Barcelona, Spain
December 2000

We had booked return airline tickets to London via Barcelona, (which is only about 100 miles from Canet En Rousillon, France, where we were staying.)
 After making a day trip to Barcelona, we could tell that there was a lot to see there, so we decided to spend a couple extra days in Barcelona before flying back to London and New York.  We went to a hotel recommended in Rick Steve's book but they were full for the weekend.  We went to a second hotel and they were full also.  Then we learned that from Thursday through Sunday there was a national holiday and the city was booked.  So now we asked every hotel we passed if they had a room. 
Full,... Full,... Full,... Full!  Oh, the party we were going to miss!  On and on we went, and finally, persistence paid off.  We went to the last hotel recommended in Rick's book on the main circle. They had one large room with a balcony overlooking the busy street.  It was pretty expensive, but what the heck -- it included breakfast.  Hip, hip, hooray -- we were going to stay!!

As you can see in the picture above, the streets were jammed on Saturday night.  Restaurants and shops were all open late for Christmas shopping.  We stayed just off of Placa Catalunya which is a huge traffic circle with a large park in the center.  Beneath the park is a major subway hub and parking garage.  It borders an area of the city called Barri Gothic -- Gothic Quarter, which could be translated further as "old town" and comprised mostly of pedestrian streets.  Placa Catalunya is Barcelona's Times Square or Picadilly Circus without all the lights.  It is surrounded with many upscale and mid scale stores and theaters.

We entered a huge department store that was a half block from our hotel.  It looked similar to a Macy's or Nordstrom's but much, much bigger.  The first floor was a mix of electronics, clothes, perfumes, hats, and eye catching stuff.  I was very surprised to see that the basement level was a gigantic supermarket. The basement level also had a fully stocked hardware store as complete as any Ace Hardware in the States.  Cheryl set out to look at leather jackets and found selections on three different floors.  Later, I mentioned the ones I had noticed, and it turned out to be yet a fourth location.  Two and a half floors were filled with toys.  Not a lot of difference to the toys we have in the U.S., but Cheryl got a kick out of the anatomically correct baby dolls.  We've all seen the baby dolls that "drink and wet" -- but you should see what the little boy ones do in Spain.  (Europe isn't so freaked out by the human body I guess.)  Every time I went up an escalator there was yet another one going up.  More electronics, furniture, more perfume, clothes of all type, toys, and finally at the top on the ninth floor, a restaurant surrounded by glass.  We thought about eating there but the waiting list was almost as large as the store itself.

Moving on from the Placa Catalunya it is about ten blocks down La Ramba to the port on the Mediterranean.
The section known as La Rambla is the oldest part of the city and is truly the heartbeat of Barcelona.  At the base of La Rambla is a towering monument to Christopher Columbus, (seen on the left in this photo.)  At this spot, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella welcomed Columbus home from his famous voyage to America.  (Little did they know that Columbus' discovery would eventually lead to the downfall of the powerful Spanish Empire.)
There is a large mall on a pier and a lot to see, but it's all very modern so we didn't stay long.  So next, let's travel back up the famous La Rambla and take a closer look at the sights.  La Rambla has a fifty foot wide center walkway with a single lane of car traffic on either side of it.
Across the narrow car lanes are wide sidewalks and all types of stores.  There are different sections along the long center walkway.  There is a very old public market where you can purchase all types of fresh produce, meat, fish, cheese and flowers.  Some of the items we saw in the meat cases were pretty weird -- skinned lambs heads with they eyeballs still intact, little skinned animals with their legs in almost a running position, (they may have been rabbits,) and other critters unrecognizable to American tourists like us, but regular staples on Spanish dinner tables.
Near the port are the artists -- about two dozen of them display their art as they work on new creations.  We saw several wonderful, unique works.  The most impressive collection was one that was either made up of high-gloss photos or unbelievably realistic paintings, (we couldn't decide which.)  Upon close examination, we decided that they were all paintings.
A few blocks further was an area of mimes and human statues like the woman above.  We have never seen such a variety of street performers -- all of them so different.  The boys could have spent hours watching this Marionette, (puppet on a string.) This guy had realistic body movements and really funny routines.  These performers were stationed all along the walk.  Next, spread through the central section of La Rambla were the restaurants; well, the outside seating for the restaurants anyway. 
The actual restaurants were located in the buildings across the street, but everyone likes to sit in the wide center walkway to "people watch."  It was funny to see the waiters eagerly waiting to seat us and then run back and forth across the traffic lane, dodging cars, with drinks and food.
It was a great place to enjoy a light snack and small drink. We relaxed and watched the people pass by and the street performers at their craft.  One slightly obnoxious street performer would start walking with a couple or small group of people as if he were part of the group and then make a loud fart or oink sound so that restaurant customers could watch the group's reaction.  Some were funny -- many were stupid.  Then he'd pass the hat through the restaurant crowd for tips.
We watched as a small crowd gathered around a guy with three cups and a small ball.  He'd throw down a small cloth, place the ball under one cup and begin mixing the three around.  Max was certain he could see which cup the ball was under and kept telling me to bet  five dollars.  Do you think the guy could hear him?

We also met up with two women that handed us a carnation and asked for a donation for some sort of good cause -- a single bill or coin would be plenty.  We had read about these gypsies at the hotel.  I pulled out the lining of my pocket to show that it was empty and as I did she quickly grabbed for whatever might appear.  The other gal was talking with a man that was just opening his wallet.  She was grabbing to pull out his credit cards and the one talking with us turned to grab the cash.  Just then a local shouted in Spanish, "Get out of here you gypsies".  As he started to tell all of us about them, I saw that the gypsies had jumped into a taxi and quickly drove off.  I didn't see them calling down the taxi, but since it all took place in two or three seconds, I assume the taxi was part of the scam.
Lots and lots of street performers -- and all so unique.  Some mimes did a great job standing perfectly still like a statue.  It was amazing to see people passing by throwing the equivalent of quarters and dollars into his cup.  When you think about it, the ones that were better at doing absolutely nothing were making a pretty good living.  If standing there and doing nothing wasn't bringing in any coins, he would move just a little in a robotic fashion.  One or two people would stop to see what else he was going to do (which was nothing), and then even more people would stop.  Then he would just do the statue routine again (nothing).  Soon the coins were flowing again.  I really enjoyed watching the overall psychology of the whole routine. 
Further up La Rambla are several fold-up stands like these.  Closed up it looks like a big box, but when opened it's a small pet store.  Most of them were filled with birds ranging from simple pigeons to colorful exotic ones.  Cheryl wondered how many of these birds would be illegal to bring into the States.  These shops also sold snakes, lizards and rabbits.

We stopped again to watch the fellow with the ball and cups.  He really thought he'd be able to draw me in, (thanks to Max.)  I tried to remain unseen in the crowd.  We noticed that one guy would eventually be talked into making a $5.00 bet.  Then another fellow would try.  Then the first guy would make a twenty dollar bet and win.  Then another mix of the cups and Max would see where the ball went.  Max would say, "Dad, we can do it!"  Again the fellow would verbally work to draw me in.  Now, if someone threw their money down, he would instantaneously re-mix the cups and guess who would win?  See, it looks as if you'd get to bet on the last mix that he deliberately allowed people to see.

Before anyone wised up to the scam and possibly speak up, he'd grab his stuff and disappear into the crowd.  As the crowd dispersed, he'd go around the back of one of the bird shops and walk pass his buddy who'd slip him back the $20.00 he appeared to win. Next he'd set up for a new crowd and his buddy joined into the crowd again.  We saw these two at work several times during the weekend.

At the far end of La Rambla at Placa Catalunya Circle, were musical performers.  We were surprised to see the Peruvian's with their usual wooden flutes, drums and beautiful music.  (We've seen them in every major city in the U.S.)

Remember, I talked about the pedestrian streets?  Here's a car driving down one of them.  Parking in Europe was also unique.  We pulled into the parking garage entrance and a ramp went down one floor.  We saw three large metal doors.  We were directed to door number three.  The large metal door opened -- it was a large elevator.
 I drove the car on, stepped out to the control box, placed the magnetic ticket the attendant had given me in the slot and pressed the big green GO button.  The door closed and the ticket was imprinted with the location where our car would be parked and off went the car on a robotic elevator that moved left and right as well as up and down.  We had used a similar system in London.  It works like a robotic warehouse -- tightly packing the cars in on shelves like a furniture warehouse.
But the fun was yet to begin.  We returned to get our car, waited for our turn, placed the ticket in the slot and off went the elevator.  Soon our car was here and off we drove.  Just like the guy in the picture above, we carefully exited onto a pedestrian-only street.
As we slowly drove through the people to get into the traffic lane, we found these posts sticking up blocking our way.  Great!  Now what?  Had we missed a sign or something?  I started to back up, but the crowd was thick behind us and another car was coming out of the parking garage.  Maybe I could see which way he was going to go.  Just then, a fellow approached the car and as best he could in broken English, told us to approach the posts and they would go down when the light changed. 
A detector in the street activates the stop lights and these posts.  Sure glad he offered this information because we were totally baffled.

The next day, Mitch and Max enjoyed jumping onto the posts after a car passed and riding them up. 

Look closely at this picture and you'll notice the taxi driver is pushing his car.  In the background is the park at Placa Catalunya.  A line of taxis await their turn for a fare.  As each one leaves, the line moves up, just like at an airport.  Why is this guy pushing his taxi, you ask?

Over $4.50 for a gallon for gas in Barcelona.

The red arrow points to our hotel room balcony.  There are restaurants and theaters across the street and next door, and behind me about half a block is the park.  Both Mitch and Max were really pleased to see our room was right across the street from one of Spain's finest restaurants.  Do you recognize the logo in the lower right hand corner of this photo?  They couldn't wait to go out for dinner.
I connected the laptop to check e-mail and Cheryl took the boys out for a burger.  They came back with the food and set up dinner on the balcony. 

There was lots of laughing and talking that I couldn't put into context coming from our balcony.  I kept on working, but the giggling kept up and soon I couldn't take it any more. I wrapped up my work and went out to see what was going on. 

Across the street was a no parking zone, but as you can see, this did not stop the locals from not only parking, but also double parking and sometimes even triple parking.  Cars would work into very small spaces by bumping the car in front and behind them repeatedly, (not just little touches -- good sized thumps.)  We saw a few near-fights.  We watched as the people in the white car waited and honked for ten minutes for the owner of the gray car to move and let them out.  Police came by and ticketed every car on the street several times.  Most of the people just stopped for a short time, (to pick up people at the theater or to have a quick drink and pick up something from one of the restaurants.)  Any sizable space was never empty for more than ten seconds. This provided a continuous comedy act throughout the whole evening.
And finally, we're homeward bound.  We had a great time in England, Scotland, France and Spain.  We saw so many new places -- famous places like Big Ben, Stonehenge, the Eiffel Tower and Loc Ness.  We rode a double-decker bus in London and sped under the English Channel on the Eurostar.  We were impressed with the beauty of the Alps and the myth-like history of Versailles and Carcassonne.  We learned that the French Riviera is over rated and that small cities like Annecy and Stratford-Upon-Avon have the same small town feel and friendliness that we find all over the United States. 
We enjoyed different foods -- some we liked and some we needed to develop a taste for, (and in Max's case, some we got addicted to.)  We experienced different languages and cultures, enjoyed driving on the left but didn't enjoy getting lost.  We watched people at work in century-old markets, talented craftsmen and a variety of scam artists; but mostly, we enjoyed meeting and talking to regular people.
Our month is up; our vacation is over.  Cocoa is waiting to be sprung from the kennel and it is time to return home to our usual routine.  As our plane climbed from Barcelona we could look down on the Pyrenees Mountains.
It was already December 10th, and we only had seventy-five percent of our Christmas shopping done.  We had planned to finish up in Europe and send gifts as soon as we got back.  However, the first winter storm was about to hit so we packed up and headed south.  The cold front chased us all the way down the east coast to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  We finished our shopping along the way.  The RV park we stayed in was right on the beach and had a large activity center, (but hardly any other people.)  We set up a few tables and spent the day wrapping Christmas presents.  It was like having a huge family room.

The cold front was a big one and it would be freezing here tonight.  So we packed up and headed farther south to Orlando, Florida where we would stay put for several weeks and relax for a while.
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