Wednesday, July 27, 2011
We took a train along the coast from Valencia north to Barcelona. Public spaces can tend to blur together when you've seen enough of them. Valencia Estacia Du Nord (the new train station) is an exception. Renovated with mosaic tiles, decorated with stained glass panels featuring the iconic Valencia oranges, this train station was beautiful. The ride itself was also highly enjoyable. We were seated with an adorable nineteen month old Spanish cutie who charmed us throughout the three hour trip. Forget the fact that we were within sight of the Mediterranean Sea the entire journey. We couldn't keep our eyes off Scarlett. Scarlett knew how to wink and wasn't afraid to use it.
Our hotel in Barcelona exemplified the expression location, location, location. Not in a good way. I thought we were in the right location, but alas, it was too close to the beach and right on Las Ramblas. The rowdy part of Las Ramblas. There were thousands of tourists going nowhere, back and forth. The drinking, shouting and fighting went on all night long, the hotel itself was a dump, the management rude and arrogant and the air conditioning barely worked. It was also one of the more expensive hotels we stayed in. Breakfast not included.
Booking the trip to Europe reminded me of remodeling the house. It kind of fell apart at the end. There are only so many decisions you can make WELL without compromising quality. Decision making fatigue set in and the mind gave up. Planning all the destinations, factoring transportation, cost, sights and everything else can be a wear out. In Barcelona, I picked badly.
We did the requisite tour of Parc Guell with all the famous Antoni Gaudi sculptures, including the home where he lived for twenty years - now a museum. I have to say, I was underwhelmed. It was extremely crowded. I can't recall ever being someplace where so many people were taking photographs. The shapes were whimsical and avant-garde for the times, but really it was a bunch of broken tile slapped on concrete. I've done mosaics and it's not that difficult. It's dramatic and unusual, but the artistry doesn't compare to the cathedrals we'd seen. Eric said it reminded him of Santa Barbara's Madonna Inn.
After Parc Guell we took a wonderful walk all the way back to our hotel through the trendy Gracia and upscale Eixample neighborhoods, finally winding through the historic Ciutat Vella. It took all day. Anything to avoid going back to Las Ramblas. Passeig de Gracia, the main boulevard through the wealthy neighborhood that features numerous Gaudi buildings was very pretty, but the stores were mostly chains you'd find in any large city. And the graffiti. It was everywhere, even in the nicest neighborhoods.
On a side street near our hotel we found an Irish pub that was showing Wimbledon. We settled in to watch the Djokovic-Tsonga match with a bunch of rowdy Texans. Everyone in that bar, employees included, was rooting for Jo-Wilfried. We had to buy more drinks when he won a set so we could stay and watch. At that moment, it occurred to me that so much of traveling is about renting space. We were already paying a premium to live in our house in California. Then we were renting a hotel room we didn't like, so we spent the day escaping in cafes and bars. You don't even want to think about what each day is costing.
That night was our second and final night in Barcelona. We had a very good dinner in one of the charming, old squares. I LOVE warm evenings and eating outdoors in summer. It was romantic with the light fading (at 10:30 p.m.) and Flamenco dancers to entertain us. The next day Eric was off to Scotland to see Caitlin and I went to New York City to be with Allie.
Monday, July 18, 2011
On day nine the travel batteries began to run down a bit, literally and figuratively. We managed to be completely out of the local currency (Great Britain Pounds), my iPad was on 2%, the iPod just about dead. International travel in the age of technology has become a constant search for electricity. We were always needing to charge something. We thought we were prepared with three adapters from Eric's IT guy, but none of them worked. Most places had usable outlets in the bathroom for electric razors. We piled our electronics on the sink and tried not to spill water on them.
We were scheduled to be in Valencia, Spain for three nights after leaving England. I wasn't really sold on going there, and would have been happy to go back to France or Italy for the second week. Even more frustrating was missing the plane from London to Valencia. Having traveled a fair amount throughout my life, and frequently cutting it close, I was confident. We missed the flight, which was a first for me. The maddening part was that, having rushed all day from our perfect experience in the Cotswolds, we were at the airport in time. We just ended ip in the wrong terminal!
Flying Easy Jet Airline is anything but, and I think they've rigged the system to generate revenue. When we got off the train I asked an airport employee how to get to Easy Jet and followed his direction. After going through security, where they let us through with suitcases that obviously should have been checked, we couldn't see the flight listed on the departures monitor. When we asked at airport information, they told us it was too early for it to show up on the screen. Also, it was the wrong terminal, but they didn't mention that. We finally got a little panicky, found another airport official and he figured out the situation.
Lots of frantic maneuvering came to naught and we were screwed. The British bureaucracy kicked in and we ended up in a queue. Queue this. This is where the airline begins to make money. When we finally got to the front of the line, Ashley, the frumpy little Brit with dirty fingernails and ALL the power gave us our options. We could buy a new ticket at full fare (about three hundred pounds each) or pay the rescue fee of fifty pounds per ticket which was a total of 160 USD. The latter, thank you. Since there were no flights to Valencia until the next day, we were sent to the hotel desk to find accommodations near Gatwick Airport.
Of course, they are all in cahoots. There is a booking fee, the hotel shuttle costs three pounds each and we only had Euros at this point. We took a taxi which added the desperate passenger, they-don't-know-any-better-surcharge to the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The hotel charges for everything, including charging your phone. Ugh. We emailed the hotel in Valencia, explaining what happened and they replied that it was too late to get a refund on that room even though we wouldn't be there. Of course it was. The batteries were now dead.
The next morning we had a smooth flight to Valencia and were able to check into our hotel early. Since we had already paid for a room for the night before (which still irritated the heck out of me) it seemed only fair. The hotel was perfect and well located, in Old Town. The area where we stayed was "pedestrianised" with many streets that had no cars, just vehicles doing deliveries.
After lunch at a lovely outdoor cafe, I left Eric to go on an errand. I had no idea how labyrinthine the neighborhood was until I got lost - completely turned around. I had no map, no phone and no ability to speak intelligible Spanish. Valencia is NOT full of English speaking people. I kept trying to find my way back thinking Eric would be in a panic. Eventually I ducked into a hotel and, using advanced gestures, got a map from the front desk. Relaxing, Eric was not panicked when I returned. He was unaware that I was missing.
What a fabulous city. With a population of a million people, it was a surprise at every turn. Magnificent architecture, fountains, cathedrals and a phenomenal market in an exquisite building. We were near the bullfighting arena, Plaza de Torros, and the beautifully renovated train station, Estacio Nord. The locals were well dressed. Everyone actually put clothes and accessories on before they left home. No yoga pants (see Yoga Pants January 20l0) were seen in Valencia. The long, late lunches with Sangria and Paella must be healthy, because there appeared to be no obesity. Maybe because we didn't see any tourists.
The hotel wanted $25 a day for internet, but you could get WiFi for free at the cafe across the street. I became a regular there so I could keep in touch with my daughters and find out all the fascinating news on Facebook. It was great to be able to post photos right away. One night I even hacked into their Internet when the cafe was closed. I felt a little strange lurking on the street with the iPad, but it worked.
After our usual routine of taking the wrong subway, we finally made it to the beach. The Mediterranean Sea. The beach is as deep as I've ever seen. Perfect water temperature, gentle rolling waves and blazing sun - what more could you want? Swimming topless! I'd forgotten how great it felt. Also, there's nothing like being on a beach to remind one that people truly do come in all shapes and sizes and colors - many of us with huge scars. The Spaniards were very relaxed about their bodies while they cavorted in the sand.
All my hesitations about Spain were allayed and Valencia was such a fine experience we wanted to stay longer, but the hotel in Barcelona wasn't flexible. Even with two days notice, we couldn't change the reservation. When we got there, we found out why. Stand by, for part two of Vaencia, Si, Barcelona, No.
Monday, July 11, 2011
We left Wimbledon on a high and headed to Oxford by train. Negotiating tubes, undergrounds, subways, metros or whatever the hell they're called, was not our finest travel skill. We got where we needed to go, but it wasn't pretty. Oxford was both a thrill AND a disappointment. It was absolutely amazing to be in such an old city and very frustrating that most of the buildings we wanted to tour were not open while we were there. Christchurch Cathedral was our first stop and it was closed because of an all school ball that happens once every three years. Spectacular timing. It was still fascinating to tour the city and an added element of fun was seeing all the students around town in their tuxes and ball gowns.
The next morning, before leaving for the Cotswolds, we took a little spin through the Oxford Botanical Gardens. It began as a Physics garden where herbal remedies were grown hundreds of years ago. Such an inviting place with ancient trees, herbs, cutting gardens, paths, fountains and all the trimmings. Being there made me happy, but we had no idea how much better our day would get.
After leaving the hotel, we took a train to Moreton-In-Marsh in the Cotwolds. We had arranged for Nick, the proprietor of our bed and breakfast, to pick us up at the train station. There he was, in his Range Rover, and we barreled up the hill (still on the wrong side of the road) to the most magnificent property I have ever seen, and I look at property for a living. Windy Ridge is the quintessential English estate, a family home, overlooking the countryside on forty acres including a ten acre arboretum. Nick, a man in his sixties, was born in the main house and his father was born in one of the cottages. Thatched roofs, Cotswold stone, magnificent gardens, leaded windows, imposing hedges and garden sculpture all combined to glorious effect.
After we checked in we were free to wander about and had the entire place to ourselves. A picnic lunch in the back garden was followed by an amusing interlude of tennis. The court, which was past a cottage, and through the woods, has seen better days. It made the Boyle courts look good. Some type of asphalt, there were large cracks filled with gravel and numerous bumps. The net was in tatters and had been mostly tied up to the net cord. However, the view over the valley was incomparable, with miles of green as well as fields of red poppies. We had fun trying to hit the cracks - it made the ball unreturnable. Tennis was followed by a spectacular afternoon at the pool - just the two of us. I felt like a prop in a Country Life magazine spread. The stone pool house, surrounded by stately trees and topped with a weather vane, had a view of an alley of trimmed Yew trees that were probably twenty-five feet tall. We couldn't read, barely spoke. The place was so peaceful you just had to sit and watch the clouds float by.
A meander through the arboretum, G & T's in the garden and it was off to dinner. Wonderful Nick had made reservations and arranged for one of his employees to give us a ride to the Horse and Groom in Upper Oddington. What a find. The inn has been in operation since the sixteenth century. The meal was as fine as you could have anywhere and quite reasonable. We later found out they have a Michelin star. No wonder.
At breakfast the next morning we chatted with some of the other guests. This is the part of staying in a B & B that makes me very afraid. Chatting at breakfast. I don't really like to talk at all before my coffee, especially with strangers. The conversation is always so polite and stilted and usually a bit boring, but I tried hard to be a friendly sort even if I'm not a morning person. One of the guests was talking about gardens she'd seen. I'd been so impressed that Windy Ridge employed two full time gardeners until one of the other guests mentioned she'd been to Hedcote where they have twelve.
Next stop, Spain, or so we think.