Monday, October 5, 2015

Barcelona, Spain: Las Ramblas

My flight arrived early one Thursday morning at the Barcelona airport, and I easily caught the aerobus (10 euros round trip) to Placa de Catalunya, in the city center,  Placa de Catalunya occupies an area of about 50,000 square metres. It is especially known for its fountains and statues, and its proximity to some of Barcelona's most popular attractions.

Las Ramblas

Once I had my bearings, I made my way down the famous mall-like roadway, Las Ramblas, towards the rental office where I'd planned to meet my brother and his wife. A tree-lined pedestrian sidewalk, Las Ramblas stretches for 1.2 kilometres (0.75 mi) connecting Placa de Catalunya with the Christopher Columbus monument by the harbor. The plane trees offer grace and elegance, and a buffer from the nearby buildings. 

A former umbrella shop
Some sights along the way included the famous La Bouqueria Market, crowded to capacity with tourists, flower vendors, gelaterie, and grown men making noises like birds as they hawked whistles hidden in their mouths.

La Bouqueria market

Flower vendors decorate the street.
Notice the wavy tiles underfoot. Ramla means "stream" in Arabic, and this area was once a dried up river bed, from a river that once flowed from the hills to the sea. The tiles serve to honor the memory of that river.

One way to get customers: dress up like Marilyn Monroe and blow kisses from a terrace!

Further down Las Ramblas, I came across the Placa Reial, a quiet oasis down a side street, filled with palm trees and outdoor cafes. It is the home of Gaudi's first creations, shown below.

A Gaudi-designed lampost in Placa Reial: one of his first public works.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Pilgrimage Paths: Tourist to Pilgrim?

I've recently been toying with the idea of making a pilgrimage of some sort, fueled by several movies and books that I've come across this year. The first one was Wild, which recounts the experiences of Cheryl Strayed as she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, some 2,600 miles along the West Coast of the U.S. After seeing the movie, I read the book, and was inspired by the idea of transformation that often occurs in such an undertaking.

I also attended a lecture at the local library that was given by a woman who had recently hiked the Appalachian Trail, nearly 2,200 miles along the East Coast of the U.S., and followed that up by reading Bill Bryson's book, A Walk in the Woods. (Now a movie, too!) Though I found the stories interesting and in some ways, inspiring, it was not enough to encourage me to consider these routes for myself. For one thing, they lack the spiritual connotation that I'm seeking and they do not have the long history of paths like the Camino de Santiago in Spain, which has served as a pilgrimage route since the Middle Ages.

I first learned of the Camino several years ago, from a movie called The Way: the path starts in the southwestern corner of France and travels 500 miles westward across northern Spain, to the town of Santiago di Compestela.  More recently I saw another film, this time a documentary called Walking the Camino, which only served to further my interest. And best of all, there's a YouTube video made by an Australian man, who records his own experience as he walks the Camino. It's also called The Way, and is available in its entirety (75 minutes) on YouTube:

Camino de Santiago Documentary Film - The Way

I've followed up my interest in pilgrimage by reading several books written by people who have actually done pilgrimages. The first, A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, by Gideon Lewis-Kraus tells of three pilgrimages that the author has completed, including the Camino and Shikoku routes, the latter a 750-mile path that circles the island of Shikoku, Japan, while visiting 88 temples along the way. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, written with more depth and skill than either of the books by Strayed or Bryson.

And yet, what struck me about his walks, that was unlike the hiking done on the U.S. trails, was the inherent focus of the path itself,  which is a spiritual pilgrimage, even though most people who now complete the Camino and the Shikoku are unlikely doing it for religious reasons. On the Camino, walkers stop at shrines and churches along the way, and are housed and fed in hostels run by volunteers. On the Shikoku, there are 88 temples to visit, and rituals to follow at each temple. There is also a pilgrimage "costume" of sorts, to designate one's role as a pilgrim. So even though one is not on a religious pilgrimage, it is a pilgrimage nonetheless, because of the path itself.

A second book, Walking Home: A Pilgrimage from Humble to Healed by Sonia Choquette, documents the journey of a 50-year-old woman on the Camino. She was intent on being alone for most of her journey, unlike Lewis-Kraus, who did the Camino with a friend. Her approach was more New Age-oriented, but still a good read.

In a passage that resonated with me, Lewis-Kraus writes that: "I'm less and less sure that there really is a distinction between a tourist and a pilgrim. Both are in search of a spell of unusually memorable days. The pilgrim hopes that the experience will change her in some way, but the experience changes you only insofar as all memories change you. The tourist, like the pilgrim, hopes that these moments will linger."

I am letting these thoughts and images meld and settle in my mind, body and heart. I know I have been a pilgrim in my travels so far, on a search to understand other cultures, as well as my place in the world. I know these books, images and thoughts are leading me somewhere, and I will let them guide me. Who knows when or where?

Saturday, September 5, 2015

What now....Spain?

For nearly ten years, starting in 2006, I have spent several months each year in Italy, with a few excursions to France on the side. I was able to visit more than 100 cities and villages in Italy, along with Paris and the Cote D'Azur in France. But life is full of change, and several things have recently occurred to impede the likelihood that I will be able to spend long stretches of time abroad in the future.

The main thing is that both of my online jobs have changed considerably, resulting in a loss of income. This change will not allow me the luxury of traveling as much nor as long as I've had the good fortune to do for so many years. I've also come to the realization that I don't want to keep doing the same things I've been doing, and I'm weary of always traveling alone. As wonderful as it seems to be able to travel for several months each year, it's also quite stressful, and the stress has been piling up for some time.

To afford my long stays in Italy, I worked long hours before, after, and often during my travels. It seemed that my year was spent anticipating upcoming travels and making plans, traveling, then reliving and recovering from my travels. Each stage came with its inherent thrills and disappointments, and it was a joy to share my adventures with others, via this blog and Facebook. But the only time I was living in the present was during those few months that I was in Italy, so much so that most of the year I was caught up in either a dream or a memory. I was shortchanging the life and the possibilities I could have at home, where I live most of the year. So this year, I'm taking the time to regroup, to figure out what those years of travel were all about, and what I want to do next. What can I manage on a smaller income? What do I want to explore?

My initial reason for traveling in the first place was to have an adventure and write a book about it. Now I've  had many years of travels and adventures. Sure, I've managed to write about them, but only on this blog. Maybe now I'll  find (make) the time to start writing in more depth. A novel, a memoir, who knows?

And then serendipity occurs, and I'm invited to share a trip to Spain with my brother and his wife this fall. They've arranged a time share in Tarragona, just west of Barcelona, for a week, so the cost of lodging is taken care of. And when I looked into airfare, I discovered I could pay for it with frequent flyer miles I've been saving up since 2008. Voila! A nearly free vacation! I'll spend a week with Chris and Kim, then stay on for another 5 days on my own, to make sure that I get my fill of Gaudì, Picasso, Mirò, and Dalì. A new country, a new language, a new landscape! So this year, I'll have a 2-week excursion in Spain, and we'll see where it goes from can never tell!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Menton, France

Menton, France
Another small village of note along the Riviera is Menton. Situated  along the Franco-Italian border, it is nicknamed la perle de la France ("The Pearl of France"). We took bus #100 from Nice and traveled through several other coastal towns, including Monaco, on the one hour ride. The bus is a cheap way to travel along the coast, but is often crowded, and we had to stand most of the way.

Empty streets in Menton's centro storico
Menton is a quaint, unpretentious, and attractive village, just 5 miles from the Franco-Italian border at Ventimiglia. It was a pleasant change from Nice, with few tourists, lower prices, and a sandy beach.

The Jean Cocteau Art Museum
The Jean Cocteau Museum houses the collection of American businessman and Cocteau enthusiast Séverin Wunderman, and is situated along the beach. Unfortunately, it was closed the day we were there, a Tuesday. (I've become accustomed to museums being closed on Mondays in Italy, but in France they're closed on Tuesdays, which caused us to miss out on seeing several of the great art museums in Nice.)

Mosaic in front of the Baroque basilica Saint-Michel-Archange
I learned later that Menton is also famous for its gardens, another aspect that we missed seeing. I should have done more research on the area before the trip: having a traveling companion made me lazy, it seems.

Empty beach!
It was an overcast day, and the beach was completely devoid of people. Unlike the rocky composition of the beach in Nice, Menton's beach is sandy, and I was able to walk along the shore in my bare feet.

Looking out to the Riviera
We wandered around Menton for a few hours, did some shopping, and stopped to eat galettes at a creperie. Galettes are crepes made of buckwheat flour, and are usually savory, instead of sweet.

Le Milady Creperie
A savory galette, with eggs and chorizo
I first became acquainted with galettes when I visited my friend Monica in Paris in 2012. She took me to a creperie where I had a galette with a salad on top. It was incredibly delicious! You can read about it here: Arrival in Paris.

I tried several galettes while in France this time, but none of them matched the one I had in Paris. Instead, I found them to be heavy and wanting in flavor.

View of Menton from the beach
After a peaceful visit in Menton, we boarded the bus, and headed back to Nice. As we traveled through Monte Carlo, I was only able to get a few shots of the town, famous for its casinos and status as a country separate from France.

That way to the casinos!
Monaco's license plate, denoting it's status as a unique country.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Nice, France: Vieux Nice

Strolling in Vieux Nice.
One of the most charming parts of Nice is the historical center, known as Vieux Nice, an area of the city that has scarcely changed since the 1700s. Its tiny lanes are crowded with delis, food shops, boutiques and bars.

A spice shop.
Though I walked through this area several times a day, I didn't do much shopping there. But I enjoyed seeing the variety of shops and cafes vying for attention.

A unique bar/cafe
Vieux Nice has become a trendy area, with an abundance of color and panache: its a veritable feast for the eye.

Welcome to our vintage clothing store!

Luscious pastries!
 And of course, lots of tempting food is available!

A restaurant specializing in local foods.
Since we were there in October, the tourist traffic was lighter than usual, and the shops started closing after 7 or 8 pm, leaving many streets with an eerie, empty feeling.

By 8 pm, some streets of Vieux Nice were empty.
Overall, our stay in Nice was a unique adventure, but much too short to take advantage of all that the area has to offer. There's so much to do and see! I hope to return in the future for a longer stay. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Nice, France: The Beach and Castle Hill

Sailboats on the Mediterranean, from the beach at Nice
We've all seen images of the French Riviera, and it's touted as one of the most beautiful spots in the world. But seeing it up close and personal was not what I expected. Yes, it's long, and attractive: the weather is lovely and the setting is exquisite.

Hanging out on the beach
But the beach itself? It's rocky! And it's no fun walking along a rocky beach like the one in Nice. What's more, walking barefoot is out of the question. But if you can get past that, it's a great place to spend an afternoon watching and listening to the waves.

The only sand you'll find on this beach!
There is only one sandy spot, a sort of large sandbox, where kids can play and build sandcastles. There is also an absence of changing cabins, which are readily available (usually for a price) on the beaches in Italy. Instead, in Nice I noticed several people, men and women, changing their clothes right on the beach. They managed to take off all their clothes and put on bathing suits (usually bikinis) with little fuss or notice...quite modestly, in fact, without any sort of cover up.

You can see how large the rocks are on Nice's beach. Ouch!
Even though the rocks kept me from walking along the beach, I found a spot to sit and enjoy the sights and sounds of the waves crashing on the shore. It's a lovely a rain stick....a swoosh as the wave comes in, and then a clatter of the rocks hitting against each other as the wave recedes.

Benches like this are placed along the Promenade des Anglais: a great place to watch the sea!
After walking along the beach, we decided to explore Castle Hill, the highest point of the city, where there are spectacular views of the Riviera. We went in the afternoon, and were already tired, so took advantage of the elevator that swiftly transports you from beach level to the top of the hill.
A view of the Riviera from Castle Hill
At the top, there is a large park with a terrace, and a variety of paths to meander along. The 90-meter terrace overlooks the sea, but the castle itself is no longer there.

A view of Nice from the other side of the terrace on Castle Hill.
Castle Hill” was the site chosen by the Greeks in 350 B.C. to set up a trading-post, thus founding the city of Nice. The post became a permanent settlement, and they named it Nikaia, after Nike, the goddess of victory.

Cascade Dijon: A man made waterfall on Castle Hill
A castle was built on the site during the Middle Ages, but had been completely destroyed by 1706, as the city underwent the tumult  caused by various rulers. 

Castle Hill with the beach in the foreground and the full moon above.
We made our way back down to the beach from the castle, avoiding the elevator in favor of walking. We were lucky to be in Nice during a full moon, and I was able to get some lovely shots of the beach and the city under its glow.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Nice, France: Place Garibaldi, Place Massena

Place Gardibaldi
In France, the large squares where people congregate are called les places, and in Nice there are several places of note (the singular, place, is pronounced like plas). Luckily, our hotel was just around the corner from Place Garibaldi, a popular hangout, where one could easily catch the tram to get to other parts of Nice. The tram service is efficient and streamlined, and the voices announcing the stops are sultry!

Place Garibaldi under the full moon, Oct. 2014.
Place Garibaldi is named after Giuseppe Garibaldi, hero of the Italian unification, who was born in Nice in 1807. In fact, Nice was part of Italy for most of its history, until  1860, when it was ceded to France as a territorial reward for French assistance in the Second Italian War of Independence. There's a large statue standing in tribute to Garibaldi in Place Garibaldi, but it seems ironic that he is so honored, since he opposed the cession.

Place Massena showing a few of the resin statues.
In Place Massena – Nice’s geographic center – there are seven resin statues that were created by Jaume Plensa, a Spanish artist. They are depicted as male figures, sitting or kneeling, as if in meditation. At first glance, they seem a bit odd, but also intriguing.The nearby buildings are attractively painted in lovely shades of red or orange ochre, all with light blue shutters.

At night, the statues light up, radiating the colors of the rainbow.
These seven figures represent the seven continents and the communication between the different communities of today’s society. The name of this creation is “conversation à Nice”. In addition, the statues are illuminated every night, smoothly changing shades, going through the different colors of the rainbow, as if to emulate a dialog among them.

Tram moving through Place Massena
Place Massena is one of the largest public "squares" I've seen in Italy or France, and is the main square in Nice. Since the place was rebuilt in 2007 to accommodate the tramline, everything looks fresh and new. Place Massena is often used for special events and festivals, but serves as a park and meeting place for both locals and tourists on a daily basis. 

Blowing bubbles in Place Massena
Statue of Apollo in the La Fontaine du Soleil in Place Massena.
At one end of the square stands the La Fontaine du Soleil, or Fountain of the Sun, with a majestic statue of Apollo at its center. From here, it's only a two-minute walk to the Promenade des Anglais and the beach.