Monday, December 3, 2018

Le Merce Festival And More - Barcelona, Spain

When we were in Barcelona before our Mediterranean cruise, we were very fortunate to be there to witness a grand celebration.  Unfortunately at the time, we didn't realize what was going on.  All we could tell was that there seemed to be a lot of excitement and fun going on all around us and we didn't know exactly why.  I have since researched and found out that the Catalans were celebrating their biggest annual 4 day festival, La Merce, often called the Festival of festivals.  It has been an official city holiday since 1871 and it celebrates the feast day of Our Lady of Mercy.  It would have been wonderful for us to know all this at the time, but we at least we did take pictures and can now understand what we were part of.

On our first day in Barcelona we noticed some large puppets a few blocks ahead of us.  We raced to catch up with this unusual sight but whatever was going on was over before we could get any closer.  Luckily, the next day we stumbled upon a building filled with the "stars" of the parade of the night before, the giants.  This parade marks the start of the La Merce festival.

The building turned out to be Palau de la Virreina.  It was formally a palace that is partially open to the public for cultural events and art exhibitions.  At the exhibition we saw, along with the giants, the Beasts of Barcelona.    I am not sure if any of the beasts were in the parade because we could only see the heads of the giants over the crowd of people.  But, I've since learned that you will see these beasts at festivals and in parades.

One of the beasts we saw at this exhibition was the imaginary animal, la tarasca.  This monster has the body of a turtle and a human face.  He can suddenly spray out fire, water or candy and will stretch out his neck to bite the nearest victim!

On the other hand, the ox is calm and peaceful.  I found out by reading the plaque near the animal, that the ox made it's first appearances in 1467 and 1568.  And, like many of the other animals, has his own music and dance.

The following day we paid more attention to the billboards all over the neighborhood and finally realized that there would be festivities in the evening to enjoy.  We spent the afternoon following Rick Steves' Ramblas Ramble self-guided walking tour and decided that we would spend the evening enjoying the celebration.

We didn't know exactly where or when the festivities were taking place so we just walked around and hoped that we would be in the right place at the right time.  We started our walk at Placa de Catalunya.  When we were there earlier in the day waiting for a bus to take us to La Sagrada Familia, we saw lots of preparations being made for something that was going to happen there and also saw what looked like a list of entertainment.

We were right.  When we returned to the plaza in the evening, there were two stages set up.  We really enjoyed the traditional performances of the singers and dancers at the first stage.

The speakers at the second stage seemed to be getting the crowd riled up about something as the audience was yelling and cheering very loudly.  I know the Catalans are fighting for independence from Spain and we did see evidence of protests and such around the city.  We couldn't say for sure that anything political was happening here, but we avoided going near that stage!

We walked around the plaza to see what else was happening here and saw boards set up and markers available for people to leave their messages.  I had to add my message.  I took a marker and joined the others.  I couldn't understand very much of what was written on those boards or what kind of message we were supposed to leave, but I did see the word POWER!!    This was my message:

We had fun in the plaza but we never saw a Le Merce sign and started to think that what was happening here was a normal weekend event and not a part of the festivities so we left the plaza and headed for the Barri Gotic area.

When we got to Avinguda del Portal de l'Angel, the boulevard lined with the most expensive stores in Barcelona, we heard drums but couldn't see a thing.  We followed the crowd of people who were following the parade and finally caught up with a high energy, very intense group of drummers.  They were so much fun to watch and we followed them along with the rest of the crowd.

They brought us near the Barcelona Cathedral where we saw preparations being made for what looked like a concert of some sort.  We thought we would get back to this area to see the entertainment but we didn't.  I read, after we got back from vacation, that there was also a light show projected on the cathedral.  We missed that also.

There were kiosks in this square, in front of the cathedral, selling all sorts of things.  The cutest sight we saw all night, though, was this group of children having a ball with a gentleman making hundreds of bubbles to be popped.

Now that we know about the Le Merce festival we would love to go back one day to appreciate it.
My dream would be going to Barcelona in September, 2026 to really enjoy this festival and also to see the finished La Sagrada Familia.

This was the last evening of our stay in Barcelona and we were ready to go back to our hotel to relax on their balcony.  We were ready to have the beer and cookies that we knew were waiting for us at their buffet.  Tomorrow we would be checking out of Hotel Continental Barcelona and checking into our cabin on our cruise ship, Vision of the Seas.  

The next morning and our final day in Barcelona, we went to mass at Barcelona Cathedral and then had brunch with our son Mike and DIL Chrissy who happened to be arriving in Barcelona, after their European cruise honeymoon, the day we were leaving, !

Then we made sure that Mike and Chrissy drank from the Fountain of Canaletes that would guarantee their return to Barcelona, which was not the fountain we found the day before.  Thank goodness we found the right fountain today.

It was a little sad leaving Barcelona because we were having a great time and loved this city.  But we had an exciting Mediterranean cruise ahead of us!

Our first stop would be Nice, France!  To be continued...

Monday, November 19, 2018

Barcelona, Spain - The Ramblas Ramble - A Self-Guided Walking Tour

We were very happy we made the decision to arrive in Spain a couple of days before our Mediterranean cruise left from the Barcelona port.  Today we would have a full day to spend in Barcelona.  That gave us the time we needed to see everything we wanted to see here and more.  We had an amazing morning visiting La Sagrada Familia (read about it here) and now we were excited for what we had planned for this afternoon.

After we settled into our hotel, when we arrived here the day before, we did Rick Steves' Barri Gotic self-guided walking tour (read about it here).  Today we would do his Ramblas Ramble tour.   The Ramblas Ramble tour was pretty much just walking down Las Ramblas boulevard with a couple of detours off and down side streets which made it much easier to follow than the Barri Gotic tour.

Our tour started at Placa de Catalunya.  We were getting very familiar with this plaza as it was right down the block from our hotel, Hotel Continental Barcelona, and we were using the buses that stopped here.   We got here very easily.


The second stop on our walking tour was Fountain of Canaletes.  It is a black and gold fountain that has been around for more than a century and it is said that if you drink from this fountain you are ensured a trip back to Barcelona.  Well, when we got to the third stop on the Ramblas tour, we knew we passed the fountain.  We backtracked and searched but couldn't find it.  I hate to admit it, but we were still having trouble following the GPS on Google maps.  

We did see a beautiful black and gold fountain, a little later that day, and decided this was it.  

Next on the Rick Steves tour was Rambla of the Little Birds.  Steves explains that this stretch of Las Ramblas was where, at one time,  you would see many kiosks selling different types of animals that people could buy and keep as pets.  These days the kiosks are selling mostly ice cream and souvenirs.

Bethlem Church was our next stop,  It was off Las Ramblas and down a side street.  This church is dedicated to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.  The locals enjoy the nativity scenes that are displayed here at Christmastime.  We loved the one just above the tremendous doors of the church.

Back on Las Ramblas we found Rambla of Flowers.  This small, but fragrant, section is where vendors sell their flowers and seeds.  There were bags and bags of seeds at each kiosk.  Some of the seeds would produce plants we had never, ever seen before.  Soko found a bag of seeds that would grow into unusual looking fruits.  I couldn't add a picture of that package of seeds as this is a family friendly blog!

Our next stop was La Bogueria Market.  This is a very busy market and we saw many different foods and produce.  Again, we saw things that we have never seen before in America.  

I spotted a delicious looking fruit and I had to try it.  If you like a fruit that is not overly sweet, has a pear-like texture and is filled with tiny seeds then you will love this fruit.  

We had a hard time finding the next stop on our walking tour.  Rick Steves called it the Heart of the Ramblas.  We would know that we were in the right place when we saw, abstract artist, Joan Miro's mosaic on the ground.  We weren't really sure what we would be looking for but we knew Joan Miro created the logo for La Caixa bank and we had seen it a couple of times.  In fact, we had just passed one of the banks.  We decided to go back to look at the logo closer to see if that would give us a hint as to what we were looking for.  We finally did find the mosaic and had to laugh at how we thought we missed it.  We were looking for something smaller and this beautiful artwork was huge!  We just hadn't gotten to it yet.

Placa Reial was the next stop on our walking tour.   It was not too far from the mosaic but off Las Ramblas. This is a town square that has both old-fashioned bars and modern taverns with patio seating.  I was excited to see this plaza as I knew we would be treated to seeing  Gaudi's first public works, two colorful helmeted lampposts.  

As were heading back out to the Ramblas we were to look across the boulevard to see Palau Guell, another Gaudi project.

Back on the Ramblas we reached our next destination, the Raval Neighborhood.  Here we were looking for elaborately costumed human statues.  There were a bunch of them and they really fooled us into thinking they were statues!  These "statues" have to audition and register with the city government before they are allowed to perform here.

Of course, there would be an Antoni Gaudi statue here!

The Columbus Monument, our next sight to see, was across the street from Las Ramblas and there was no way we could miss this 200 foot monument dedicated to Christopher Columbus.  We didn't take the ride up to the top of this building because I heard that the elevator was very tiny.  If I wasn't claustrophobic we would have liked to view the city from the observation deck.

Just past the monument is the Waterfront and the last stop on Rick Steves' walking tour.  We took a leisurely walk down the promenade.

We were curious to see the Barcelona Head that Rick Steves mentions is at the end of the boardwalk.  It was worth the walk to see this iconic sculpture.

We really enjoyed Rick Steves Ramblas Ramble tour.   Now it was time to get ready for tonight.  We saw huge signs that made us think that there was something special going on this evening so we headed back to the hotel to have a quick bite to eat at their buffet.  

Look for our post, coming soon, to find out about Barcelona's largest annual street party, that we were fortunate to be in Barcelona for,  La Merce Festival.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Barcelona, Spain - La Sagrada Familia

We decided to arrive in Barcelona a couple of days earlier than we needed to.  We were boarding the cruise ship, here in Spain, that would whisk us off to places we've dreamed about seeing for many years.  We arrived in Barcelona early on a Friday morning and we enjoyed many hours of sightseeing.  On Saturday, we had a full day to enjoy this gorgeous city.  Our plan was to do Rick Steves' Las Ramblas self-guided tour but first we were going to see, the highly recommended, La Sagrada Familia, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

We researched and found a bus that would take us to the Sagrada.  We would be able to find it at Placa de Catalunya.  This is where we got dropped off, the day before, by the bus we took from the airport.  It was only a block away from our hotel, so it was very convenient for us to use this bus to get to the basilica.

When we got to the bus stop, we wanted to make sure we were in the right place.  There was a couple waiting at the stop and they didn't look like they were from Barcelona.  Hopefully they are Americans, we thought, but no, they could not speak to us unless we knew French!  But they were going to see Antoni Gaudi's greatest piece of work, La Sagrada Familia, so our plan was to just follow them when we got off the bus.  It worked perfectly!

We bought tickets online before we left for our vacation.  The tricky part of purchasing entry tickets beforehand is that you have to select a time, in addition to picking the day you want your ticket for.  We weren't sure how long it would take us to get to the Sagrada Familia, and wanted to be sure we were there for our scheduled time so we gave ourselves plenty of time to get there.   We wound up getting there about 45 minutes too early.   But that gave us a chance to walk around and enjoy the outside of the building.  The inside of the building is impressive, but I don't even have the words to describe the outside.  It really takes your breath away the moment you lay eyes on it.

I was so happy to see a shop selling turron as we walked around the church.  They are a nougat candy that I had read we would find in Barcelona and I was hoping to buy some to bring back to our kids.  This shop had many different kinds of turron, in addition to the usual hard or soft variety, in every shape and size.

After a little shopping, it was time to tour the magnificent church.  We were let in and directed to the area where we could pick up our audio tour headsets.  I was so glad we ordered these so we could understand what we were looking at.

Our audio tour had us starting with a look at a model of what La Sagrada Familia will look like when it is finally finished in 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death.  We were told, and could see here, that Gaudi's design was made up of eighteen spires representing the twelve apostles, the Virgin Mary, the four Evangelists and the tallest of the spires would represent Jesus Christ.  Presently, 8 of the 18 spires are done.

From the model, we were directed to view the Nativity facade of the building. This is one of three facades which include the Passion and Glory facades.   Gaudi wanted this facade to be on the east side of the building which faces the rising sun.  Gaudi used lots of symbolism throughout this building and here the rising sun represents the birth of Jesus.

Gaudi wanted this facade to be the most attractive and accessible to the public.   It was the only one of the three facades that was completed by Gaudi before his death.  The Nativity facade was my favorite part of the entire building.

Next the tour took us inside the basilica.  The vibrant colors that filled the spacious interior was the first thing I noticed when we entered.   We were also immediately drawn to the altar and to the cross above it.   I have never seen Jesus hanging on his cross the way he was on this one.  It was beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time.

Gaudi put so much thought into every detail of this gorgeous church.  He used nature throughout the building, inside and out, and designed the pillars to look like trees with the branches holding up the ceiling.  A tortoise and turtle hold up the pillars representing both the earth and sea.

Gaudi dedicated to the four pillars around the altar to the four evangelists.   Each pillar displayed the symbol of one of the evangelists.  The lion pictured here is the symbol for Mark.

After our tour of the inside of the church, the audio directed us to go outside to view the Passion facade.  We were asked to exit through the western doors.  These unique doors tell the story of the Passion in Catalan.

The Passion facade was noticeably different from the Nativity facade.  This facade was all about the days before, during and after Jesus was crucified.  For this reason, Gaudi wanted this facade to face the setting sun.  He wanted the design here to be hard and bare, plain and simple and look like it was made of bones.

Looking on the left hand side of the facade you can see Judas giving Jesus the fatal kiss.  To the left of them is a box of numbers.  Every horizontal and vertical line adds up to 33, the age that Christ was when he died.

On the south side of the Sagrada is the Glory facade, the glorification of Jesus.  On this side you can see plenty of scaffolding and cranes.  This side is still far from being finished.  When it is done, it will be the largest and most striking facade.  It will represent the road to God - death, final judgment and finally glory.  

We would love to see La Sagrada Familia when it is finished so we are penciling in a trip to Barcelona in 2026 and crossing our fingers!  

We finished exploring this special church around lunchtime so we decided to eat at a restaurant we noticed earlier.  It had many different paella choices.  We wanted to make sure we had some paella before we left Spain so we thought this restaurant would be a perfect choice for lunch.

My seafood paella was really delicious and Soko really liked his paella which was filled with yummy veggies but I think what we enjoyed most about this meal was that it was served to us by this very friendly and extremely happy guy!

Look for this restaurant across the street from the Glory facade if you would like to enjoy some delicious paella!  Hopefully, you will also be treated to the same friendly service!

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Monday, October 22, 2018

Barcelona, Spain - A Walking Tour Of The Barri Gotic Area

We have always enjoyed cruising so when we started to think about seeing Europe, for the first time for either of us, we thought this would be the way to do it.  Now that we are back, I can say cruising our way through the Mediterranean worked perfectly for us.  And we can also say that our 40th Anniversary Dream Vacation was even more wonderful that we imagined it would be.  It is now at the top of our list of Best Vacations of our Lives!

So our ship was departing and returning to Barcelona.  We wanted to make sure that we didn't miss it, due to plane delays mostly, so we arrived in Spain two days before the start of our cruise.  We are so happy that we made the decision to spend two days here.  There was so much to see and we got to see  almost everything we wanted to.  We had a little trouble figuring out how to use Google Maps on our first day here so we missed a couple of sights because we couldn't find them.  But overall we did pretty well which surprised the heck out of us!

Before we left for our trip, I found out that we could hop on an Aerobus at the airport in Barcelona  that would get us within walking distance of our hotel, Hotel Continental Barcelona.  We bought these tickets online, for $7.00 each, in advance of our vacation.  The ride took about 30 minutes and we made it to the hotel in time to enjoy their buffet breakfast.  We ate things we had never eaten before and enjoyed it all.  We loved the atmosphere of the hotel's rooftop dining area.  It was a perfect way to start our vacation.  And, yes, that is beer (It was available at the buffet all day!) that Soko is having along with his orange juice and coffee!

After breakfast it was time to explore Barcelona.  We decided we were going to do the Barri Gotic 
self-guided walking tour that we found in Rick Steves' travel guide.  I made a copy of the blog post I wrote that had a description of the sights of this walk.  I also made a copy of the map, that we found in Steves' book, of his walking tour.  We bought a sim card for my phone so that we could have wifi and be able to use Google maps to get around.  We were confident that we had everything we needed to find the sights we wanted to see.  Using Google maps that first day was not easy for two people who have never used it to get around in a foreign country or anywhere else for that matter!  It took a good amount of time, but we did find the first stop on the walking tour eventually, Avinguda del Portal de l'Angel.  This is a boulevard where you will find the most expensive shops in Barcelona.  We did not buy anything here!

Getting to the next stop was a little easier.  The Church of Santa Anna was not be very far from the shops and we stumbled upon it quickly.  It gave us hope that doing this walk would not be as difficult as it first seemed.

The stop after the church was a restaurant, Els Quartre Gats.   Picasso frequented this restaurant often and designed their menu cover.  We knew we missed it when we saw the fourth stop on our list, the Fountain decorated in blue and yellow tile work.  We tried back tracking and tried using Google maps but we never did find the restaurant.  We decided, then, that we would not worry too much about finding every sight.  

This walk was starting to become a scavenger hunt which was really fun but the riddles were not always easy to figure out.  Our next stop was Placa Nova.  From what we read in Rick Steves' book, this was an entrance gate at one time and we would see two huge towers that were part of it.  Once we got here we would see Picasso's artwork on the Catalan College of Architects on the opposite side of these towers.  I can't tell you how long it took us to find the towers, or figure out that what we were looking at were towers, and then the artwork.  When we finally found the towers we couldn't figure out where the opposite side would be.  The college turned out to be across the plaza from the towers but I guess it could be described as being on the opposite side also.

The beautiful Cathedral of Barcelona, next on our list, was impossible to miss.  It was the largest church we had ever seen before.  We couldn't get over how many statues were tucked into the walls of this building. 

Luckily, our next stop was a few steps away from the Cathedral and we could see it immediately as we walked away from the church.  Casa de l'Ardiaco is a mansion that once was the residence of archdeacons.   There wasn't any access to the inside of the mansion but we were able to walk around it's courtyard and imagine how the archdeacons might have enjoyed this area.

I remembered that we passed by a monument, when we were lost trying to find Placa Nova, that I thought might be the next stop on our walk so we just had to walk back to it so I could take a picture.  The Monument to the Martyrs of Independence was erected to honor five patriots who were strangled for resisting Napoleon in 1809.   

We read that Placa Sant Felip Neri was a plaza that Catalan children use as their playground so when we walked into a plaza filled with children, we knew we were in the right place.  Here was where we would also find a plaque that listed 42 victims of an aerial bombing in 1938.  The sad thing is that most of the victims were children.  I guess this plaza has always been a favorite place for children to play.

As soon as we passed through the plaza, we found the narrow streets of the Jewish Quarter, our next stop.  These tiny streets were where 4,000 Jews were forced to live .  There was a synagogue we wanted to check out here but it was closed.   

Soko found the next stop, Carrer del Bisbe Bridge which is a bridge that connects what used to be the president of Catalan's President's residence with government buildings.  I was not looking high enough to see this bridge.

Our next stop was Placa de Sant Jaume, the central square of the Barri Gotic area.  This is where we were on the lookout for Catalunya's patron saint, St. George (Jordi), slaying a dragon.  It would be above the doorway of one of the government buildings.  The dragon is an important Catalan symbol that I read we would see here and there but we only saw one other one.

We were beginning to get really tired and hungry at this point but had three more sights to see.   The Roman Temple of Augustus had huge columns that dated back to the first century BC and were as old as Barcelona itself.  We were very curious to see something that old so we decided to see this temple and skip the last two sights on our walking tour.   One sight was Place del Rei where the Royal Palace was. This palace was where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel welcomed Christopher Columbus after he came back from discovering the New World.   We also skipped the Barcelona History Museum.  

Jet lag was starting to get the better of us so we were ready to call it a day, but first we had to find something to eat.  We had heard from everyone who had ever been to Spain that we should have tapas and/or paella.  We found a restaurant, near our hotel that had a tapas sampler.  It seemed easy enough to point to the picture and get a few different tapas rather than trying to read or speak Spanish to order for ourselves.  We were both wishing we had paid more attention in Spanish class years ago.  Our dinner was delicious and the variety was perfect.  Soko doesn't eat much fish so I had to eat all the calamari which I was happy to do.  The dinner came with a dessert that was so good I wished Soko was passing on that also but he ate his!

The first day of our vacation was incredible!  We had to pinch ourselves all day to make sure we were not dreaming and we were really here in this beautiful place.  Now it was time to get back to the hotel because we were more than exhausted.  We fell asleep as soon as our heads hit our pillows at 9:15 that night!

(Read about Day 2 - Part 1 here!)