pathway that traversed the spire was narrow, maybe 3 feet wide, and you have ample opportunity to gaze down upon Barcelona, which is sprawled out below you almost as far as you can see. Take note while you're standing in the spire that the mountain on the other side of the city, where Montjuic Castle stands, is the same height.
I was satisfied with my time at the top rather quickly, even though the kids were buzzing about like they were born to be mountain goats. We wound our way back to the elevators and saw that another pathway led past them into a different chamber at the top. We followed some German tourists into that chamber and quickly realized that we were now on the staircase the descended into the Nave.

We had no intention of returning to the sanctuary via staircase, but by the time we realized where we were, we were locked in to the journey. Another group of tourists were behind us who fully intended on taking the staircase, and there was no way we could step aside and allow them to pass us, so we committed. In Pisa, we climbed the tower and successfully navigated those stairs, which was roughly 275 steps. This can't be that different, right?

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See how narrow the steps? And see how we were pressed into another group of tourists? The spiral staircase went on and on... There are no hand rails or anything to hold on to.

Similar staircase as our exit from the tower.
The bulk of the descent is a very narrow spiral staircase with very narrow steps, and no handrails whatsoever. I was too fat to fall into the stairwell and not get wedged in the open space, but a smaller person could conceivably fit into the hole, and could, conceivably fall many stories. (Worst case scenario.) Why am I telling you this? Because, if you're claustrophobic, or climacophobic (fear of falling down stairs) you won't want to take this journey. I suffer from neither of those two phobias. But, if you remember from the very first of our review, I told you about actually falling backwards into an open stairwell and breaking my ribs? Guess what came flooding back over me while descending the staircase? I have never, ever, never, ever had an anxiety attack in my life, and I chose that staircase to break new ground. My heart began racing, and my breaths were labored, and I hugged the outside edge of that staircase as if I was trying to squeeze between the spaces in the stones. My legs were starting to become Jell-O and I had to force myself to continue the journey.  I'm so glad I was wearing a pair of Depends. By this point in the cruise, I had used all of my pain meds and had no Valium left. (Insert frowny face here.) By the time we reached the sanctuary level, which was where I was starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I was dismayed to realize that I still had another five stories or so to go. Holy cow! I was never so glad to be back in a church. Fortunately, we were now done with our tour, which was a relief because I had exhausted all of my adrenalin and had no more to spend. But, before I leave the staircase to … uh…Heaven (out of respect for the church), I want to tell you to take a moment and enjoy the view of the Nave from your vantage point. The view is completely awesome, provided you're not struggling with an irrational fear.

This was right across the street. Yes, I know. McDonalds...

The menu, in case you were wondering.
That is the cathedral. It's still under construction.

093I had now reached the point of emotional fatigue, and the kids were hungry, so I decided I needed comfort food. A McDonald's was conveniently located across the street, so we went and tried European McRibs and quarter pounders with cheese. And if you know me personally, you will know that I openly detest McDonald's, but…I was in a fragile state. My McRib was actually quite tasty and much better that the version found in the states. Once we ate, we took a cab back to the hotel, where we rested for short time. We then went for a stroll on Las Ramblas, the famous avenue in the touristy part of town, and rounded up the last of the souvenirs we needed to pick up for folks back home. Today was our last full day in Europe, so we enjoyed a casual stroll through the shops and streets, and fully experienced the touristy part of Barcelona. Based on advice from Sheri, the Middle Age Drama Queen, we visited a gelato shop in Plaza Catalunya at the beginning of Las Ramblas called Fargii and ate the BEST gelato in Europe. HANDS DOWN, BAR NONE, the best. Period. Thanks Sheri! We owe you one for passing that along!

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These sangria were awesome, but a tad small. The yellowish one is made with cava instead of red wine.

We ran into Micah and Christopher at Fargiis, who stopped to have some coffee. We then continued strolling the streets, and made our way to a massive indoor mall about a half mile or so away. The owner of that mall must be from Texas, 'cause it was impressive. We didn't stay long, and returned to the streets, where we watched some local con artists trying to sell knock off purses. They would set up shop for a few minutes, and when the cops discovered their location, they would bundle everything up and make a mad dash to another location. It was amusing to watch. It is also against the law to buy hot items off the street or knock offs. Don't try to get past US Customs with those items. Trust me on that. I've been arrested at the Port of Entry in Laredo, Texas once, but that is an entirely different story for another day.

Rossini. The food was good. Great, in fact.

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Plaza Reial, where we ate. We sat outside in the plaza.  Check out those steaks!

We met up with Sarah's family with the intention of having a final meal together. We set out in search of the perfect Spanish restaurant that served both Spanish fare and Catalonian cuisine. We found a plaza a few blocks off of Las Ramblas (this was Plaza Reial) and sort of close to the gothic district that had exceptional restaurant choices. Sarah and I joined Micah and Christopher and circled the square examining the various menus for our last supper. While we were doing this, Mike, Sarah's dad, got bored waiting, and went and sat down at the first Italian restaurant he could find. We have laughed about that several times, that our last meal in Barcelona was at an Italian joint which employed waiters from Hong Kong. With that meal, our time was exhausted, and we were forced to return to our hotel for the night.

Sarah spent many frantic hours the next morning trying to get all of our suitcases to not be over 50 pounds, which was a trick, because we had five bottles of wine from Santorini to fit into our luggage. Fortunately, Sarah thought to bring along a travel scale which we used to get our suitcases to the exact weight necessary. Without that device, we would have paid for extra heavy bags. While Sarah fussed with the bags, I went to Starbucks to get some coffee. That's when I discovered that it didn't open until 7:30, but the kid behind the counter saw me waiting outside and invited me in and let me order. I think he just wanted to practice his English.
They may seem happy, but they wanted to stay longer.

From there, Sarah had arranged for a car to the airport, where we began a rather daunting effort to find the right airline. We were supposed to fly out on KLM, an airline based in Amsterdam, and it took us a while to find the right line to stand in. We were told by the line attendant that our carry-on bags were too big and she forced us to check them as baggage, which didn't suit me at all. Getting through security in Barcelona was a snap. Literally. It was similar to the security at Disneyland. We budgeted an hour for security, and we were through in less than five minutes. So, we decided to kill some time by finding more authentic Spanish food to sample, but every place we found was closed—except for McDonald's. You guessed it. In totally, we spent three days in Barcelona, and ate at McDonald's twice and Italian food once. The next time I go to Italy, I'm going to look for Spanish tapas, and try to bring balance back into my life.

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On my next post: Getting home and getting through customs..and my final thoughts on the trip.

Part I Getting there

Part II Barcelona

Part III Barcelona Continued

Part IV France

Part V Livorno, Pisa, and Florence, Italy

Part VI Rome

Part VII Sea Day

Part VIII Turkey

Part IX Athens 

Part X Santorini 

Part XI Sea Day 

Part XII Italy: Positano, Sorento, Amalfi Coast, and Pompeii 

Part XIII Sea Day

Part XIV Back to Barcelona

Part XV The Journey Home and Final Thoughts

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