Archive for October, 2011

Are All The Tourist Sights In Barcelona Under Construction??

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

Hospital de Sant Pau

The first main site we visited in Barcelona was the amazing La Sagrada Familia which has been under construction since 1882.  The next sight we visited was the Hospital de Sant Pau.  This another old building in Barcelona constructed between 1901 and 1930 (they actually finished this one).  Up until 2009 it was actual hospital accepting patients.  It was closed in June 2009 and is now under construction to be converted into International Centre of the Mediterranean.

From what I undertand they are creating a sort of think tank for the Mediterranean countries.  The idea behind it’s new purpose is intriguing.  Each one of the pavilions which be used for different universities, industries, research institutes, etc.  The close proximity of diverse organizations is supposed to help foster communication and cooperation. The first to commit to the space is the United Nations University which will take one entire pavilion (the one pictured above on the left).  Others will follow as the renovations start to finish over the next 5+ years.

Hospital de Sant Pau Pavilion

While the Hospital de Sant Pau is under construction you can still get a behind the scenes tour.  After doning a hard hat and bright yellow jacket you get to visit the underground tunnels and some of the hospital wards.  It really looks like something out of a WWII movie.  It’s amazing that this was a working hospital up until 2 years ago.

This is what things should look like once the renovations are finished.

Finished Hospital de Sant Pau

We did find one historic monument not under construction and they just happened to have a Flamenco concert that evening.  One of the uniquely Spanish things to do is Flamenco dancing.  When Miki first mentioned she wanted to go see Flamenco dancing I thought we were going to go the zoo.  However, Flamenco has nothing to do with the cute, long legged, pink bird.  I had to look up what Flamenco dancing was.  Here is what wikipedia has to say.

Flamenco is a genre of music and dance which has its foundation in Andalusian music and dance and in whose evolution Andalusian Gypsies played an important part.
The cante (singing), toque (guitar playing), dance and palmas (handclaps) are the principal facets of flamenco.

In recent years flamenco has become popular all over the world and is taught in many countries – in Japan flamenco is so popular there are more academies there than in Spain.  On November 16, 2010, UNESCO declared Flamenco one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Flamenco performance in Barcelona

The historic building we saw the concert in was the Palau de la Musica Catalana.  Completed in 1908 this definitely qualifies as a historic building.  It was actually designated a UNESCO site the same year the Hospital de Sant Pau was.  While the building wasn’t as magnificent as the La Sagrada Familia it was still pretty impressive and the fact we got to see a concert in it was very cool.

Palau de la Musica Catalana

Palau de la Musica Catalana

You can see Flamenco dancing all over the city from small bars to big venues like this.  My recommendation is to spend the money and get tickets to see it in this historic building.  They only play here certain times of the year and only on certain days so call ahead to see when they are playing.

La Sagrada Familia – Simply One of the Most Spectacular Buildings on Earth

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

La Sagrada Familia

I had never heard of the La Sagrada Familia before arriving in Barcelona but my wife had.  She said it was a must see building designed by Guadi so off we went.  I didn’t really know what to expect but when we arrived I was blown away.

La Sagrada Familia - interior

The scale was impressive but the details are what truly blew me away. The building started constructed in 1882 and it’s still not done yet.  The president of the foundation recently announced that the iconic Basilica will likely be completed by 2026.  Even though it’s not finished yet it’s still an amazing sight and definitely worth the visit.  There is some controversy surrounding the building which I didn’t really understand.  However, anything that has been under construction for over 120 years is bound to have some good stories.  This just adds to the character.

Everywhere you look there is amazing detail from everything to the floor to ceiling spiral staircases to the massive stain glass windows.  It’s hard to capture the magnificent of this building in pictures.

La Sagrada Familia - interior

La Sagrada Familia - interior

La Sagrada Familia - ceiling

La Sagrada Familia - interior

Climbing the spiral staircase at the La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia - nativity scene

La Sagrada Familia - front entrance

View from the top of the La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia - entrance

Like I said, it’s hard to communicate the magnificence of this buildings in pictures but hopefully these will spark your interest and the La Sagrada Familia will get a high spot on your travel list.  I know I’ve put a spot on my calendar already to visit again when its completed in 2026.

Travel Tip: Spend the extra money and get a reservation to take an elevator to the top.  You might have to wait around a while if it’s a busy day but it’s worth the wait.

Tarifa, Spain – The Kitesurfing Capital of Europe

Monday, October 24th, 2011

Kite surfing in Tarifa (you can see Morocco in the distance)

Tarifa is a small town at the southernmost point in Spain.  You can see Morocco across the straits of Gibraltar on a clear day.  The town has a very young and laid back feel to it.  Lot’s of young families with a mix of kite/wind surfers and some backpackers thrown in for a good measure.  The main draw here are the wind related activities of kite and wind surfing.

I’ve never photographed windsurfers before so I dragged my gear to the beach and hung out for a couple hours shooting the kite surfers.  It’s pretty amazing the distance off the water they can get.

Kite surfer flying through the air

One word of caution when photographing kite surfers on the beaches in Spain.  BE CAREFUL WHERE YOU POINT YOUR LENS.  It’s best to keep it pointed towards the water at all times even when you aren’t taken pictures.  Why?  The beaches around here are topless.

I’m not sure of the laws about photographing on the beach but I’m guessing it’s not a good idea to try to photograph all the topless women.  However, there were several occasions where I was doing some panning shots of the kite surfers zipping across the water and some women got in the way and ruined my shot.  I really hated it when that happened.

Topless women getting in the way of my photographing kite surfers

I kept on shooting to try and get some shots without these women in the way and I did get a few keepers.

Kite surfer getting some air

This guy had a different kind of kite surfing board.  It was made more for carving that for catching air.  Not as flashy as the other guys but still pretty cool to watch.

Kite surfing carving in the surf

Kite Surfing in Tarifa

"grabbing" some air in Tarifa

There are a lot of very nice beaches in this area.  It would be a great place to hang out for a week or two to just relax.  Not all of the beaches are full of kite surfers.  As the wind changes the surfers move to different beaches.  Also, most of the beaches have a surfing free zone for swimmers.

Kite Surfing Beach

There are over 30 kite surfing schools in Tarifa so if you want to learn there are plenty of options.  I looked into it but the instructors recommended a minimum of 5 days of classes in order be able to go out on your own.  It doesn’t look that hard but I have a feeling it looks harder than it is…

Tangier, Morocco – The Worst And Most Expensive Day Tour Ever

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

At least the camel's smile in Tangier

Rick Steve’s was wrong!!  In one of his guidebooks he recommends taking a day tour to Tangier with one of his best guides, Aziz.  He goes on to say how much Tangier has changed over the years and how its no longer the “Tijuana of Africa”.  Tangier may no longer be the “Tijuana of Africa” but you wouldn’t know it by using the horrible guides provided by Aziz Tours.  Here is the story on how a good idea turned into a the worst and most expensive day tour ever.

I contacted Aziz by e-mail and he was very responsive and gave a quote of 101 euros person (202 for the two of us).  This included the ferry tickets (66 euros round trip), a minibus tour of the outskirts of Tangier, visit to Cape Spartel, Cave of Hercules, a stop for a camel ride then finishes up with a walking tour of the old city.  During the tour he said he would give “lots of information about Tangier´s history, Moroccan culture and Berber traditions, etc”.  This sounded good and since Rick Steve’s recommended this guy I said ok.  Then things started to fall apart.

At the last minute, Aziz notified us he wasn’t available and said one of his trusted colleagues would take us around.  I should have cancelled immediately as this is a big red flag.

So what went wrong??

  • The “30 minute” ferry ride actually takes about 90 minutes.  They slow the ship down so they can process everyone’s visa onboard before the ferry gets to Morocco.
  • Aziz nor his colleague was there to pick us up at the ferry terminal.  We had to wait around for another 30 minutes even though the ferry was over an hour late.
  • The “trusted colleague” who picked us up wasn’t actually a tour guide.  He was Aziz’s driver.  He spoke extremely broken english which was virtually impossible to understand.  So much for getting “lots of information about Tangier´s history, Moroccan culture and Berber traditions, etc”.
  • When we got to the Cave of Hercules our guide/driver couldn’t take us in.  Instead we had to pay 5 Euros to some other guy to show us around.  He spent 2 minutes explaining the sight and 10 minutes showing us all the crappy souvenirs to buy.  The worst part is you could tell he hated his job.  No enthusiasm, no passion for his job, no smiling, just no personality.

Cave of Hercules

Souvenirs in Cave of Hercules

  • When we got to the camel ride I wasn’t expecting much and I was right.  It was a 5 minute ride around a dirt parking lot that cost another 10 euros.

Camel ride around a dirt parking lot

  • We wanted to eat lunch at one of the local restaurants that served what looked like a very good local fish dish.  Our guide/driver said you can’t eat that because you will get sick.  I said I want to get some good, cheap, local food for lunch and he said no problem.  He took us to what looked like a local restaurant except when we entered it was full of tourists.  I told him I wanted local and cheap and he said.  Yes.  Local food.  Cheap.  We found out at the end of the meal that it cost 50 euros.  The lunch wasn’t bad but 50 euros was ridiculous.
What we wanted to eat that cost only a couple Euros…

Local Moroccan dish

Instead.  We got a mediocre meal at this overpriced restaurant.

Overpriced tourist restaurant in Tangier

  • Now for the walking tour.  What a disappointment.  We actually got handed off to another guy who had even less personality (I didn’t think that was possible but it was).  He rushed us through the old town just pointing out the old buildings by saying their name.  No history.  No stories.  No explanation. He just said their names.

Our no history. No explanation. Super fast walking tour of Tangier

  • When Miki found this craftsman making leather handbags in a small corner shop she stopped.  Our guide said no and tried to keep us moving.  Miki wanted to buy a bag directly from the craftsman.  Our guide said that wasn’t possible.  We must buy it at a shop.  The lightbulb went off.  He was rushing us through the tour to get him to his friend’s shop so he could get commission off what we would buy.  At this point I called him out on it and told him we are not going to buy anything at the shop and your not going to get any commission so please take us somewhere else.  He got pissed.  He said there is nothing else to see in Tangier so he took us back to the ferry terminal.

Local craftsman making leather handbags

So what’s the best thing to do in Tangier, Morocco?

Sleeping in Tangier

We spent almost 300 euros on what was the the worst and most expensive day tour ever.  (Ok.  it wasn’t the most expensive day tour we’ve ever taken but it definitely was the biggest waste of money.) It’s too bad that a very pour tour guide ruined Tangier for us.  I wouldn’t recommend anyone to visit Tangier but if you do definitely don’t use Aziz Tours.  I’ll also think twice about trusting Rick Steve’s again :)
We did see one cool thing during our tour.  The cafe from the Bourne Ultimatum.  When we asked to stop to take a picture the guide said no place to park (surprised?).  So we had to make due with a drive by pic.

Cafe from the Bourne Ultimatum

Gibraltar – The Apes Have Taken Over

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Alpha Male Ape - "get off my rock"

Gibraltar is a very small UK territory at the southern tip of Spain at the entrance to the Mediterranean.  It has a very long history dating all the way back to the last known home of the neanderthal.  While the neanderthals are well gone, the apes of Gibraltar have taken over.  These sometimes cute, sometimes nasty little creatures have been hassling tourists for years and from the look of our little friend above clearly thinks he owns the place.  Stealing purses, sunglasses, food, basically anything they think is eatable.

The best way to get around Gibraltar is to hire Paul Del Mar (pauldelmar13@yahoo.co.uk) to take you around in his taxi.  All the rates are controlled by the government so you won’t get ripped off.  It is a little expensive for what is just a 3 hour tour but you get a lot of history with good, safe and air conditioned transportation to all the top sites.  He picks you up right from immigration and drop you back off when the tour is done.  A half day is more than enough time to see all the main sighs in Gibraltar.

The main sites you visit on the tour are: Europa Point Lighthouse, St Michaels Cave, Gibraltar Apes, Moorish Castle, Great Siege Tunnels.

The Mosque at Point Europa

St Michael's Cave

Gibraltar Baby Ape

Gibraltar Ape - big yawn

Friendly Gibraltar Ape

The Great Siege Tunnels

Lookout from the Great Siege Tunnels

The Gibraltar Apes have even taken over defense of the island…

Gibraltar Ape defending Gibraltar

The one site that isn’t on the official tour but I think it was one of the highlights was, the airport.  This is the most unique and the most dangerous airport I’ve ever seen.  There is no way to get into the country without having to cross over the active runway.

Airplane taking off from Gibraltar Airport

Walking across the Gibraltar Airport runway

San Fermin Closing Ceremony

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

Closing ceremony of the San Fermin festival

The Spanish really know how to through a party.  For over a week the entire city of Pamplona is overrun with thousands of people from all of the world.  The main attraction is the running of the bulls but that only lasts for a little over 2 minutes in the morning.  The rest of the day is left for sangria induced stupidity.  Like all good things this too needs to come to an end and the Spanish do it in style.  At the opening ceremony of the festival everyone puts on red scarf and they don’t take it off until the closing ceremony.  As you can see in the picture above, everyone has already taken off the trademark red scarf.   It won’t be put back on until next year.

Firework laden bull running the streets of Pamplona

Just before the closing ceremony starts a bull runs through the streets with fireworks strapped to the top of it.  Ok.  It’s not a real bull but it’s scary none the less and I have some burn marks to prove it.  My favorite t-shirt also has burn mark to serve as a permanent reminder.

Firework laden bull running the streets of Pamplona

Firework laden bull running the streets of Pamplona

Mark at www.pamplonabalconies.com helped us get a good view of the closing ceremony.  You don’t need tickets to attend the ceremony but if you don’t want to stuck in the mass of people in the square you need to get an apartment with a view.  Mark has a penthouse view (probably the best view anywhere) of the ceremony.  Plus, he serves up some great food and drink to enjoy while watching the festivities.

San Fermin Closing Ceremony

Overall a great trip.  Some unique and very unforgettable experiences.  The best part is that we made it out alive with no extra holes in our bodies…

 

Bull Fight in Pamplona (warning: graphic images)

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

Bull Fight Arena

Bull fights can be a pretty controversial topic so I was reluctant to post any photos from the fight we went to in Pamplona, Spain.  However, these bull fights are part of the Spanish cultural and an an integral part of the San Fermin festival.  As a traveller I believe it’s important to understand the cultural you are visiting and a bull fight is of it.  I’m not going to go into whether it’s right or wrong because I haven’t made up my mind on topic.  I also don’t think it’s my place to say whether it’s right or wrong since I’m not Spanish.  What I will say is that I was surprised by some of the things I saw.  Some of my preconceptions about bull fights were slightly off.

I was surprised to see that when the Matador and the bull have a rhythm together it looks very elegant.

I was surprised that less than 1% of the spectators were foreigners.  One of the main arguments against bull fights is that its only done for foreign tourists but what I witnessed was mainly Spanish spectators.

I knew the fight was going to be gory but seeing it in person is really shocking.

I was surprised by the ceremony surrounding the event.  This wasn’t just about slaughtering a bull.  There is a lot of history and ceremony surrounding the event.

I’m glad we went but once was enough.  I will not likely be attending a bull fight anytime soon.

Here is a short video with clips and photos from the bull fight.

More pictures and an explanation of how a bull fight works after the break.

Warning: graphic images after the break…

(more…)

Running of the Bulls in Pamplona

Friday, October 14th, 2011

Running with the bulls

We’ve done some pretty amazing things in our travels around the world but this ranks as the stupidest… and definitely the most dangerous.  It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and we happened to be in Europe when the San Fermin festival was taking place in Pamplona.  Before we knew it we were running down the street with some massive bulls hot on our tail.

Running with the bulls just after dead man's curve

It did take some planning to go running with the bulls but with the help of Mark from PamplonaBalconies.com we made it happen.  Mark suggested that we watch the running of the bulls from a balcony before you actually go running.  This was very good advice.  If you don’t plan your run you can kicked off the street by the police or worse yet you can get very injured.  My favorite quote from Mark was, “Running with the bulls is like playing russian roulette with a thousands chambers and one bullet”.

Here are some steps to make sure you have an enjoyable and safe run

  1. Line up before the gate at the Plaza del Mercado.  This is very important.  Anyone lined up on the street after the gate will get cleared off the street by the police.

    Plaza del Mercado

    Police cleared the street for the running with the bulls

  2. You have to wear proper San Fermin costume.  You don’t have to crazy like these guys… unless you want.

    San Fermin dress code

  3. Don’t bring a camera.  They don’t allow pictures to be taken on the street.  They say its for safety but I also think its for the local shops to sell there own pictures.  You can easily get around this by hiding a camera and only bring it out after they released the first bull (as I did with my gopro).  The police are gone once the first bull is released.

    Photographers getting kicked off the street for the running of the bulls

  4. Watch out for other people more than the bulls.  Most injuries occur from getting pushed, stepped on, punched, etc by the other runners NOT the bulls.

    Guy pushed by his fellow runners. Hit his head on the curb. I supposed it's better than getting bored by a bull.

  5. If it’s your first time running it’s best to line up after dead man’s corner.  2 reasons: 1) getting stuck in dead man’s corner is not good. 2) You want to get into the stadium for “play time” before they close the gate just after the last bull.

    Lining up for the running of the bulls

Prepared with this advice we got up very early the next day to make sure we were all lined up and in the right spot.  After an hour of nervously waiting around it was finally time.  The bulls were let loose and rapidly approaching where we chose to line up.  The bulls run the entire course in just over 2 minutes so it goes by very, very quickly.

Here come the bulls

Bulls rounding dead man's corner

Horn to close for comfort

Important rule: Try not to get stepped on

Running at a safe distance from the bulls

And before you know it… it was all over.  I felt a little bit like a chicken because I was a good 4 arm lengths away from the bulls.  I tried to get a little closer but there are a lot of people and by the time I pushed my way closer while running, the bulls had already passed by.  We did get into the stadium for “play time”.  This is when they let bulls out into the arena filled with people.  I’m not really sure of the point but some people tried to slap the bull on the butt, put cups on the horns, basically see how close you can get without getting knocked unconscious.  These bulls horns are capped so there isn’t a risk of getting gored.  Several people did need to be carried off the field though so it’s not that safe either.
Check out the video from my gopro during the run.  It didn’t turn out as I hoped but you can still get a blurry look at what its like.  I wanted that clear shot of my running directly in front of bull but that didn’t happen.  I guess I’ll just have to do it again sometime to get better first person footage.

I would definitely recommend you try this once.  It’s not as dangerous as people make it out to be if you are smart about it.  If you need help planning your trip give Mark at PamplonaBalconies.com a call.  He can take care of lodging, balcony reservations, bull fights, recommendations for restaurants, he even throws a VIP party every night if your interested.

A Day In Segovia, Spain

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Segovia landscape

Segovia is a quaint little town less than an hour by bus from Madrid.  The main attractions here are the ancient roman aqueducts, the Cathedral, and the castle Alcazar.  We only had a short amount of time in Madrid before we headed for Pamplona for the running of the bulls so after some research we choose Segovia as our main activity while in Madrid.  Bottom line… we loved this little town.

Segovia Aqueducts

After we got off the bus we headed toward the aqueducts while passing by the tourist office to pick up some city maps.  These aqueducts were built in the 1st century.  It’s pretty amazing that over 2000 years later they are still standing.

Continuing on up the hill towards the Alcazar you pass a large square with some great outdoor cafes.  The square is in front of the Segovia Cathedral.  While not the oldest or grandest Cathedral we’ve seen its still very impressive.

Segovia Cathedral

Segovia Cathedral Interior

The highlight of our Segovia tour was the Alcazar of Segovia.  We’ve travelled extensively throughout the world but we haven’t ever visited a castle.  Not a bad first castle for our list.

Alcázar of Segovia

Alcázar of Segovia interior

Alcázar of Segovia - armory room

Miki's armor

Does this cannon work?

Segovia is small enough to walk around the entire town in an afternoon.  However, take your time and enjoy a nice meal at the many outdoor cafes.

Cold beer in front of the Segovia aqueducts

Here are a couple other day trips from Madrid we considered before eventually settling on Segovia based on a locals recommendation:  Toledo, Seville, Cordoba.  We didn’t have enough time this trip so maybe next time.

23 Countries. 3 Months. 1 Epic European Adventure.

Monday, October 10th, 2011

We got back from our epic 3 month European adventure a while back.  It’s taken me a while to get through the thousands of photos and videos but I’m getting there.  To get an idea of where we went check out the video animation above from tripline.net.  Tripline is a new site that helps you share the places you plan to go or where you’ve been.  It’s still in beta so there are a lot of features to be desired but still a cool travel site.

We travelled thousands of kilometers across 23 countries in Europe experiencing the best the continent has to offer.  From the thermal pools of Iceland, the polar bears of Svalbard, running of the bulls in Spain, climbing the dolomites in Italy, experiencing the history of Budapest, hiking the glaciers of Switzerland, bobsledding in Austria, sipping wine in Burgundy and so, so much more.  Stay tuned over the next few weeks for new blog posts of our adventures through Europe.