A very pleasant surprise befell me on this year’s annual family vacation near Ixtapa, Mexico. Staying at an all-inclusive resort for a week isn’t normally my style of travel, but when the in-laws are treating, and the whole family is along, there is no better style. This year I discovered a wildlife sanctuary a mere stone’s throw down the beach from our resort. This was my third year at this resort; I can’t believe I didn’t know of it sooner. The sanctuary is home to many crocodiles – I was told about 500, but I cannot confirm that. It’s also home to numerous bird species including the impressive spoonbill, plus many turtles, and of particular note, large numbers of iguanas.
Iguanas were an epiphany to me. I’d paid only mild attention to them in photos, and I’d only seen them in real life a couple times with no particular impression made upon me. Now I want some as pets. I became utterly fascinated with them. One day I was at the sanctuary alone sitting on the ground snapping photos of the iguanas through the chainlink fence (no small feat), and a local restaurant owner came to me with a bag of cabbage. He threw it over the fence on my behalf and the iguanas swarmed in from every direction. I felt astounded at nature’s creativity. Jurassic and creepy, yet beautiful with vivid color and a texture incomparable in the animal kingdom… these reptiles completely captivated me.
I’ve seen spoonbills in the Denver zoo and was excited to see them in their natural habitat. In the Bird World atrium at the zoo, they don’t have the opportunity to fly much distance. It was marvelous to see them spread their wings – an impressive span – and glide across the lagoon. I spent some time watching 2 of them build a nest together, squabbling over its details. I realized that when I was describing what I witnessed to others, I was referring to the bird who did most of the building as “he,” and the bird who constantly pecked at “him” nitpicking about his placement of twigs as “she.” Later, I saw their babies inching along the branches.
Other beautiful birds such as the green heron caught my attention as well. One of the neatest aspects of the sanctuary was the cacophony of bird calls echoing throughout. It was always a pleasure to finally spot a bird with whom I could associate a particular call that I was hearing. But this was rare. Mostly it was a mysterious symphony of sounds seemingly performed by the air itself.
Love turtles. In the afternoons, they would line up in long rows along the banks of the lagoon.
And then of course there were the crocodiles. Surprisingly large ones. Striking an uncomfortable combo of abject fear and admiration into one’s heart. You are granted extreme proximity to these creatures. I spent time scrutinizing their ancient bodies in detail. The sheer mass of the large ones was terrifying. Inspecting their webbed and clawed feet, their massive tails, their exposed teeth, their tiny eyes and the patterns and topography of their skin and scales … it’s hard not to end up with the word “exquisite” in mind. Yet I am loathe to use this word on such a violent and sinister creature. So let’s just say they are very interesting.
It was a step back in time, coming to this small sanctuary. No mammals were to be seen, only the reptilian and avian representatives of our planet’s deep history – crawling, swimming, gliding through a primeval lagoon. Reminding me that evolution is the most glorious upshot of the inexorable march of time, the eons fluttering behind it like ribbons in the wind, as though they were effortless.
Goodbye lovely Mexico and your golden evening light.
As usual, once I get home and can see my photos on a real computer monitor rather than my tiny laptop, I find a lot more that I like or illustrate well places we visited. Also, thoughts about a place settle in over time after you return home. Or you find new sources of info (e.g. the Gaudi book we bought). And so I present the standard post-trip musings and extra photos.
So what does one such as I leave Barcelona with? I’m almost sorry to say it, though I don’t know why I should be other than it’s surely one of the most obvious and repeated sentiments, but the architecture of Gaudi leaves a rather intense impression on me. I came to Barcelona prepared and excited for Dali, but discovering Gaudi has been pure epiphany. One massive difference between the two artists is their personal bravado and self-promotion. Dali being a shameless self-promoter and liberally sprinkling the world with his thoughts, theories, artist processes, etc. Gaudi, on the other hand, never wrote a single book espousing his architectural theories. He died living the humblest of lives, a virtual pauper, inside the Sagrada Familia overseeing its construction. Fortunately he had acquired many “disciples” before he died who were devoted to him and his work and wrote down the things that Gaudi talked about. I thought it was kind of amusing that in the audio tour at Casa Batllo, there seemed to be more from Dali speaking about Gaudi than Gaudi speaking of his own work. Somehow appropriates these two Barcelona personalities nicely. Here are a few more photos of Gaudi, with some quotes from a book we bought at one of the gift shops as taken down by his “disciples.” Oh, and I feel silly, but I didn’t even know it, from my second blog post at the end there is a photo labeled “random night scene.” This in fact is a Gaudi building, the Casa Calvet (built 1898-1900). (I rest the defense of ignorance on my oft-mentioned lack of guidebook.)
The best way to view Gaudi's Sagrada Familia is, frankly, on a gurney, if you can procure one to lie flat on your back upon and have someone wheel you around. My neck got a serious crimp in it from craning backward to marvel at the ceiling and high walls. Gaudi said, "The essential quality of a work of art is harmony. In sculptural works harmony derives from the light that gives it relief and decorates it." Just take a moment to look at the lighting.... all the different windows, how light comes in differently through them, how different spaces are illuminated and contrasted. Gaudi liked mixing electric light and sunlight for the best effects. Even the organ pipes are placed with consideration for the nature of the light reflected off them.
The hallmark of Gaudi architecture is its organic forms. Perhaps one of the most famous things to come from his lips was this quote, "The great book, always open and which one must make every effort to read, is the book of nature." Further, he espoused, "Architecture creates the organism and that is why it must have a law in accordance with the laws of nature; the architects who are not subjected to these laws create a scrawl instead of a work of art." Mushrooms are often an inspiration to his forms. In this picture, looking up, I totally think of the underside of a forest fungus.
Gaudi began work on the Sagrada in 1883 (yes, 1883!) and it is not projected to be completed until I believe 13 years from now. Hence the perpetual presence of cranes and scaffolding. "The form of the towers," Gaudi said, "vertical and parabolic, is the meeting of gravity with light."
A spire seen from the observation tower (so one is already very high up when looking further up the spire in this photo. Inset detail of the mosaic on top.
And now, the obligatory photo from Parc Guell, slight variations of which you'll find in every guidebook and photo album of Gaudi architecture. There are several tunnels or grottoes like this throughout the park (as in the second photo).
This is in the Dali museum in the Gothic quarter. I tried very diligently to get the reflection of the two electric lights right inside Dali's nostrils. ha ha. Really, I did.
The Gothic quarter (Barri Gotic) was an exemplary Medieval labyrinth, just the type of thing I love. One thing that was unique to me here that I don’t recall seeing much of a similar nature elsewhere, at least not nearly to Barcelona’s extent, (besides the wealth of street art mentioned earlier) was the tiles along many of the alley walls, particularly at the corners. Several corners were marked with tiles forbidding the entry of horse carriages.
A sinister bubble stalks and innocent child.... And more playfulness I wish I could join -- chasing bubbles.
This botched self-timer photo just cracks me up. In our devotion to Irish pubs, we of course stopped in a couple on our way meandering through the Gothic quarter. Decided to try a self-timer here as I was drinking my birthday beers. My face looks like some sort of evil clown, and I like the calm dude on the wall in the back while we're in motion, and the little trail of light off Erik's ring.
Our favorite landmark along La Rambla was a Chinese dragon with an umbrella beneath it. As it happened, the alley that our hostel was on lay katty-corner to the dragon. Turns out this building was once an umbrella factory. A clue to how lovely the weather was is to notice how blue the sky is in so many of the photos.
The large city park, below. Notice the orange trees from which Erik plucked the not-so-yummy fruit to eat. You know, I could probably make a photo album titled, "Erik Eats Not-As-Yummy-As-Expected Food Around the World." I'll spare him the orange photo here. (I always snap a shot of his gastronomic adventures... many funny faces.) But right off the top of my head I can think of cactus fruit in Tunisia, octopus on a stick in Greece, these oranges, and other images I can't even place their locations.
There is nothing Barcelona-esque about this photo; I just like it. An escalator up to a museum. But somehow it makes me think of some sci-fi, sort of Orwellian, scene with people moving about like drones (how they're all neatly paired on the escalator). I like the dark outline of everything but the silver handrails. Probably only me who likes it, but here it is anyway.
Geographically, the landscape in which Barcelona has evolved is lovely, with the blue water of the Mediterranean along its one edge, and being sandwiched between Montjuic and Mount Tibidabo. Lots of cities are surrounded by or sandwiched between hills, but Barcelona seems to take particular advantage of the two high points across from each other to regale one with the panorama of itself. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many overlooks and panoramic views of any one individual city as Barcelona (also offered from tower of Sagrada Familia). I think it gives one the sense that they know the city as a whole, not just pedestrian views of specific quarters of it or main streets and plazas and courtyards. With the exception of Wroclaw in Poland, and a few small Tuscan towns, I can’t offhand think of any city that I can picture in my head so clearly and definitively with a bird’s eye view. Looking down from Montjuic or Tibidabo (beer in hand, of course, at one of the cafes) you think, "This is Barcelona." An interesting contrast, though, is that my vision of Barcelona is a very horizontal one, that is to say a wide landscape/panorama orientation. Yet my photos of individual places within Barcelona are 95% vertical, or portrait-oriented.
So here is one of my few landscape-oriented photos, from inside the cathedral at the top of Tibidabo (where the amusement park lies at the foot of the cathedral). I liked the lights that hung down from the ceiling.
I don't really have any photos of the lovely beach, as we only walked along it at dusk and into night. But here's a photo from the big market along the Rambla. Now that's FRESH sea food! There were piles of live crabs, too, with their pincers bound together. All crawling over each other in a creepy mass.
If you’re wondering about the 2 euro wine, we didn’t finish it (an incredibly rare event). So don’t worry, we won’t be bringing any back to share, making you pretend it's delicious high-brow Spanish wine and you are just too uncultured to appreciate it.
Since I never got my guidebook, we pretty much just followed my friend’s trail and advice (they left a few days ago). So today we decided to climb the other mountain; there are two main ones that sandwich the city between them; we went to Montjuic on the luxurious gondola as you may recall. Today we went full-on opposite, hiking overland. Not by design but because after exiting the Metro we walked up the wrong road (besides no guidebook, also no decent map…. makes life more adventurous, hey?). Though our error was becoming apparent, we’d seen a sign with fork and spoon for several hundred meters ahead, and driven on by hunger as it was noon and we hadn’t yet eaten, we walked to the café. During breakfast we figured out where we were, i.e. quite some distance from our destination, over on another hill. But Erik thought he’d seen somebody walking a path overland toward the other hill. So we headed up some stairs which petered out in a dirt path and came to a fabulous city overlook. And sure enough a narrow, rocky dirt path headed up and over the direction we wanted.
So eventually we made it to where we wanted to be – the top of Mount Tibidabo at a modern cathedral and, oddly, an amusement park directly beneath it. We wanted to ride the roller coaster but it was closed except to a group of school kids. We tried to convince the lady we were students, but it didn’t fly. What lucky kids, riding roller coasters on a school day!
Walked through the cathedral, more great city views. Intended to take a funicular down to the bottom of the hill but were annoyed that there was no one-way ticket price; they don’t seem to figure on people arriving at the top by foot and wishing to leave by funicular. So decided to hoof it to the bottom. The road was very twisty and circuitous but there were many shortcuts through the woods across the hairpin curves. So we walked down one of these, eventually stumbling upon an old, crumbling and overgrown stone stairway which had once led up the hill. And here is where we encountered the Dog Fortress. We had heard a huge group of los perros barking for quite some time. I had been desperately hoping they’re weren’t some band of stray feral dogs who would be our demise. We continued downhill and even more dogs joined the barking fray. We came to an old stone wall and were captivated by a small, spry cat lurking about its perimeter. We tried to beckon it forward but it looked at us wide-eyed then scampered off into the forest. Then I looked up and realized the dogs were all behind the wall. We had almost blown the Spy Cat’s cover, as he was obviously attempting to infiltrate the Dog Fortress. Probably he’d been hired to discover a way to keep them quiet. Truly, the decibel level was quite stupendous. Eventually when we got down to the street we could look back up and see it was a large kennel, but it was kind of spooky hearing all those dogs through the forest. Spy Cat was only the second cat we’d seen all week.
Our next goal was to walk back to Park Guell, which our crude map showed as nearby. After following sign after sign literally in circles I was becoming convinced the park no longer existed. We had been following road signs for cars to follow, not pedestrians, and the road to the parking lot wound around the park before finally coming to rest. So it was later in the day and I was far more exhausted than I had imagined I would be when we arrived. But our goal was to write another ditty at the park for our travel guide idea. This required walking throughout the park despite my tired, tired feet. But after a short rest on a beautiful tiled bench, I rallied and we discovered some places we hadn’t been to previously with our friends. Also this had been where my G9 camera broke, so I had the opportunity to take some photos. More Gaudi!
We made it back to our hostel and flopped down onto the bed for a nap. We were supposed to hook up with some other folks who were to arrive in Barcelona today but an unfortunate miscommunication prevented this. But once again, we followed our friends’ advice and found a café they’d recommended, the Gran Café, in the Gothic quarter and had a delicious dinner. And that’s it! Home the next morning.
I’d certainly recommend Barcelona to anyone! A week was too short. One thing I noticed, and have to admit appreciated, was that, contrary to Prague and some other Central European cities, the people are not at all put out by speaking English. They are friendly, helpful, and don’t bat an eye at speaking in English, actually almost to a fault. It would be difficult, in fact, to practice up on your Catalan or Spanish in the tourist areas because people immediately reverted to English when they heard our American accent speaking Spanish. When we got a little further from the beaten path (for example stopping for refreshment while circling ad infinitum Park Guell) we had to use more Spanish, but the people were always completely patient and good-natured with us. Catalonia (the Spanish district of which Barcelona is capital) has its own ending on domain names -- so a website doesn't end in ".es" as in Spain but ".cat" for Catalonia. We've decided to register a domain name for our beloved kitty.... "http://mister.cat"
Three things about visiting European cities. (1) I truly love them. (2) Love to visit; would never want to live in one. Need to live as a quiet mountain hermit. (3) Love to visit Europe and its many architectural photo opportunities, but always realize when I do that my heart still belongs in the 2nd and 3rd World, where one can have many more wacky adventures of culture, language, terrain, etc. Where shall I go next?
Piece of cake taking the train to see Dali in the nearby town of Figueres. Silly me, my favorite travel sweater I didn’t fasten very well to my little purse when I was in the train station and just before boarding the train realized it was gone. So very sad, I decided to trace my steps backward as far as I could before the train came. The first place I went was the little café where we bought a pastry for breakfast. And serious joy when the lady produced the sweater from behind her counter. Some nice soul had turned it in. This is the second time I’ve lost it and had it returned. Perhaps that means it’s really ugly and no one would want to keep it if they found it. Ha. Fine by me. My sweet little sweater back in my possession. Perhaps I should keep Erik’s wallet in its pocket, then it would always get returned when it goes missing.
So anyway, the Dali museum. Lovely. Lots and lots of small paintings, drawings and jewelry. Yeah, I had no idea about the jewelry. He said that what he wanted to do was buck the idea that jewelry-making should have consideration for the cost of materials and the nature of its use (i.e. wearability). There were definitely some interesting pieces, including a beating heart of rubies. Here is some Dali jewelry. The eye is perhaps the most famous, and the only souvenirs I brought home from Barcelona were a t-shirt with that image on it and a funky Gaudi-designed tea cup.
Valentine's Day jewelry, no? Nothing says romance like a brooch of skulls.
Below are a couple of my favorite paintings.
And here we have a ceiling fresco in the Palace of the Wind ... kind of like a Dali Sistine Chapel, ha. Maybe not such a benevolent heaven here ... we are about to be stomped on! But in a joyous manner, claims Dali. The feet in blue are his (notice his moustache at the top), and the feet in red his wife, Gala's.
And a fun stairway in the museum. Very Dali-esque when you understand his flamboyant personality and tireless self-promotion, his indulgent belief in his own genius.
This is the main courtyard as you enter the museum. You could put a coin in a slot on the automobile and music would play from the front grill. There were several displays throughout the museum in which you could contribute a coin to watch it move or play music or something. Erik naturally couldn't resist, and only he and a British kid were (a) observant of the coin slots and (b) curious enough to slip in the coins.
Dali had a thing for eggs. The top of the Figueres museum is festooned with them, and we would see them a few years later sprinkled around his home in Port Lligat.
We are now sitting back in our hotel room drinking the array of liquor we just bought and Erik is trying to convince me that the absinthe is complementing the Moritz beer. I’m not willing to see if I agree. I went to an absinthe tasting at a conference in San Francisco (travel writing/photography/food) just for the novelty of it, and the maker had won awards for basically the best in the world. Other than that, I’m not a fan. Shortly, we will delve into our 2-euro bottle of red wine…. “la mancha.”
But back to Dali. The museum building is very interesting also in and of itself. There weren’t really any of his super famous originals, but I thought it was nice to see so many other things (better collection than the one in Barcelona we saw the other day). And we’ve seen a number of originals in other museums in the U.S.
So we took the train back to Barcelona and went to another Gaudi museum, the Batllo, a private residence he designed. (I don’t have a guidebook, so if I misspell places, forgive…. I gave up collecting brochures a few years ago and now it’s just habit not to pick them up.) This was probably the most expensive admission fee, but it is supported primarily by this fee as a private institution, and is totally worth the price of admission. When we first entered there were a lot of other people and it was hard to take any worthy photos without hordes of humans. But by the time we finished walking through the whole place, it had cleared out a lot so we went back through the whole place again with much more serenity. Yep, it’s worth going through twice. At least in our opinions. Also interesting in the audio guide (automatically included) were many quotes from Dali about Gaudi. More Gaudi photos out of my collection of roughly a gazillion.
Gaudi considered rooftop landscapes to be a very important feature in his architecture. They are quite, quite magical. La Pedrera was unique for its smooth wooden sculptures on the roof ... these tile mosaic ones at the Batllo are more iconic of Gaudi's style.
Meandered home. Found a nice out-of-the-way place to have a reasonably-priced beer (impossible on the Ramblas) and yummy crepes. Mine was mint-marinated chicken with carrots and mint yogurt. Mmm. So now here we are back in our room. Erik’s just gone down to reception to ask if they by some odd chance have a cork screw so we can sample our 2-euro wine and see if it’s worth bringing some home.
Hard to believe tomorrow is our last day already. Erik has returned with a corkscrew. “It seems drinkable,” he says. “You can see the legs on the plastic. That’s the sign of a good wine.” We are drinking from the tiny opaque plastic cups provided in the bathroom of our super budget hotel.
And I did indeed sleep late. Began the day watching policemen arrest a shirtless drunken man on the steps of the Metro. Much to my relief, despite a spirited birthday celebration, I did not end up in a similar situation at the end of my night. Spent pretty much the entire afternoon wandering around the Gothic Quarter trying to get back to the 1st century BC Roman pillars we stumbled across the previous day, and charting out paths for our sightseeing book idea. We started to get a little frustrated when we just could not for the life of us find the pillars. We found every other place we’d been to and either taken photos or stopped for a beer or whatever. But somehow couldn’t find the last turn. But finally we did with a great sense of accomplishment. (When we turned around without going inside to the pillars, a French couple standing outside started exclaiming at us, “You should go inside! Go inside!” We explained we’d already been inside the day before. They were quite concerned for the welfare of our historic knowledge of the city.) A couple shots from the Temple d'Augustus ...
It was Sunday, a great day to explore this part of the city because many of the shops were closed. Might sound like a bad thing, but this enables you to see all of the street art. Many of the garage doors that pull down over the store fronts are painted. There are some great paintings. (If you know anything about underground street artists, you might be interested to know we found a “calling card” from Space Invader. That was fun.) I would definitely recommend exploring this area at a time when many shops are closed.
We made it to the Picasso museum and by pure chance it happened to be free admission. I guess Sundays after 5pm (until 7) admission is free. We were initially daunted by the line to get in but it moved fairly quickly. The museum didn’t have any of his famous pieces but it was a good exhibit and very interesting with many of his drawings and paintings from his youth, and a great little film showing something like 48 permutations of the same painting ... he was “copying” a painting by someone else -- a common activity of course for aspiring painters to try to emulate the masters by copying some of their pieces as precisely as possible. Picasso, though, “copied” the painting using his late characteristic cubist style. The film overlays Picasso’s copies one at a time on the original painting (Les Meninas) (or something close to that). He also had an early propensity toward scenes with people attending the dying in their beds. (I don’t know what that’s about.)
Then it was time to get ready and head back my friend’s flat for happy hour drinks around 9, then we went out to dinner for my birthday at a restaurant near their place. Good times. A little champagne to celebrate.
Then Erik and I decided (or at least I did and Erik went along) to act significantly younger than my age and go find a club or two. We found a somewhat quaint and small club to hang out in. Until about 4:30am. It got just a wee bit ugly at the end when I kept running into the people I was trying to dance with. There was a little group of us pounding the floor until closing time. It had been quite crowded earlier and made for good people watching. (young folks are always especially interesting/often unfathomable to watch)
Next day was a bust (for several reasons). Seems like we usually have at least one of these in a trip, but too bad we had one during such a short trip. So now only two days left with much yet to do. We’ll see how far we get. But I certainly wouldn’t mind stopping over here again some day to see some more. There is a prodigious amount of sightseeing available to do here. We did rally in the late evening and strolled down to the waterfront. The sea water is the most beautiful blue. The exact same color as the post-sunset dark-blue sky. Gentle waves hitting the shore. A nice boardwalk follows the beach for a long way. A few catastrophes have hit us in the last few days. For one, my beloved G9 camera quit working. Fortunately I brought my SLR also, though I almost didn’t. It’s not as convenient to carry around but at least I’m not cameraless. Tomorrow we will try to get to the Dali museum by train.
Wow, it's actually before midnight today when I finish writing and misc business. But I'm quite exhausted, so probably you've had to wade through many typos and bizarre wordings... However I'm more interested in sleeping and dreaming than going back to read and fix them.