Tuesday, August 16, 2016


Inna and I have traveled the world and seen many of the great cities. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to rating a city.  And in the end, it's just a matter of personal taste, or pure happenstance that rings your bell.

For the record, New York City is one-of-a-kind.  Can't be touched.  Has more of everybody and everything than any place else.  And it's the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.  But I wouldn't want to live there for more than about a week.  And believe me, I've tried.

Inna likes wedding cake Vienna the best.

In the end, it just comes down to gut feelings, I suppose.

I think Steve Earle, one of America's greatest song writers, put the melancholy vagaries of travelling as well as anyone ever has in his powerful song "Fort Worth Blues".

In Ft. Worth all the neon's burnin' bright
Pretty lights red and blue
But they'd shut down all the honky tonks tonight
And say a prayer or two
If they only knew

You used to say the highway was your home
But we both know that ain't true
It's just the only place a man can go
When he don't know where he's travelin' to

But Colorado's always clean and healin'
And Tennessee in Spring is green and cool
It never really was your kind of town
But you went around with the Ft. Worth Blues

Somewhere up beyond the great divide
Where the sky is wide and the clouds are few
A man can see his way clear to the light
Just hold on tight
That's all you gotta do

And they say Texas weather's always changin'
And one thing change'll bring is somethin' new
And Houston really ain't that bad a town
So you hang around with the Ft. Worth Blues

There's a full moon over Galway Bay tonight
Silver light over green and blue
And every place I travel through, I find
Some kinda sign that you've been through

But Amsterdam was always good for grieving
And London never fails to leave me blue
Paris never was my kinda town
So I walked around with the Ft. Worth Blues

My favorite big city, and the place I hope to live for at least some of the time I have left here on this great, wide wonderful old earth is Barcelona, Spain.  Inna and I have been there many times and it never fails to charm us to the bone.

I've thought a lot about what it is that makes Barcelona such a special place and this is what I came up with.

Let's start with the climate.  The yearly average temperature for Barcelona is about 74 degrees.  It rarely gets below 50 or hotter than 75.  It's sunny most of the time, other than in October.  You can swim in the Mediterranean Sea all year round.  And the nights are delightful.

Every City has a distinctive architectural style  New York has its skyscrapers, London its Victorian palaces, and Prague has its Gothic wonders — but Barcelona is the only city that has them all in abundance — plus the dreamy treasures of Antoni Gaudi, like the Sagrada Familia Cathedral and Castle Batlo.  It's almost as if the town fathers told the builders, "Do whatever you like just as long as it is different than what the other guy is doing."  Walking down a street in Barcelona is a window into every architectural design ever conceived, all right next to one another in this incredible mix of riotous splendor. Barcelona defies any attempt to pigeon hole it's architectural beauty.

Then there's the food.  Everything that you buy in one of their many amazing markets or restaurants was picked or slaughtered in the past twenty-four hours, and probably within a twenty-five-mile radius of town. The Catalan region of Spain is the nation's food basket and an absolute gastronomical paradise.  Barcelona is the gold standard when it comes to fresh food.  

And finally, there is the diversity of the people and their cultures. Like the architecture, Barcelona embraces all of the world's people. And a walk down any street in the city is like passing through everywhere at once.  You hear Spanish, Russian, French, Syrian, Nigerian, and Chinese  — and most use English as their common language, which is very convenient for us dumbass Americans.  And these peoples of the earth have brought the best of their cultures to Barcelona where it flourishes in the temperate climate of freedom and civility like the yellow-blossomed acacia trees that line so many of  the city's beautiful boulevards.

So, Barcelona might not be the best city on earth — if such a thing really even exists — but it's my favorite and we try and visit it as often as we can.  One of the main reasons we took our Mediterranean cruise on the MSC Poesia was because it departed from Barcelona, and we knew we could add a few days onto the end of our trip, exploring Catalan's capital city.

I have done several blogs about Barcelona already, so if you want to get down in the weeds for details about the best places to go and what to see, you can check out one of my previous postings.

All I want to do this time around is give you some snapshots of our four days last June to help sweeten the pot and give you some tasty flavors.

Catalan is the economic engine of Spain.  So, unlike most, if not all, of the Southern European countries, the south of Spain does the heavy lifting and produces the wealth and food that feeds the rest of the nation.  The fact that they are ruled by people far to the north has stuck in their craw for a long time now  — centuries, in fact.  And they resent the Spanish so much, they would rather speak English when they aren't speaking Catalan.

Many of the business and homes fly the colorful Catalan flag as a sort of windswept protest to the heavy-handed government in Madrid that calls the shots.  And interestingly, the Catalan flag was modeled after Cuba's flag.

Barcelona is a city where the entrepreneurial spirit reins supreme. There are individuals selling goods along the streets and small shops offering everything under the sun wherever you go.  The waterfront is home to the many Africans who have come to Barcelona to make a new life.  They line the harbor edge, selling their wares which are pretty much all the same  pork pie hats; knockoff purses; camera sticks; refrigerator magnets of Sagrada Familia and other attractions; wooden train letter blocks that spell out your family name; the distinctive red, blue, and yellow Barcelona football jerseys (Messi!); and an assortment of plastic crap.  They roll the goods into blankets so they can lug their trinkets around with ease, and also so they can quickly roll it all up and make their escape if the cops decide to mess with them. Some of the slicker vendors tie strings to the edges of the blankets and attach them to a stick which they hold at the ready, so they can instantly pull the blanket together like a puppet and then boogie. They are handsome people and all smiles.  Apparently their new lives beat whatever sad place they came from.  And while they definitely work the hard sell, they are not aggressive or bothersome.  They are respectful and polite, and the people of Barcelona seem to have welcomed them with open arms.

Like I said before, it doesn't rain very often in Barcelona, especially in June.  But one afternoon a dark thunderstorm rolled over the mountains to the north and descended upon the city like a wet wave of lightening. The tourons all scattered like scared little rabbits.  Suddenly, the Africans appeared, sporting really nice golf umbrellas to keep themselves dry while they hawked the cheap, pop-up models.  It was a very clever sales technique.   From my balcony perch, the people scurrying along the Calle (street) looked like tiny robots.

Public transportation rules in Barcelona.  Buses are everywhere, and they are very popular.  The subway system is second to none.  It's convenient, impeccably clean, efficient and reasonably priced.  The Bike Share Program is a huge hit and bikes, roller blades, and skateboards are the transportation of choice for the young Barcas.  It is not uncommon at all to see a young businessman dressed in a nice suit, rollerblading to work while holding a briefcase.

Barcelona is trying really hard to be green, through a wide assortment of interesting initiatives, starting with the hydrogen-powered trash trucks and buses.  They scan your plastic bag and hit you with an additional tax if you request one when filling your super market needs at a Mercat or even a SuperMercat.  And they have energy saving room key credit cards that fit into a slot on the walls of each hotel room that engage the electric current for everything in the room so you can't leave the lights on when you leave.

I have noticed each time we visited Barcelona that we rarely heard any emergency sirens, and when we did, they were almost comical, like a clown car horn.  The police are called the Guardia Urbana.  They travel in pairs or sometimes trios; usually men and women teamed together, and they ride around in blue and white minis.  They wear fluorescent yellow and black uniforms and are incredibly friendly and helpful.  Barcas seem to genuinely like the police, which is something quite rare these days.

Another thing that we noticed right away in Barcelona was how attractive the people are.  I know this is purely subjective, and probably even sexist, but for my money, the women and men are hot as hell and they dress like eclectic models.  As Inna said to me one evening when we were dining at one of our favorite restaurants, Cer el Cel, overlooking the Avenuda de la Catedral, "It's easy to be ugly and dress badly, but it takes work to look nice and stylish."

I have already given a shout out about the food but I really can't say it enough: the food is absolutely incredible.  And they can turn something as simple as a grilled cheese sandwich and fried potatoes (served in a pretty white bowl) into a culinary delight.  The bread, cheese, and spices made it the best grilled cheese sandwich I had ever eaten.  Why can't we find food like this in the U.S.?  Inna and I both agreed that we are going to take a cooking class when we move to Barcelona.

I need to also give a plug to several local businesses.

The first is the Catalonia Portal de l'Angel Hotel, located on the Avenguda del Portal de l'Angel, a gorgeous strolling byway right off the city's most spectacular plaza, Placa de Catalunya, and just a stone's throw from everything, including the Gothic District and the world famous Las Ramblas pedestrian shopping boulevard. You can easily walk to many of Barcelona's best sites from the hotel. The rooms are spacious with stone balconies overlooking the street. They have a bar and a cool pool, the staff treats you like royalty, and the inside of the place is like a grand museum.

As were checking into our hotel after the cruise, we noticed they offered a walking tour of the old city, leaving in about an hour, through a company called FEELFREE TOURS .

FEELFREE has a very interesting business model.  The tour is free. They leave it up to you as to what you think it was worth when it's over. We had a charming young man named Goran from Croatia as our guide, who spoke perfect English.  He was going to school in Barcelona and earning some money extra on the side.  We took two tours with Goran over the course of the weekend and it was incredibly informative and fun.  He knew Gaudi inside and out, and if he didn't know, he had a handy notebook that he used as a cheat sheet.  Goran filled our head with many lovely tidbits.

*  On St George Day, April 23, the women of the city are handed red roses and then receive books from their loved ones.

*  The logo on the distinctive and very popular Chupa Chups lollipop was designed by Salvadore Dali.

*  Antoni Gaudi was killed by a trolley and his funeral was a spectacle to behold.  The Barcas applied to the Vatican for Gaudi to be made a saint,  the Patron Saint of Architecture (there is no such thing).  But he needs at least three miracles and he doesn't have any.  So, they are essentially asking for a waiver.  The folks in Rome have yet to respond. In my humble opinion, the Sagrada Familia Cathedral is easily worth three miracles.

*  At the end of the 1700s, the city leaders decided that they needed to expand outward and move beyond the old city.  But they couldn't because the Catholic church owned all of the land.  So the Barcelona government simply killed the priests and nuns so they could grow the city.

*  In the 1800s, the Spanish government staged a rigged design contest where the winner, a celebrated architect from Madrid, created the first street grid for Barcelona, with four buildings of equal size facing one another in a big square, 20 feet apart to maximize sunlight.  The green space was placed inside the four buildings, so that outside was inside.

*  Many of the streets in Barcelona consist of  tiled streets designed by Gaudi, featuring symbols of nature, like fish from the Med.  Gaudi was enchanted by the natural world and incorporated trees, flowers and animals into everything he designed.

*  The Sagrada Familia Cathedral will have ten more towers, and eight have now been completed.  The unfinished central tower will be 175-feet-high because Monjuic is the highest point in town, and Gaudi thought religion should tower over all.  The cathedral has three facades and only the front (Nativity) is finished.  If everything goes according to plan, the cathedral will finally be finished in 2026.  Over three million visitors check out the cathedral every year (we've been there four times), making it the most visited tourist attraction in Spain.

*  The strange figures on the ornate chimneys at La Padrera, or Casa Mila, one of Barcelona's most amazing architectural wonders, were the inspiration for George Lucas when he designed the storm trooper helmets in Star Wars.

*  On the first Sunday in June, there is the Giant Doll Parade, a joyous a celebration of Catalan myths and culture.  It started at the Gothic Cathedral and they marched right under our balcony.  There were the big dolls like a dragon and his slayer St. George, followed by family clans proudly bearing their crest upon small banners, along with young dancers in native garb accompanied by brass bands. The Jesus crew tried to weasel in on the fun with a long line of priests and nuns carrying some golden box adorned with a giant cross, but they were relegated to the very back of the line where they belonged.

*  As I have pointed out repeatedly over the years in many of my blogs, most big cities are dirty and littered with trash.  Not Barcelona.  And they work really hard to keep it that way.  There are three-person crews working the streets in their bright yellow and green jumpsuits, carrying their clever folding dust bins and long sweeping brooms, from dawn 'til dusk every day.  And in the early morning, they have these little motorized sweepers that allow them to steam clean the cobbled streets with hoses.  We never saw a cigarette butt in a country where smoking is very popular, and no chewing gum or trash.  The city is immaculate. The last three people at the end of the Giant Puppet Parade were street sweepers immediately cleaning up behind the big party.

I am going to end my little story with something fairly insignificant, and yet illustrative, of what separates Catalan Barcelona from the rest of the world.  They don't do Santa Claus at Christmas.  Instead, they have Caca.  Caca is the nice way of saying shit.  And all around Barcelona you see these little Caca dolls in the shop windows.  To be honest, I saw them several times before I noticed that the little guy was taking a monstrous dump.

According the Barcelona Tourist Guide:  

The Caganer is a feature of the nativity scene that you only see in Cataluña. It is a figure of a Catalan man wearing traditional Catalan clothes. He is squatting with his trousers around his ankles and pooing! This may seem strange, but it is a custom from the 18th Century. His poo is seen as a sign of good luck as it fertilizes the earth and ensures a good harvest for the coming year.

Now I ask you, what could be more fun than a little magical man who comes around at Christmas, wearing a goofy native costume   maybe even the jersey of your favorite football team   you leave him some cookies on Christmas Eve, and then he craps out all of the presents you asked for in return.  I mean, how do you beat that?

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