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Barcelona: The Guide

First there was the anticipation. Then there was the packing. After that, there was the coverage. Now, at last, here is The Guide to Barcelona (according to me).

As with the other guides on this site, I don’t pretend to cover everything. These are my personal highlights and low lights of what’s out there. I hope it’s the supplement you were looking for to narrow down, expand or otherwise warp your itinerary. Enjoy!

A quick note on travel guides: I was a Let’s Go girl when I lived abroad. Then they got a little newsprinty and I cut over to Lonely Planet, but they’re not as selective as I’d like (I know what they include or omit constitutes an opinion but they don’t narrow it down a lot), so I went looking for a new, more opinionated and organized guide for this trip to Spain. My new best friend is the Top 10 series by DK Publishing: excellent photography, small enough to carry around, removable map included, and content divided by area and category. Sweet.

What You Should Do

Sagrada Familia

Let’s just get it out of the way: yes, you should probably go and see Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished monster cathedral. You’re going to see it whether I say you should or not, so I’ll get behind your effort. I can’t stand Gaudi and the Modernista style, but the cathedral does have sort of a Guinness Book of World Records appeal, given how long they’ve been building it (128 years and counting). In my view, that’s on a par with the world’s largest ball of twine, but, truth be told, if I were within walking distance of that twine ball, I’d probably go see that too. Seriously though, it is impressively large and unique, so man up, get over your horror of tile work and head over there. I wouldn’t walk to the top of the spire though – punishing trip, I hear.

Unless you’re a fan, Sagrada Familia will also relieve you of any responsibility to go out of your way to catch Parc Guell, or the apartment building La Pedrera, other highly recommended Gaudi constructions. You’ll probably pass some Modernista work on your way to other places you’re going anyway, so no need to plan special outings.

Palau de la Musica Catalana

Surprisingly, given that it’s also in the Modernista style, the Palau de la Musica Catalana makes the top of my list. Maybe that’s because I love me some stained glass and the concert hall has a one-ton inverted stained glass bell in the center of the ceiling. Also, unlike Sagrada Familia’s endless ramblings, the palau has a tight, efficient design with a purpose: a concert hall with the best possible acoustics for one of the first co-ed professional choirs. All the sculptures and tiles and columns and iron work fooforah support that objective. Mad props. It’s an amazing thing. Oh – and they got the whole thing built in a mindboggling three years. Take that, Gaudi.

To see inside, you have to book a tour (in the right language, mind you) or attend a concert. Tour’s just under an hour and they run regularly in English, but the tours book up and the Palau’s web site is not helpful, so it might be a good bet to wander by on your way elsewhere, buy a ticket at the box office for another day so you know you’re sorted.

Eat fideuà, olives, and jamon iberico

See notes on fideuà and restaurant recommendations here.

If you don’t like olives, as I didn’t before my first trip to Spain, this is the place to learn. You don’t have to go out of your way to find them – they’ll be served before almost any meal at a restaurant – but you may want to track down a grocery store to bring some back with you after you’ve had them. Most likely the ones you’ll be served are manzanilla olives, native to Spain, or manzanillas stuffed with – don’t gag: they’re not the same as the ones you pick off your pizza – anchovies.

Jamón ibérico is a must. It’s cured ham from pigs fed exclusively on acorns. Which sounds boring for the piggy but is salty and tasty for you. You don’t have to buy one of the entire legs, hoof included, that you see at the grocery store to gnaw your way through before you get to customs (or smuggle it in a tennis racket case as someone who shall remain nameless told me she did); the cheap stuff in sandwiches from bodegas will be stringy and unsatisfying, and the $95/lb. offerings are a little rich for some of us. Start with ordering some at a proper restaurant one afternoon and see how you like it.

Picasso Museu

Picasso was a misogynistic jerk, we all know that, but the man could paint. And draw and collage and pot, which is a welcome expansion of the usual, “Look at my naked cubist ladies!” museum repertoire. Barcelona was something of a hometown for Picasso, and the Picasso Museum was willed an excellent collection of his early and student work: drawings for larger works, small oil paintings on wood, notebooks full of pencil sketches and so on. Of course they have large, important works as well, but the most appealing part for me was seeing the early classical grounding that allowed for Picasso’s later evolution into groundbreaking styles. The artist in progress and so on. The museum is housed in a city castle, which makes for a charming but also somewhat disorganized and labyrinthine experience.

Head across the alleyway from the gift shop to the Textil Café for a coffee or lunch before or afterwards. It’s half-filled with tourists and the service is painfully slow, but it’s in a pretty, sheltered courtyard and their food is quite good.

Montjuic and related activities

Barcelona, in case you haven’t noticed, is ringed by mountains which provides a handy opportunity to take funiculars up the sides of them or, if you’re deranged, bike up them. Montjuic is one of said mountains, the least suicidal one to bike, and home to, among other things, the Fundacio Joan Miro (a museum dedicated to, er, Miro), the imposing Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, the Olympic stadium (built for the 1936 Olympics, used in 1992) and a warren of very lovely parks with, sometimes, views across the city. The funicular to the top is part of the metro system, so heading up and making an afternoon of it isn’t nearly as complicated as the map looks like it will be. Definitely hit the Miro, wander the gardens, skip the stadium, if you’re up for it take on the National Museum and then meander downhill via escalator, stairs and paths among the fountains and gardens that will land you in the Placa d’Espanya where you can check out…

The Barcelona Pavilion

The Barcelona Pavilion is a “house” by Mies van der Rohe built of steel, glass and marble for the king’s reception at the 1929 World Exposition. They tore down the original, thought better of that bad decision and reconstructed it in the ’80s. If you have any interest in architecture or design, you have to go. It’s small and costs about $7 to get in, but it’s worth half an hour just to be inside those straight lines. We ended up here after a long, long day, happy to discover it was open until 8PM and intrigued that the brochure clearly labeled “English” was just as clearly written in French. I assume this was in keeping with one of van der Rohe’s less well-known utopian plans for future society. (Architectural info + bad photos here. Better photos here, especially here.)

What You Could Do (specialty)

These are some “if these are your kind of thing” recommendations.

Formatgeria La Seu

The artisanal cheese movement has yet to catch on in Spain, so it’s a rarity to find a place so focused on and willing to discuss cheese. It’s not that Spaniards aren’t making cheese in huts on the sides of mountains and meadows, it’s that Spain isn’t flooded with the wine-pairing classes and Whole Foods’ marketing and retired bankers going into goat-rearing that America and France have. Formatgeria La Seu has been chipping away at that for several years now. The shop is central (if tiny), the proprietress is Scottish so you can ask questions freely, and the cheese is phenomenal. Follow her lead and buy whatever she tells you to: she knows whereof she speaks since she goes out into the countryside to find and collect the best cheeses herself. If you have a spare Saturday afternoon, you can even swing by and take a class. (Hours: 10-2, 5-8)

Get yourself some espadrilles

I know. I don’t wear ’em either. But these are some kickin’ kicks. Handmade on the premises, the espadrilles at La Manual Alpargatera come in everything from the traditional flats to crimson gladiator wedges. I bought two pairs and love them like my future children. Who will also, presumably, provide little in the way of arch support.

Liquor

Some restaurants, especially the ones on the water that serve that day’s fresh catch, drop off bottles of clear liquor and shot glasses at your table after you’ve finished eating. Have some. It’s a digestif made out of fruit and gasoline. You’ll like it, especially if you’ve just had half a bottle of wine with dinner. In fact, you’ll like it so much that you’ll swing by the grocery the next day and buy a bottle for $7 to bring home with you. The stuff is terrible but highly addictive.

Vincon

Vincon is a design shop a few blocks north of Placa de Catalunya and worth a visit, if only to buy a few gifts and wish you had that much money to spend on a minimalist bassinet your baby’s going to outgrow in 20 minutes. The place is huge and offers everything from rubber handbags molded to look like roosting hens to high-end kitchenware to Pantone luggage.

Sant Felip Neri Square

Round behind Barcelona Cathedral in the Born neighborhood is a tiny square with a small café outside a wildly expensive hotel. There’s a lovely tree, a fountain, it’s off the beaten path and the café con leche is perfect. While you bask in the afternoon sun, you can think sad thoughts about the bullet holes in the church wall across from you. Location here.

What You Could Do

Tibidabo

We didn’t re-visit Tibidabo this time, but it’s worth a trip after you’ve been up Montjuic, that is, which is a nicer mountain. Tibidabo does have better views though, given that it’s much, much higher. Drive, if you have access to wheels, and you can stop at various points on the way up or down the hill to take photos. Otherwise, public transport will get you there and you can visit the highly impressive Temple de Sagrat Cor church, wander the park, sample the amusement rides which have inexplicably been installed next to the cathedral and generally take in the sun and altitude. (Panorama preview here.)

Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat

The History of the City Museum is not gripping and was, for me, a little tedious, but it does allow you to go underground and view excavated Roman ruins still laid out as they were found. Streets, laundries, wineries and so on lie under suspended pathways beneath modern Barcelona. If you – or your kid – are into archeology, you’ll like it here. (Their web site is spectacularly unhelpful. Check your guide book.)

Museu d’Art Contemporani & Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona

MACBA/CCCB. If you’re an artist, you should hit MACBA, but if you’re not, you, like us, will think that the focus on modern art of 30 years ago feels more archival than interesting. What was cutting edge video collage in 1973 does not feel like classic art now: it feels, sadly, expired. I’m all for a white building though, and the current exhibition of “what we’ve got in the basement” won’t go on forever. (Photo to the left is Lawrence Weiner’s, Some Objects of Desire, 2004.)

What You Can Totally Miss

La Rambla

I think all the guide books are high when they recommend La Rambla as a must-see in Barcelona. It is distinctly an “avoid it if at all possible” on my list, crammed as it is with foreigners, pickpockets and the worst of the worst of tourist-pandering shops and restaurants. If you want the rambla experience (trees, cafes, shops), get off the subway at Placa de Catalunya and walk north on Passeig de Gràcia or Rambla Catalunya.

Corte Inglés

Again with the crack-smoking by the guide book editors, Corte Inglés, the biggest department store in Barcelona, is a mess. Yeah, it has a little bit of everything, but it also has mostly nothing. If you want the clothes, go to the shops themselves: Mexx, Kookai and Desigual all have stores elsewhere in the city with better selections than the sub-boutiques crammed into Corte Inglés. The whole Corte Inglés experience was like going to a pointless WalMart masquerading as a Macy’s. (One exception: the basement of the location in Placa de Catalunya has a comprehensive drugstore for buying only-sold-in-Europe products, and a fully stocked grocery store.)

Anything Olympics-related.

Unless, of course, you’re a future Olympian. In which case, you might have a word with them about using the track for a couple of laps.

Camper shoes

I don’t understand the appeal of Campers. They’re wide, unflattering and not even a little bit chic. I thought maybe I’d missed their point because I had only seen the styles they export to the United States. Turns out they export all their styles to the United States and they cost just as much in the city that spawned them as they do in the States. Still stumped.

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Barcelona: The Food

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When I travel, I tend to be a low-effort locavore. That is, I eat at places that are directly in front of me. Because I try to avoid tourist districts as much as possible, this approach has generally worked out. It never lands me at McDonalds and rarely at overpriced tourist traps that serve watered down, poorly made versions of local specialities.

My selection process below the district level is random. Since I’m not especially into food as a hobby, I don’t go out of my way to eat at well-reviewed places. If I’m already in the neighborhood or someone else has sorted it out, great. Otherwise, I wing it: concierge recommendations are fine, maybe a quick audit in a guide book, but otherwise, c’est la vie. Traveling with me would drive a gourmet nuts, I’m sure.

It surprised me then, when I was thinking about the best part of our recent trip to Barcelona, that the food we had was at the top of the list. We had some really excellent meals, hit some superb, small restaurants, and brought back more food than anything else. Go figure.

Fideuà

It’s pronounced fee-day-WAH. As in, “WAH-hoo!”

The short description is “paella with capellini instead of rice.” (For a longer, more poetic description, check out Traveler’s Lunchbox.) I’ve been to Barcelona four times before and managed to miss this local fisherman’s dish. And Lord, what have I been missing! It’s richer in flavor than any paella I’ve ever had and the noodles make my day. It’s got all the excellent paella features – shellfish, finned fish, crusty bits on the top and bottom – but with pasta, which, to my mind, is always better than rice.

The first and best one we had was at La Fonda in Porto Olimpico. Don’t get all squeamish about heading to a brightly lit restaurant on a pier that’s also home to several bars and nightclubs. Yes, this place will look like your worst nightmare, but as long as you stick with the fideuà, you’re golden.

They’ll try and sell you on their grilled seafood plates by bringing your prospective dinner – live lobsters, crayfish, etc. – by the table to look you in the eye before their demise. This freaks me out – I’ve never been able to cook a lobster – and the resulting plate o’ ocean ordered by a companion just was not that tasty, so I felt justified in my resistance.

R and I got fideuà for two (they make you your own pan) and it was massive, so go hungry or order conservatively. Call ahead for reservations to get a table in a good spot if you’re going during prime dinner hours (around 9:30). Showing up also works, but you might end up on the edges of the outdoor room.

Tapas

Of course, right? You can’t not have tapas in Spain and the restaurant options are endless, so where should you go?

Santa Maria, started and staffed by veterans of El Bulli, offers true small plates and all of them are either innovative or just plain better than what’s usually on offer. No patatas bravas or grilled chorizo for these guys, but what you get instead is super-flavored and interesting. I didn’t love everything we ordered – the Dracula dessert parfait with the equivalent of pop rocks crossed the line from “cool” into “unsuccessful” – but it doesn’t matter when they’re small plates. How bad can something that’s 3″x3″ be? We just ordered more of what we loved. The mussels and the fried tuna sushi roll were standouts. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

The place is small, so going late, as we did, is a good bet, unless you have a party of six or more, in which case you can reserve. We only paid 70+ euros for five people at dinner, which seems extraordinarily inexpensive for a place like this.

More info in the Times Online’s review.

Incidentally, Santa Maria has a sister restaurant, Santa, around the corner where we saw Puyol, the Barcelona soccer star, having dinner with too many sexy ladies and too much gel in his curls to look classy and not trashy, but whatever. If you’ve just won the European Championships, I guess you can be forgiven some lapses in taste.

Taller Tapas on Calle de l’Argenteria in the Born district is the opposite end of the tapas spectrum: a small chain that serves conventional tapas in a high-traffic historic district. Good to know about if you’re visiting museums or churches in the area or shopping of an afternoon. Solid offerings, friendly service and recommended by locals. Make sure you try the ham croquettes.

Gràcia district

Be aware that the restaurants in Gràcia are tiny and gritty-hip. So don’t plan on breaking out your Jimmy Choo’s and a party of twelve. You’ll never get in and you’ll look idiotic while finding that out.

Bodega Manolo was the best and most interesting place we ate in Barcelona. Not because it was haute cuisine or super cool but because the food was innovative and unbelievably tasty without being remotely pretentious. Also, the place is ludicrously local, down to the highly restricted hours (9-11 Fri-Sun), the tiny size (seats maybe 30), and the waitress in jogging pants. The barrels of wine lining the side wall aren’t some version of country decor. They’re actually being stored there. As a city dweller in a too-small apartment, I can relate to that. I just wish this team worked in our kitchen.

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Get everything on the appetizer menu to start. Seriously. Grilled asparagus, paper-thin ham with tomatoes, and, listen up, the potato chips in a pile of indeterminate gratin. I’m not kidding. It’s potato chips with peppers, onions, some kind of ungodly flavorful sauce and, of course, cheese. Don’t laugh. It’s my new favorite thing. I don’t care if you’re on a diet or leery of the chips thing. Order it. You’ll thank me.

Dinner itself was almost an afterthought. Their specialty is a bacalla (salted cod) dish which almost everyone ordered and liked. I got the lighter fish dish which was also wonderful and easier to eat after nine pounds of appetizers. R’s cousin (who weighs about as much as Keira Knightley) got foie gras and apples which was predictably hyper rich and necessarily shared around. I think that dish might be illegal in the States.

Dessert, for me, was the cheese plate, which, in a place like this, you get and you eat and you don’t ask questions. There’s no cheese card, no description of the origins and whether the little sheeps are grass-fed. This is not Whole Foods. This is Spain. It was excellent. I’ll leave it at that.

Bodega Manolo: no credit cards, dinner only, reservations a must
Torrent de les Flors, 101, Phone: 93-284 43 77
Thurs-Sat only, 9-11PM (you can stay later but the kitchen closes at 11)

I don’t know anyone who thinks of Spain and sushi in the same sentence, but if you’re in the mood, hit one of Kibuka‘s two locations, both in Gràcia. Relatives (local) and our bartender at the hotel both recommended it and weren’t wrong.

Living in San Francisco, where sushi is plentiful and high-quality, I didn’t need to go to Spain to get a raw fish fix, but after days of noodles, ham and croquettes, cold fresh fish with rice was a welcome break. We ordered the usual array of special rolls – shrimp, salmon, tuna – and everything was quite good. Don’t expect a lot of original combos, but, definitely, if you’re overstuffed with carbs and meat from other Spanish meals or if you live somewhere where it’s tough to get good sushi, Kibuka’s your place.

Fair warning: get there by 9PM to make sure you get a table. They don’t take reservations and if you miss their first seating, you’ll wait until 11.

Note: Fideuà does not photograph well. Hence, that pretty photo above is from Socarrat, the relatively new paella bar in New York that I’m dying to visit. I hear it’s great, so if you can’t get to Barcelona, perhaps your maiden fideuà could be in Manhattan.

Barcelona: Timing Is Everything

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Travel Planning (Spanish edition):

  1. Make a schedule for when you want to go where.
  2. Sit quietly for a few moments to prepare yourself for the coming disappointment.
  3. Sharpen your #2 pencil.
  4. Begin the math section.

First, you’ll have to account for the nine hour time difference and resulting dose of jet lag, so you have to make a cut at the beginning of the day to account for the time it will take you to wake up, realize how completely exhausted you still are, berate yourself for not feeling fit and getting up early on vacation so you can go do exciting things, and then stumble about looking for caffeine. (This step can be skipped if you are a naturally laid back person or have an inexplicably sunny disposition. For some reason, on this trip, for the first time, I was also able to skip this step, but it’s best to plan it into the schedule, just in case.)

Second, check the day of the week. If you are planning on going to any museums, they are usually closed on Mondays. Except when they’re closed on Tuesdays. Or Sundays. If they do open on Sunday, chances are they will close again by 2:30 which should be right about the time you’ve sorted out the jet lag/caffeine step and gotten some morning ham into you.

If you’re planning on doing any shopping, similar – but different – rules apply. Most small stores are closed on Sundays. Unless they’re not. In which case, they might take Monday off.

Third, remember that sometimes places are open late on a specific day. But since you don’t speak the language, you will not be able to tell which day that is ahead of time. If you are me (and do speak the language, but let’s keep that quiet for now), you see “21:30” listed as the closing time on Thursday and, in a feat of delusional optimism, believe that the Fundacio Miro closes at 21:30 every day. This will cause you to save up your visit for the end of the last day of the trip (a Tuesday), cycle to the funicular up Montjuic to arrive at the museum at 18:57 and be told by the Lurch-like guard that they actually close at 19:00. I recommend against this approach.

Let’s pause here while you reconfigure your entire schedule around days of the week and closing hours.

Done? Good.

Go get your eraser and some comfortable walking shoes.

Even though you know about it and maybe even have envied it from afar as you droop forward over your keyboard every afternoon around 1:00PM, you have forgotten to factor in siesta. Depending on the store, museum, person or activity, siesta will extend for a few hours anytime between 1:00 and 5:30. It’s a safe bet that it will be at least 2:00 – 4:30.

Reconcile yourself to the fact that, despite your misconception that you have planned carefully, you will often arrive at your destination on the correct day, before evening closing time, and face a shuttered edifice. This will be because the nice people have gone home to take a nap. You should probably go and do the same. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

This page has links to the access hours for some of major attractions in Barcelona. Good luck!

Barcelona: The Return

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All my Barcelona notes are going to be out of order because, well, I’m back and I just can’t manage trying to post-date all the things I noted and did, so we’ll have to backtrack together.

It’s an odd thing, the being back. It’s grey summer in San Francisco, for one, and not sunny and 72, which was the uniform forecast for every one of my ten days in Spain. Ah, San Francisco, you frigid bastard. At least the two places share a certain seasonal predictability.

The oddity is exacerbated by the full 26 hours it took to get from Barcelona to San Francisco. That seems excessive in this day and age, no? Shouldn’t there be some kind of teleportation available? Or at least a slide of some sort, maybe one of those tube slides that ends in a big swimming pool of multicolored balls. An Ikea/Chuck E. Cheese type re-entry would take the edge off the jet lag, I’d think.

Here’s the oddest thing about being back: aside from the surreal exhaustion, I’m not all that upset to be home.

And by “home” I don’t mean “in San Francisco” but “back in my apartment hanging about with R and my writing at an ungodly 5AM.” (Even after eight years I can’t bring myself to call California home. Me and the west coast are an unfortunate mismatch, like lasagna and motor oil. They both have their place but it’s probably not together.)

Re-entry used to leave me unhappy and ragged, and included the occasional crying jag on the plane or the day before in some pretty park over a light lunch. (I don’t recommend that last as a way to end your time on holiday. I can say with authority that the summery appeal of ripe cantaloupe with slivers of prosciutto is significantly undermined when one of you is sniffling about the meaning of life into her napkin.)

Partly, I was the same as everyone else: leaving vacation behind for early morning commutes and dentist appointments is no pleasure. But my displeasure was magnified because I was coming back to San Francisco, a city I can’t seem to like, and because I was returning to a series of jobs that held no permanent grip on my interest.

Flying into SFO felt like I was being suffocated: I’d moved to a place where I couldn’t take any air into my lungs without taking everything I’d never aspired to with it. Like the belief that you’re entitled to have your own garage when you live in a city, that being laid back is a virtue, that BART’s nine stations in the city limits count as a subway system, that it’s OK for a driver to stop dead in traffic when she’s missed her turn, that a city without at least one world class theater counts as having a significant cultural profile, that garlic ice cream is not an affront to garlic and ice cream. And on and on and on.

I felt like I’d accidentally moved to a small town, with all its silent bourgeois expectations and pressures, after swearing I’d never live in one again. It made me not a little ill.

Now it’s different. To a large extent, I’ve given up on San Francisco. It is what it is. It’s always going to be provincial and think that it’s not, and I’m never going to love its hippie soul or its yuppie reality. That’s OK. As long as I can write here and be with R, everything’s all right.

The writing makes the material, surprising difference. When I lived in New York and wasn’t writing for a living, at least I was where I felt I belonged and was supported by a striving environment. Not so here. When I was part of the Silicon Valley machine, I was afraid that the sheer volume of days spent in a city so uninterested in what makes me who I am, so unlike who I am, pretending to be someone I am not, might actually add up to my being someone I am not.

Now that I’m writing, that anxiety has dissipated. I’m here at my desk in the unwelcome grey, surrounded by unopened mail, illegally imported cheese, and customs forms fixated on swine flu, and I’m not devastated. In fact, I’m glad to be back and writing. Excellent news all around, yeah?

(Especially about the cheese. Because that could have meant jail time. Which would have meant limited access to cheese. And nobody wins there.)

Barcelona: Dia Dos

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Yesterday I went in search of soup. (Long story. Short version: I love Euro cup of soup.) Destination: Carrefour. For those of you unfamiliar with buying American-size groceries in Europe, Carrefour is a gigantic French supermarket chain. Kind of like a Safeway blended with Target. If I had any hope of locating a mass quantity of Knorr cup-of-soup, Carrefour was it. Simple errand, right?

Turns out, not so much.

For starters, my version of the plan involved acquiring a bike. Bikes and scooters are my new thing for international travel, a private version of public transportation. It’s still technically public transportation since I’m, er, in public and transporting myself.

I had planned on renting a bike but R has family here and his super-cool aunt ordered me up a residents-only Bicing pass. Bicing is like Zipcar for bikes only you don’t have to return the bike to the station where you picked it up and you pay by the year not the hour. Also, inexplicably, there is no hard “c” sound in “Bicing” like there is in “car”.

Here’s how that went:

Assessment Phase.
I think the nearest Bicing rack is a schlep. I look out the window of our hotel room. There’s a rack downstairs. Excellent. Smooth start.

Acquisition Phase.
I do not read instructions. I prefer to be an idiot, often in public, while trying hard to look nonchalant and in the know. It’s kind of a hobby of mine.

In keeping with that plan, I go outside and try to insert my Bicing card into various parts of the bicycle to release it from the rack. I can confirm that it is possible to slide a card between the light and the light fixture. Naturally, this does not release the bike, but I’m just letting you know in case you need somewhere to store a single business card while you’re biking.

I watch a guy drop off his bike and stare intently at the rack for a second before he leaves. I follow his lead and stare intently at the rack. My laser vision does not kick in and release the bike.

I go back into the hotel, back into the elevator, back into our room, reconnect my laptop to the internet and try to read the “how to release your stupid bike from the stupid rack” instructions on the Bicing site. The site comes up in Catalan. I stare intently at the screen. My laser vision does not burn a hole in the screen or translate it into English.

I go to Wikipedia because I am a genius. So is Wikipedia which explains how you have to use your card at the pole at the end of the rack. I didn’t see a pole but am open to the possibility that I am blind, so I go back outside and have a bike in my possession in under 10 seconds.

(The instructions say that staring is necessary to determine if the bike has locked back into the rack when you return it. So much for laser vision.)

Riding Phase.
The bikes weigh a ton and many of them are in some kind of disrepair, but I’m on my way and console myself for all the trouble by telling myself that even though I have blonde hair and hips I look like a Spaniard.

Navigating Phase.
Having no sense of direction is a significant barrier to getting anywhere.

Also a barrier: the total lack of bike lanes along my chosen route. That route turns out to be pretty much a freeway, so I weave my way across the city, making ever possible wrong turn. It takes me an hour and a half to make a trip that should take about 20 minutes.

Drop-Off Phase
When I drop off my bike to go into the grocery store, I cannot get it to lock into the rack. The bike appears to now be mine permanently. I try my nonchalance thing again, turning away for a second like I don’t care. Sadly, that doesn’t turn the “I’m locked” light on. I try my stare again. No luck. I ask a girl who comes to return her bike. The system has flaws, she says. We try the fourth slot. It works. I run off to Carrefour.

Soup Phase.
Carrefour has no Knorr soups. Let’s not get into my disappointment.

I buy hairspray and chocolate instead.

Return Phase.
I pick up a different bike for the return trip, load up my stuff, bike three feet and realize the bike has no brakes. I consider suicide by bike. Instead, I return to the rack, unload, redock the bike, release a different bike, load up and start on my revised route home.

Turns out my revised route is all one-way streets going the other way. I keep going anyway because variables are the enemy.

Closure.
Two and a half hours to go about four miles on a bike. On the up side, I have chocolate and am not dead.

PS
R has a card too so we decide to bike to our dinner date. We go to the Bicing rack which has four bikes locked to it. My card releases a bike. R swipes his card. The screen says, “No bikes are available. Your next nearest Bicing stations is at blah blah blah.” We look at the bikes locked three feet away. We look back at the screen. Bikes. Screen. Bikes. Screen. I decide that the Bicing system is trying to make me insane. I walk away. I think I can hear diabolical laughter behind me.

Barcelona: The Packing Job

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I am wandering around the apartment in a pair of olive suede ballet flats with bronze ribbons and a white terry bathrobe. You’re right: I do look like a high-end homeless person.

There is clothing strewn on every surface in the living room and bedroom. Dresses, swimsuits, a pile of clean laundry, gym clothes, scarves, flip flops. Who knows? There might even be a puppy or a scrumptious dinner under one of the heaps. That would be sweet. Much sweeter than packing for Spain, I can tell you that much. Hell, a dull book would be sweeter than this packing job.

Here’s what happened. On my last trip, I packed like a drunk toddler. I took nothing long-sleeved, nearly overlooked pants entirely and ended up with 150 T-shirts, 40 pounds of magazines and some tall boots to go with the 85-degree weather on the east coast.

It wasn’t my best effort.

So now I’m making up for it by packing for every single event that could even remotely happen during the ten days we’ll be in Barcelona. Bull fight? Covered. Dinner at the beach? Check. Jamón shopping? Yes. Staring cluelessly at natives trying to explain the metro? I have an outfit specifically for that. (It definitely involves a belt and might include, if things go sideways, a tiara.) Clubs? Done. Sulking in the hotel? Ole!

I’m telling you, there is no eventuality I have overlooked. Do you know how I know? Because I am taking everything I own. It’s the only way to know for sure that you’ll have everything you need. Except for mobility, that is, but that’s a small price to pay for security, don’t you think? Yes. It is.

Unrelated, does anyone have the phone number of a sherpa willing to work internationally?

Barcelona: Packing Checklist

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Packing is my Waterloo. The only antidote to overpacking is careful planning. Since I have less than a week before we leave for Spain, it’s time and I’m the one. Here’s where we stand as of this morning:

  1. I’ve checked with American Airlines’ web site and sure enough, as long as I pay the $100 fee, I can bring a javelin to Spain. That’s a relief. I was worried that I wouldn’t have anything to do at the Olympic stadium. Now I just need to find a javelin emporium and someone who can teach me how to throw one in under a week and I’m all set.

    Mind you, my javelin can’t weigh more than 70 lbs. or they won’t accept it. This is very generous of them since women’s regulation javelins clock in at 1.32 lbs. I’m assuming that that that means I can bring 53 of them. (Of course, I’d bundle them up like firewood and wrap them in bubble wrap to make one single 70-lb. javelin. I’m not an idiot.)

    If I had 53 on-hand, I could give three of them as hostess gifts to R’s godmother and her daughters, whom we’ll be seeing while we’re there, and still have 50 to lose in the outfield. Perfect.

  2. My antlers will cost another $100 to bring along. I’m not sure I’ll need antlers while I’m there, but you never know. Our hotel room might be too drab to tolerate and there’s nothing like a good set of branching antlers to liven up corporate digs.

    I wonder if Javelins ‘R’ Us also carries taxidermy.

  3. The Encyclopedia Britannica in 32 volumes is a must-have on the road. I think Spain has electricity and internet access, but you can’t be too careful when you’re dealing with mission-critical information, so better safe than sorry. What would I do if someone asked me about the half-life of strontium or the primary exports of the Niger Delta and I was Wikipedia-less? I’d look like a fool, that’s what. The American reputation abroad is damaged enough after the Bush years. I don’t need to add to that national burden just because I couldn’t be bothered to be prepared.
  4. Fresh eggs are a luxury of the modern world that soften the blow of hangovers and jetlag. I care enough about my own comfort abroad to make sure that I have a nice soft-boiled one waiting for me at breakfast every morning.

    Don’t worry: I’ll pack them carefully. Ten eggs, one for each day, wrapped carefully in a clean shirt, stuffed gently inside a shoe or boot in my suitcase and handed over to conscientious professional baggage carriers should do the trick.

  5. As I understand it, in countries with suspicious water supplies, you can’t drink tap water nor can you have their ice, which is, of course, made from the tap water. I have no reason to believe that Spain has issues with water-borne illnesses, but really, if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything, right? So safety first: I’m taking ice with me. Two large bags should be plenty and shouldn’t weigh more than, say, 20 lbs., which, happily is exactly the carry-on weight limit on international flights. Since it’s a solid and not a liquid, it shouldn’t be a problem to take it on the plane with me.

I love it when a plan comes together. This is going so smoothly already, I can’t imagine how anything could possibly go wrong.

Barcelona: Ramp Up

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We leave in less than two weeks. I have no plans. I haven’t packed. Nothing’s sorted. It’s very unlike me. Also, I’m not excited. Weird, right? At one end is duty-free and at the other is Spain. What’s not to be excited?

I think I’m worn out from other recent trips and all the wedding planning pressure on top of the career change. Can I go into the hospital for “exhaustion” like celebrities do? Or is that really a euphemism for coke addiction? In which case, I guess not. Maybe I could get addicted to coke to get me through all this and then I’d be justified in taking a nice long break at one of those pretty rehab facilities. Not a good idea, you say? Drugs are not the answer? Well, that just seems narrow minded re: how to get a nice rest. *sigh*

I’m trying to kickstart my enthusiasm by spending swaths of time reading up on the city on-line and off. So far here’s what I’ve come up with:

  1. Ham. Jamón ibérico to be precise. At about $75/lb. I’m thinking setting up an import/export venture might be a good way to finance my writing career. Also, it would give some structure to my time in Spain. I’m working on a way to rebuild my suitcase to accommodate a lining of cured ham.

    Alternatively, I could work on importing the actual pigs, but I’m thinking they’re probably bigger than a carry-on. Also, noisy. And unaccustomed to travel. So that’s definitely a fallback position.

  2. Solidifying my dislike for Gaudi. Everyone likes Gaudi now except me, so I feel that I need to make a strong stand. Let’s take a look at what we’re dealing with: 128 years to build a church? Seriously? That is clearly a man without a plan. Your average pyramid was built in 30 years. Is this really gonna be better than 42 pyramids? Really?

    All that disorganization just rubs me the wrong way. Also, the tile work is lost on me. Just because it’s 1000 times bigger than my sixth grade craft project doesn’t mean it’s 1000 times better. That’s all I’m saying.

    (Please don’t get all worked up about this the way you do when I say I hate jazz: I can respect the effort without enjoying the output, so leave me alone already.)

  3. Acquisition of Kleenex and cup-of-soup. You haven’t had cup-of-soup until you’ve had European Knorr Cup-of-Soup. I lived on the stuff when I was a student in Switzerland and, layering on years of carting boxes of it back from all over Europe, I’m like a sommelier of dried soup. It’s a small market. Maybe as small as just me, but I can’t tear myself away. I love that powdery goodness.

    European Kleenex travel packs are square, not rectangular like the American ones. And I’m not ashamed to be seen with the nice patterns on them. That’s all I’m looking for in a Kleenex pack, really: square, non-annoying.

  4. Renting a bike. I’ve never been in Barcelona when it hasn’t been 153 degrees outside, so a bike has never been a practical option. An air conditioned hamster ball was more in order, but I’ve been stuck with the Metro until they get around to my brilliant hamster ball idea. It’s supposed to be a balmy 72 degrees the entire time I’m there, according to Weather.com, so I should be good to go. Actually, past ten days out, Weather.com is listing 72 as the permanent temperature in Barcelona. Which might mean they have no clue what the temperature will be but they’re going out on a non-controversial limb with a soothing 72. No one’s going to object to 72, least of all me on my shiny, shiny bike.