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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Fun in France: Part Un

That fiancé of mine decided we needed a mini-vacay to France before school started. I love him.


We opted to visit Carcassonne via Narbonne. Unfortunately, there were no available seats on the train we needed to get all the way there, so we took the bus to Narbonne then trained to Carcassonne. Just FYI, no matter what bus you take for long distance (we used Eurolines), you need to check in at the bus station office. People get very cranky if you don't.

The first part of our trip included the bus ride to Narbonne, briefly exploring Narbonne, and spending our first night in Carcassone.


Narbonne!

We didn't have too much time to explore Narbonne, but it was definitely a good experience. There is a beach nearby, a beautiful cathedral, and several historical points of interest dating back to Roman times. We were fortunate enough to be able to visit one of them.


This is outside the Roman Horreum. No pictures were allowed inside unfortunately. It's a monument from 1st century B.C. The part that we saw was mostly underground (a nice escape from the hot temps!), and was likely used for storage of goods.


Here's Will just outside the Horreum. I know it sounds like a dirty word, but it's not. I promise.


I really loved this flat..I think the steps take you through a little hallway to the other street.


When my mom first saw pictures of where we lived, she was surprised it was such a large street. Mom, this one's for you. I think this was what you were expecting.  


This is the Cathedrale Saint Just.


It features gargoyles. Does anybody remember that cartoon?


I took a lot of pictures and tried to spare you from my trigger finger ones where you see the same thing from 20 different angles.


Ah yes, here I am. I've worn my hair down...pretty much never since arriving. Its SO stinking hot. I wore my French Bulldog shirt (from Spain) to France. Ironic, no?


There's a park just beside the cathedral as well as some more great architecture. In addition to the Horreum, there are other sites to visit across the town. I wish we would have gotten to explore more of them!

Carcassonne:

After a short train ride, we arrived in Carcassonne only a few days before a big festival. From the looks of it, the festival was going to be a pretty big deal, so maybe it's for the best. I would rather enjoy my vacation without being pushed and prodded by people walking by...oh wait, this is Europe. It doesn't matter if how crowded the sidewalk is, that always seems to happen.

Enough pessimism, Carcassonne was beautiful!


We were greeted by a bridge to cross the river and were able to check out some of the boats.


This may be the original "Pizza Hut". This part of Carcassone (in the Aude valley across from the Carcassonne Castle) had some walls and fortifications too..makes me wonder if it was for sentries.


Our room. The sheets freak me out, thanks to none other than the arch enemy I can't live without, E-Kay-A (Ikea). Grrrr...


A view of Carcassonne Medieval City from the river. Beautiful.


Cross the bridge to experience a whole new (old) world!


We did cross the bridge our first day in Carcassonne, but it was just to eat dinner since most places were closing fairly early by Spanish standards. What did we have our first night in France, you may ask? ITALIAN(esque)! What?! I told you already that most places were closed. Don't worry, the menu was in French (some English) and our waiter spoke Spanish, so it was at least partially authentic.


We ate at Il Ponte Vecchio. Of course, we got the menu of the day, and I attempted to remember what little French I have picked up from cartoons and my sisters Kylee and Amber throughout the years.

My first plate was salmon carpaccio, and Will got minestrone. How fun....trying to figure out how to say Italian words in French. With a waiter who was willing to speak Spanish and English to us, it was quite the spectacle, I'm sure.


We both had the poulet (chicken) with potatoes, tomato, two tiny carrot slices, and a little orange. It was delicious.


Mmm...As American as (French) apple pie a la mode with chantilly...

Will went for strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla ice cream...Napoleon! Errr, I mean Neapolitan.

For those of you who are familiar with travel in Spain, you have come to value free tap water and copious refills given to you before your current beverage has yet to be depleted. That's because there is no such thing as free water in Spain when you are dining out. There's no such thing as free refills either (unless you go to Subway, how very touristy of you...not that I've ever done that!). In France, however, we were pleasantly surprised to find that not only is the water free, and not only do you get free refills of it, it comes in cute former wine bottles from the region (well, at least it does in Carcassonne). AND, you get free bread. I love free things.

I nearly forgot. Our first night there was Thursday. The Thursday of the Supercopa El Clasico. It's the pre-season match up between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. Never one to miss out on world class futbol, we found the Bar F1 (awesome place decorated with only the finest of racing memorabilia and free Wi-Fi) and cheered FCB to victory!

Thus concludes Fun in France: Part Un

Check out Fun in France: Part Deux...On a blog near you!



Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ikibana: Culinary Love Triangle

 

What do you get when you mix cuisine from Japan and Brazil in the foodie dreamscape that is Barcelona?

 
... An earthly manifestation of heaven. Not heaven from the Bible, no. Gastronomic heaven. It's that place where you go when you eat something divine, forget where you are, and audibly say Mmmmm... and/or Nomnom... You know it, and if you don't...well, you need to!
 
Ikibana has two locations (and different menus). We visited the one on Paral.lel.
 

I apologize in advance for the poor-quality photos. I don't generally walk around with my camera (I look enough like a tourist without one). It's especially embarrassing to take pictures while inside a restaurant. I am 007 of the iPhone camera; I must be stealthy.
 

What's the story? In the beginning, Japanese immigration was a means for Brazil's wealthy to hire cheap workers for coffee plantations. In fact, according to the ever-so-scrupulous Wikipedia, "Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan."

From the propaganda the restaurant has circulated (a less nitty-gritty, more romantic and innocent telling if there ever was one), we all have Kasato Maru to thank for this out-of-this-world experience. Kasato Maru was the ship which brought the first Japanese immigrants to Brazil in 1908.

On a side note: According to my source (a slightly shady sea distance calculator), sailing from Tokyo to Santos would be a 11,376 nautical mile journey. For those of us who don't speak pirate, that would be 47.4 days at sea. I'm willing to postulate that it likely took longer in 1908.

Anyway, with these passengers came cargo...all those goodies for making Japanese food! Japanese ingredients were introduced to Brazil, fueling what has become a culinary cultural revolution, Nippon-Brazilian cuisine.


Will didn't want his picture taken, so he may not be too happy about it being on here. Shhhh, don't tell!!!
Everything about this restaurant is amazing.

When I say everything, I mean it.

I have never been to a restaurant like this one. The outside has huge windows which are decorated by flowers of all different colors, along with huge displays of roots (pretty ones!). This is ironic, as my Japanese friend tells me that the name means flower. I tried Google translate to make sure, but I don't read Japanese characters...so that was a flop. Where was I? Oh, yes! The inside of the space is even more beautiful than the outside. It nearly took my breath away. You can see some of the decoration in the picture above. They also have a terrace now, but I would insist on sitting inside. Even the music was interesting - mix/mash of covers of American songs and some jazz perhaps.

Ikibana is the perfect place for a night on the town. It's a "fancy dinner" type of restaurant. Nice jeans are okay, but the people wearing t-shirts definitely looked out of place. It would be a great place to take a business colleague from out of town or family who comes to visit once they get tired of tapas.

Well, if they get tired of traditional tapas anyway. Ikibana does have tapas, but they aren't your mamacita's kind.

We tried the coxinha (8,50 euros). They are Brazilian croquettes (croquetas - my favorite tapa!), and they come with an absolutely amazing Asian-inspired sweet sauce. I wanted to horde all of the sauce for myself, but I did share some with Will. These things even tasted great with soy sauce.

Of course, we had to wash it down...in addition to our mango mojitos (0 euros, see caption below), we also ordered a bottle of water (2,00 euros) and had some white wine (C. Chaplis on the receipt, 12,00 euros for two glasses). It was some of the best white wine I have had as of yet. Okay, so I haven't had a lot of white wine, but it was worth the price.

Why, hello there little cocktail. These mango mojitos were our "invitation" drinks. That means free. I love free.
Will was excited to order some Brazilian steak, but we found out that the other location was the one with steak (the menu and site for our location was under construction, my bad for assuming they had the same menu...you know what assuming does...). That suited me just fine, because there was plenty of sushi. Mmmmmm, suuuushi (think Homer Simpson when he imagines donuts).
Mmmmmm....delectable morsels

We ordered different rolls from three different sections of the menu. They were a little on the small side, but oh-so-delicious:

 ("Type of sushi" followed by the actual name of the roll, in bold)
 
Uramaki: Rice-covered Japanese Seaweed leaf Roll filled with assorted ingredients
  • Ikibana Uramaki: ...King Prawn Tempura with Avocado and Mayonnaise, sprinkled with Roe
  • 13,80 euros, 8 pieces
Gunkans: Rice balls wrapped in Salmon sashimi with different fillings
  • Gunkan Unagi: …filled with Eel
  • 8,00 euros
Ikibana Maki: Rice rolls wrapped in Japanese Seaweed sheets
  • Hokai: ...Sake Maki in a Tempura batter with chopped Salmon,Cream Cheese and Tare sauce
  • 12,50 euros 
Each of these rolls was, well, tantalizing. We only intended to have two, but we couldn't stop. The Hokai was ordered at the suggestion of the waitress, and it did not disappoint.

If you are in the area, definitely give Ikibana a try. If you're not in the area, then get here!

When you do try Ikibana (not if), leave a comment to let me know what you think! I'd love to hear opinions on some of the other selections as well.



Ikibana   -    Av. del Paral-lel, 148 - 93 4244648



View Barcelona Living in a larger map



Monday, August 27, 2012

*Lucky* Brownie Batter Choco-Loco Truffles

I have been stalking many wonderful recipe sites since my arrival in Barcelona.


Since I don't have an oven here, I have been looking everywhere for easy, no-bake recipes that don't require a lot of ingredients (many American baking necessities are hard to find and expensive in Barcelona).

Among my favorites is a site named Averie Cooks. I love it so much that I nominated it for the Leibster Blog Award recently.

Today I went to Carrefour (I will post a review of area grocery and supermarkets soon, I promise) out of curiosity and necessity. I needed to get some shirts for Will to wear under dress shirts, and I found one near my ever-so-elusive university (the one that says, Meh, don't worry, you don't need to do anything else until September. I am officially nervous that I needed to do something, like fill out paperwork, get a loan....something).

Needless to say, I forgot to take my ingredient list with me, so I bought a lot of things: sugar, chocolate bar (for melting), dark chocolate chips, flour, cocoa powder, brownie mix, condensed milk, and gelatin, to name a few. I remembered that I needed these things for various recipes.

Well, I got home and looked at the recipes again. I needed peanut butter for every one of them I wanted except for No Bake Vanilla Cake Batter Chocolate Truffles from Averie's site. I couldn't find cake mix, hence the brownie batter (I also want to make my own Brownie Batter Blizzards since there are no Dairy Queens here).

Doesn't that just make you drool?
What started out as merely Brownie Batter Choco-Loco Truffles (they became lucky during their creation) are adapted from Averie's recipe, mentioned above. Impatience, afternoon shut-down of stores, and difficulties finding ingredients led to the decision to "just roll with it". And roll I did, 12 delicious,little truffles to be exact.


Now, don't you just want to drop everything and make these!?

 


What you need to know:

Yields: 12 One to two bite decently-sized, 2-4 bite truffles

Time: 30-45 mins total (that includes two 15 minute breaks to let the dough/chocolate set). 15 mins or less of actual work time!


Directions:
  • Combine brownie mix of choice in mixing bowl with condensed milk
    • (the original recipe called for 1/4 c, but I think brownie mix was different enough that I had to add more. It ended up being about 1/3 cup.)
    •  My suggestion is to start with 1/4 cup and add more as needed for the dough to mix together well and not be powdery. If it's runny, add more cake mix!
  • Place bowl with dough in the fridge for about 15 minutes (this was the *lucky* step, you'll see when you get to the bottom).
  • Remove dough and roll into little balls. I didn't have wax paper, but I would suggest it to keep everything from sticking to your plate/whatever you put them on to keep them in the fridge at this point.
  • At this point, I opted to place them in the freezer for 15 minutes to let them chill.
  • Melt your delicious chocolate chips (or a bar would work) over low heat, stirring until all is melted goodness.
  • Dip your chilled dough into the melted chocolate. I used a large spoon to roll them around in the melted chocolate, to pick them up, and to plop them on the plate.
  • Return these delectable morsels to the freezer for as long as you can manage. My tolerance was less than 10 minutes.
  • Enjoy!
Note: Make sure that you mix the batter and condensed milk very well, or you will end up with little grainy batter bits in the truffles!

For the more visual......Here we go!


Here is what it looked like right before I put it in the fridge. I sneaked a little taste...Mmmmm!


Then, you roll them into adorable little blobs of yumminess and sentence them to hard time....in the freezer!



You will melt those little dark chocolate chips until they are creamy, melty awesomess.











Dip them in the melted chocolate with the help of trusty Mr. Spoon. If you are lucky, they will look smooth like the ones in front. When you get low on chocolate and really have to roll them around, they will look spikey like the middle ones.
 
Dessert this delicious and easy should be outlawed. But it's not, so you're safe!


After some more time in the freezer, they are ready to be enjoyed!

So what about the *Lucky* part, you ask?

While I was waiting for these little cuties to cool down in the fridge (to go from dough to being able to roll them into balls), I got a blocked call. I am always hesitant to answer those, but I've been pimping my number and email address like crazy trying to get English students.

On the other end was a doctor who wanted medical English lessons. I start tomorrow. Score!!!!!

Now you know why they are *Lucky* Brownie Batter Choco-Loco Truffles.


Tell me about your favorite desserts. Chocolate, fruity, pies, cakes? I'm all ears!


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Leibster Blog Award

 

I am proud to announce that Sally at The Cafe Cat has given this blog a nomination for the Leibster Blog Award!

                    

It's encouraging to see what a fun and friendly culture that blogging has created, and I am extremely grateful for this honor from Sally. According to Sally's tagger, Jen:

"The Liebster Blog award is given to up-and-coming bloggers with less than 200 followers and the meaning of the German word 'Liebster' is 'sweetest/ kindest'. It's a lovely bit of recognition and support to keep on blogging."

Once the nomination has been received, the nominee must answer 11 questions from the tagger and in turn nominate 11 others to do the same. You then let them know you tagged them in their comments section, sit back, and watch the magic happen. It's like the Pay It Forward of support and fun for fellow bloggers.

Here are the questions posed by Sally:

1. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
That is an extremely difficult question. Once, when I was very young, I thought the answer was hot dogs and so tried to prove that hypothesis, only to end up so sick of them that I only somewhat recently could manage to eat them again. At this point in my life, I think that the answer would be sushi. None of you who know me are the least bit surprised.

 

Yes, I made this (with Will's help), and it was delicious!


2. Why did you start blogging?
I started blogging this summer when my fiance and I arrived in Barcelona. I intended to start the blog much earlier, detailing all of the ins and outs of the preparation for moving to Barcelona (visa, apostille, headaches, crying, being extremely stressed about all of it, etc), but I was, well, extremely stressed about all of it and didn't have time while working full time and applying to schools part time. So, when we arrived, the Internet wasn't conducive to being able to Skype without dropping the call several times in 10 minutes, and I was bored. I finally realized my dream of blogging, but it quickly grew from a platform to share adventures with family to a means of helping others navigate Barcelona life with ease.

3. What's your favourite detail in people?
That's a question which I had not consciously considered before. There are physical details, of course, and less concrete ones, too. As a nurse, I received training in thorough assessment skills. Unfortunately, to my fiance's chagrin, that means the detail I notice most quickly about others is whether or not they have good veins. Now that I have been in Barcelona for a month and not working as a nurse, I would have to say it's a person's diversity that is my favorite detail. It's not that I never noticed it before, just that I was so busy before that I wasn't able to simply meet people. I love it, the differences in personality, degree of adventure-seekingness (ok, so maybe that's not a word), the way somebody dresses, stories about his or her culture, an accent, mannerisms, hand gestures. Barcelona itself is a study on diversity, and I am living it.

4. Luck or hard work?
The answer, hands down, is hard work. With hard work, I have managed to achieve so much in life, including making this life-changing journey to Barcelona. With luck, I have managed to win back a lot of money playing Black Jack that I lost at the slots...only to lose most of it again anyway (and that's the best case scenario, overall in my complete history of gambling, I'm still down). Hard work gets good grades, a degree, patience, humility, empathy and love. Nobody's relationship has ever survived on luck, it's all hard work.

5. What's your favourite season?
Autumn would definitely have to be my fave. The weather is still warm, and it's just a little windy. It rains, but the humidity is not so noticeable. The colors of the leaves are changing, and, of course, I love visits to the apple orchard. Cider, cider, yes, caramel apple cider (I sincerely hope Starbucks in Barcelona has this, or I will have to march myself up there, order the necessities, and be their cider barista...) Yes, I am even looking forward to the new experiences school brings in the fall, especially sipping hot beverages like cider while studying (not so much the studying maybe).

6. Have you ever been in love?

Yes, most definitely. I am in love with my wonderful fiance, Will. He's usually Fun Will, or Human Map Will who never gets lost. He's Cocky Will because he thinks he knows everything (and sometimes does), and he's Will the Coffee Guy to his new classmates. He's not Sports Marketing Guy, because that's one of the other American guys though, so don't get them confused, haha. No matter which Will he is, he's My Will, and that's love...being able to tolerate another human being for better or worse..errrr, maybe that's marriage. 

Caught in the Act: Will Proposing
7. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In ten years, I will be 35, and that's pretty hard to see. At this point, I don't know what I'll be doing later this week (unless you want English or Spanish lessons, then I'll be wherever you want your lessons!). Honestly though, I would hope that Will and I will both be completely done with school by then. Beyond that, I would love to keep traveling (yes, Mom and Dad, and visiting home very often).
 
8. Morbid BUT what song would you like played at your funeral?
A lot of Beatles. No need to be sad, because I won't be there...but if it has to be a mellow, funeral-ish song with depth and meaning to make people mournful....probably "Hallelujah" by Jeff Buckley and then "American Pie" by Don McLean (NOT MADONNA) since my dad and I used to play that on guitar and sing it together. It was the first real song I ever played on guitar. The after-funeral party should have lots of Daft Punk though.

9. Vanilla, strawberry or chocolate?
Why choose? Neapolitan has all three!

10. Your signature dish is?
It used to be French toast, but now it's either sushi or tortilla española.

11. Cats or dogs?
I plead the 5th. If I answered this, either Zoe would hate me more than she did when I first had her fur shaved this summer, or Dash and Gus would be extremely hurt for the five minutes it would take them to find a toy, Gus to eat it, and them both to be even more upset. That is a loaded and dangerous question that I shall not answer.


Zoe...I think she's always upset anyway.




Dash, he's just always cute.



Gus, master of weird poses.





He might actually be more upset if he doesn't get whatever comes out of the oven...


I would like to nominate the following blogs for this award (in no particular order, drum roll please....):
  1. Plateful by Nashi
  2. That's So Michelle
  3. Averie Cooks
  4. NomNomBlingBling
  5. PrudentBaby
  6. The Lemon Tree
  7. Common Chapters
(Ok, so I only have 7.....but they are all worth checking out!)
 
 
My questions are:

1. Why did you start blogging?
2. Star Trek or Star Wars?
3. What's your favorite book?
4. What was your favorite vacation?
5. What's your favorite season?
6. What's love got to do, got to do with it?
7. Who was your favorite teacher/professor and why?
8. What was your first dance with your husband at your wedding? If not married yet, what do you imagine that song might be?
9. How do you order your coffee?
10. What is your signature dish?
11. Cats or dogs?

 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Learn Catalan for Free...Mostly

Do you find yourself struggling to understand conversations or signs when out and about?


Don't worry! There are tons of great resources for learning Catalan while you are in Barcelona.

How Ironic...
Even though Castilian and Catalan are co-official languages in Barcelona, government paperwork and websites, menus, and even posters for upcoming events are in Catalan.

I already knew I wanted to learn Catalan and started studying it before we arrived. I am so glad I did. Most people will be happy to speak to you in Castilian, but it's great to be culturally competent too. Also, it doesn't hurt to know that you can still order your strawberry frappuccino at one of the many Starbucks, as long as you know maduixa means strawberry in Catalan. Yes, I translated that while waiting in line as I had no clue what that word meant.


Apparently, I am not the only one who thinks learning Catalan is important (be proud, you Catalans!) because I have had quite a few requests to share information on Catalan learning resources.

(On a side note, if you are more concerned about translating English-Spanish and vice versa, as well as several other languages on the fly. You should check out the WordReference application from Wordreference It's great! I have been using their website for years. For translating Catalan and many other languages on the go, Google Translate has a nice application too.)

The following are very helpful websites for learning Catalan online by self study or available classes:

1. Linguistic Normalization Consortium:
- You may want to translate this web page by the "traductor" link in gray and black at the very top. This is the website for the Catalan classes provided by the government. I will be starting mine shortly, but I had to apply in July to get classes for September. They fill up fast! You can register online or go in person to any of the locations to sign up with a human being. I did the latter because I had some questions; the class I wanted said that it lasted for a year and for a month, so I was quite confused.

COST: Lower level classes are free, books start at 12 euros
*To buy the book by taking a piece of paper with their information to a Santander bank and paying the money for it 12 euros for B1, directly to their account. Then you return with the receipt and get the book.

WHERE: Throughout Barcelona!
Most neighborhoods will have a center in which you can study, but not all neighborhoods have classes at all times.

CLASSES AVAILABLE: Several levels of Catalan and some Spanish
There are many levels of Catalan classes available and even some combined classes (like B1+B2). Some classes last one month (intensives) and some several months. There are also some centers that provide Spanish courses. If you go to one of these offices, you will find small books for many of the neighborhoods in different colors. Grab the book for your neighborhood and you will see a listing of places all over your area for Spanish as well.

OTHER: They offer additional resources.
I will explain some of these resources below, but here is a full listing of their Catalan resources.

2. Interc@t
   This site will explain more of their resources, Speakc@t ("online survival course") and Parla.cat are just the two that I have used, as well as even more resources for learning Catalan and getting certifications of your levels.
        a. Speakc@t is like a crash course in Catalan. You can do it online and free from home.
       b.Parla.cat is a free self-study site as well, but you can have a tutor (which is a paid service). The levels included are: Basic, Elementary, Intermediate & Competence. You can read more about it here.

3. Universitat Pompeu Fabra
This is my university! They offer Spanish as well as Catalan (and several others), and I have linked you to their fall program. You must register by September 14th to participate. Classes meet two nights per week from September to December. The price depends on how many hours you want (if you want just Catalan or Catalan and Spanish, etc). But the beginner Catalan course is 30 hours and would cost between 250-278 euros, depending if you are in the UPF community or not. You also can get discounts for taking multiple courses. The online training/review site from the university can be found here.

4. University of Barcelona
This university also offers courses for Catalan (and others). Beginning courses are 30 hours and are 60 euros for current students and 160 euros for others. Online courses are available for current students only. Here are more resources from UB.

There are so many resources for learning Catalan, more than I could list. There are other schools and universities too. There are language intercambios all over the internet and within those entities mentioned above. Hopefully this blog will help get you started on your search for Catalan classes. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them as comments on the blog and I will be happy to answer them.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Barcelona Living Map

 

Just what you wanted....another map to navigate!


As I started adding to the blog, I decided that it would be fun to make a map of places I was reviewing. I then decided to include places we go to regularly. Eventually, I started adding places we want to visit. So, this is my gift to you, my Barcelona Living Map!

I hope that it is a useful tool, although I know it will only be as useful as Google Maps allows it to be...as it has been somewhat buggy during the process of the map's creation.

Please leave comments on the blog if there are places that you would like me to review or add to the blog. I love seeing that so many people from all over the world are reading, and I would greatly appreciate any feedback you would like to give.

Without any further ado, THE MAP.

* The map on the linked page is somewhat small, my apologies. You can easily increase its size by clicking the link below it. Sorry for any inconvenience.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Playing Catch Up

Life in Barna, like Barna itself, is really busy!


Since I've been so busy, I haven't been blogging as much as I would like. However, that just means I have tons of new stuff to bring to your attention.

I'm working on several new posts simultaneously to help answer common questions or points of interest I have been receiving, so be looking for new posts on language learning resources (yes, even Catalan) and more awesome restaurant reviews. The poll ended in a tie, so I will also touch base on reviewing some of the  supermarkets and markets as well as information on our neighborhood, Sant Antoni in Eixample.

For now, I'm playing catch up on getting those pages done as well as knitting (thanks to Yana and her amazing classes!), racing to finish the Game of Thrones books before my Master's classes start, and teaching private English/business English classes. Whew...and I would be lying if I told you I wasn't making the most of this beautiful city. I also go out regularly to meet recently arrived students as well as new friends.

Those of you who already know me also know that I can't stand not to be busy. You also know that I am a bargain hunter. I love finding a good deal. At home, I used craigslist to buy some items and to sell the majority of our larger material possessions when we moved. Freecycle was a great way to find things for free (like yarn and craft items for projects). Here, craigslist isn't so popular. However, I have found the deal-hunter's gold mine. Loquo and Segundamano are the best sites I have found so far for our purchases, starting with our flat.

Yes, our flat was found via an ad on Loquo in July. We could not be happier with that choice! Recently, I have been trying to use these sites to help friends find their own flats. Be warned, however, that there is a high scammer-to-ad ratio for flats at this time. The next items I found were on Segundamano. I could not pass up a hair dyer with diffuser & concentrator and a straightener together for only 15 euros. The same day we also bought two larger fans (one is an oscillating tower fan, the other a large pedestal oscillating fan) for 7 and 10 euros respectively. Take that Ikea!

Of course, I must caution you to never go alone and meet in an open/public area....but you know that already. As somebody who can't see paying exorbitant amounts of money for items that I may not be able to keep after the next year or two, I can't brag enough about the great gently used items I found. So, my friends, go forth and save!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Making the Most of Majestic Montserrat

There's more to Montserrat than meets the eye...

...so here are our experiences and resources so that you can make the most of your trip!
The View From the Top Cable Car Stop
When we visited Barcelona last year, we did not have time to see Montserrat. We did, however, see Montjuic. Because they both have "Mont" in the name, and because I had not been to Montserrat, I kept getting them confused. Now that I have been to Montserrat, I can promise you that I will never mistake one for the other again!

We left last Friday on the train to Montserrat. A great website to guide you on how to get there is Barcelona-Tourist-Guide. They have instructions for everything that has to do with Montserrat travel. The link above is for traveling there by train as we did. It's worth noting, however, that you can of course rent a car or go with a tour group as well.


We left from Plaza Espanya and found the area for R5 (heads to Manresa). It was very crowded and confusing. Luckily, there was an attendant actually standing at the ticket machines to help us. These ticket machines are just for Montserrat, and there are several options. We wanted the "Trans Montserrat Ticket" with the cable car option. This covers your train ride to Montserrat and back as well as other travel options if you want to explore the rest of the mountain (and not just the monastery), and includes some metro passes as well. You must choose between the Cremallera (funicular/train) and the cable cars for your actual ascent up to the monastery when buying your ticket, so ask for help if needed. We chose the cable cars, and the ticket was 24,25 euros each (the prices have changed a bit since they were last updated on the Barcelona-Tourist-Guide site). It was totally worth it.


The cable car looks so tiny!
Our train stopped at the Aeri de Montserrat station (those with Cremallera tickets will get off at the next stop according to the website I linked above). The cable car trip up to the monastery was no more than 5 minutes or so, but you do have to stand the whole time. Despite not being such a big fan of heights, Will did just fine with this. It was crowded in the cable car, and there is no air conditioning, but the views were breathtaking!
Don't look down!














From the cable cars you will be able to see quite a bit as there are windows all around you. Pay close attention, and you will notice houses in the mountains. I won't complain about walking home from the grocery store anymore!

Once you land, you will be at the monastery. We actually did see a monk escorting somebody who seemed to be famous to one of the funiculars (people were lined up to meet him and they were recording it). You can go inside the basilica and see beautiful statues, wall decorations, and architecture. There is an audio-visual space that your ticket covers, but it looked to be under construction when we went. Of course, you can also stand in a huge line that will wind it's way through the church and take you to the Black Virgin of Montserrat ( La Moreneta) and through a lot more of the building.
Mountains surrounding the monastery

Before we did any of the other activities on this level of the mountain, however, we trekked through the gift shop and checked out an artisan fair that boasted many booths which looked to have the same goods, mostly cheeses and what looked like fruitcake. We didn't buy anything since we didn't want to carry it around with us, and most items on the mountain were very expensive. As we walked, it started raining. It was very windy, and there was quite a bit of lightning. The rain didn't last long, but the wind kept on for what seemed like forever. We had packed our lunches, so we ate outside of the cafeteria  (away from the monastery, toward these columns above) at a table that was a little more sheltered as we watched the mountains during the storm. There is also a great circular lookout point with Romanesque columns, and further down you can visit the WC and additional lookout areas with a crypt beneath the column lookout point if my Catalan is correct.
View from below those columns

Afterward, We headed back to the monastery to see the Black Virgin and waited in line for a VERY long time. The inside of the building was extremely beautiful.

We did not get to hear the choir as they were on holiday. They are well-known and often one of the most talked-about aspects of a trip to Montserrat from what I have read. I guess we will just have to make a return trip soon!

Sadly, we did not visit the museum due to being low on time. I know that it costs extra, but I cannot attest to if it's worth it or not.

After leaving the church area, we set off for the Saint Joan funicular to the top of the mountain (covered in our trans-Montserrat ticket). These do not have air conditioning either. With glass roofs and windows (venting just slightly), you will feel like you are cooking!

Once you get to the top, there is a nature room, but I could not find it! There were two trails that we saw immediately to choose from. One was over an hour long and the other said it was not (but it was!). We chose the second trail, the "shorter" one. At first, there was some uphill walking, but surprisingly, most of it went downhill afterwards. It actually takes you back to the level of the monastery once you come to the end. Some people were walking up this trail. To that I say (in the words of Mr. T.), "I pity the fool...".

There were smaller trails that fed into our larger trail, and on occasion we opted to check them out. The views, of course, were spectacular. We are pretty sure we could see Barcelona from the highest point in our trail. Be careful not to buy too much wine or beer at the restaurant because the railing is scant to none! We also nearly got knocked off the mountain by a van as it came around the corner, so again, do be careful!

There was a cross that was far out on what appeared to be the edge of the mountain. It's not on the main trail, and it was pretty far out. This time, we did not take the road less traveled by and opted to press forward on the main trail.

Chapel
Inside!
St. Michael's trail will take you to the cross, b
ut the cross I mentioned above is not this one.
As I said, the trail goes down the mountain. After we reached the monastery level once more, we opted to take the funicular down part of the way to the Santa Cova trails that have religious art work by famous Catalan artists/architects, including Gaudì. This was also included in our ticket - and it's worth adding - that nobody was ever really in the ticket booths at these funicular stations. I commented to the funicular driver that it didn't seem very busy since we were the only ones on the funicular. He mentioned that it had rained and seemed to think it scared people away. Score one for us!


Again, no looking down!
We were really on a time crunch at this point. The last funicular back up to the monastery was in about an hour, and the last train back to Barcelona about an hour after that (keep in mind we would still have to take the cable car back down to the train station as well before getting to the train). Once we arrived at our stop, we turned to the trail on the right. There was another trail to the left, but we did not have time to explore. The trail we took had a lot of up hill craziness, but it went to Santa Cova. We arrived around 1715hrs if I am not mistaken. We got to go into the church part of the way, but from what I have read on Rick Steves' site, there is also a cave (hence, Santa Cova) where the Black Virgin was originally). Unfortunately, it was closing as we were entering, so we were only able to explore the outer post parts of the chapel area.



The statues/scenes on the way were of religious nature, and the subject was Jesus. They were all very beautifully detailed, and there is a sign in the funicular station to Santa Cova that describes which artists worked on which of them.













So, after a full day of walking, we got back to the funicular in time to catch the second to last trip to the monastery level...barely. Yes, we were on time, early even, but those few stairs to the platform were killer by that point as our exhaustion reached maximum levels tolerable by normal-although-slightly-out -of-shape Americans.

We then bee-lined it for the cable car. We waited in line for a while since it wasn't yet due to leave. Some people in front of us had tickets that looked like ours but found out that they weren't valid. I was getting nervous. However, their ticketa were for the cremallera, and apparently they didn't want to wait for the next train (I had overheard some people saying one of the trains didn't leave for an hour, but I couldn't hear very well). So, a lot of the people seemed to take the cremallera up, but took the cable car down; however, they had to pay extra for that ticket for the cable car. The cremallera return ticket was included in their original trans-Montserrat pass.
View on the way back down
We arrived at the Aeri (reminds me of the Eyrie from Game of Thrones) platform and boarded the first train that was going to Barcelona. Oddly enough, after a few stops, a train employee came aboard and told us we all had to get off. So, we did, and we waited for the next train to Barcelona. I'm not sure what happened there, maybe they found an issue with the train or had to take it out of service for some reason, but it scared me a little. After that, it was smooth sailing back home. We actually had to wake up a gentleman behind us since he fell asleep! Keep in mind that with trains in Barcelona, you need to keep your ticket to exit the platform.

Here's the sweetest part of the deal with our tickets...

The next time I hopped on the metro, I found that I had 4 metro trips on the card! I used two during the weekend, but when I tried today (now Wednesday) it was invalid. I'm not sure if there are really only two trips on it, or if they expire after a very short time (since the counter said four).

I hope that you enjoyed this longer-than-normal guide blog! Please don't hesitate to ask questions in the comment section below, or to follow if you want to show your support and stay in the know. There is also a poll on the left side of the main blog page where you can vote on what topics you would like to see next. Of course, you can always leave a comment on the blog to tell me if there is a specific subject that you want me to cover.


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