July 23, 2010

Vegetalia Restaurant – Barcelona 2010

The restaurant is not where it's supposed to be. At least, according to my map, the building has been misplaced. I walk around the block a few times; down a suspect back alley, and then around once again. Left. Right. Right. Left. Okay, I give up.

Of course, those are the words the travel gods are waiting to hear because, suddenly, here's the restaurant in front of me.

It has 4 tables situated at the edge of a small courtyard and the day is pleasant enough, so I sit outside. The young (and cute, as usual) waitress comes up all cheerful and hands me 3 menus. Not sure why so many, but each has something good to offer.

I practice my Spanish with her. She answers in flawless English. I speak more horrible Spanish. She smiles and tells me what I want to say. Thanks.

My starter is spring rolls and they look Deee-Lish.

I have to admit there's more roll to them than stuffing, but still I likey. Just enough spice and not too greasy.

By the time I finish those, my veg burger is on the way. I select tofu+spinach; the menu offers about 10 different choices, and this appeals to my innate sense of holy vegetarianism. It is a good choice, though I'm slightly disappointed there's no bun. Sorry, but as an American, a hamburger without a bun is just chopped up meat dumped on the plate. Or in this case, nicely formed and circular tofu/spinach patѐ.

The burger and rice go well together – not much in the way of strong spices here. It's not bland, but it also doesn't really have any kick to it. Yet, taken together, the taste ends up being quite good. I gobble it down.
Side note #1: Speaking of mush, I order a veg burger from a place called “Wow” (or “Mom” if you're twisting your head around) and it's the opposite of the picture above. Wow's burger comes on a huge, crusty, hard roll and one bite sends the mashed paste spilling over the sides. I end up smearing it on pieces of the bread like it really is patѐ.

I have room for dessert. In this case, I want the banana cake. And here it is:

That's whipped cream to the side, and it's not overly sweet – an obvious theme here. Not too spicy nor too sweet. Definitely good, but a safe middle of the road as far as your tongue is concerned.

Side note #2: Glance at the picture of the banana cake dessert. Keep that image. Now, imagine being at another place, oh say one with the name Vegetariano Restaurant. Their menu says “kiwi and banana” as a dessert option and I think a nice fruit plate presented to me in a simple, yet elegant style. My imagination is far too elaborate:


So, after it's all been chewed, how do I feel about Vegetalia? The service was quick and friendly, the two main expectations. The food is good. For me, the lack of any real oomph is fine. Though each portion was a bit ordinary, as a whole they all compliment each other. Most probably this restaurant deserves halfway between 3 and 4 diamonds. I'll go ahead and bump it up to 4, because the food was good enough to think about returning.

My rating: ◊◊◊◊

disclaimer and diamond scale explained

Wacky Videos – Barcelona 2010

Three for the price of one!


Transport Mode – Barcelona 2010

In case you're wondering how most people get around Barcelona, I made a little video:

“Guess Why” Contest! – Barcelona 2010

Just to clarify: Yes! That is a map of Barcelona taped to my hotel room ceiling. And yes, I'm the one who did it.

Now for the contest, which is entitled “Guess Why” because you have to … oh, you know.

The first person to give the exact reason why I've taped a map to my ceiling wins a fabulous prize. Generalities will not be good enough. Be specific.

You have one week, and then I'll update this post with the answer. Your guesses can be submitted either by email or through the comment section at the end of this post. Good luck!

Hotel Quirks – Barcelona 2010

Why have a simple on/off switch, when you can have this:

Why have a sink,when you can install something that looks cool but basically acts like a sprinkler system across your chest.

And just in case of nuclear attack, this button comes in handy:

Oh, this hotel also has wood floors.  Now that's unique. And they look quite nice. However, it also means every little noise is picked up all around -- a dropped pen, high heels, chairs moving. Again, style over function and I'm none too pleased about it.

Lastly, I simply hate those air conditionings that don't have a definitive off button. The one here has to be racheted up to a higher temp and then I wait until the monster robot decides whether to turn off or not. Sometimes it does in a couple of minutes. Sometimes it takes 15 minutes or more. Ugh.

Modern Art (Part 2) – The Destroyer of Childhood Memories – Barcelona 2010

Another museum. Another reason why modern art needs some sort of worldwide censorship. Okay, I'll volunteer.

Montjuic – Barcelona 2010

No, I haven't taken a sudden side trip to Israel. Nor to a certain neighborhood in NYC. And yes, Mount Jews is the actual translation of Montjuϊc, which was named for a Jewish community ages ago; I suppose they never got around to changing it, because there is nothing particularly Jewish about this area.

It's a mountaintop national park on the edge of southeast Barcelona, and was the site of the Olympic Stadium built way back in mid-90s. The stadium is still in use and looks almost brand new. In fact, everything about this area is pristine. Even the roads that zigzag up the mountain are well paved, spacious, lined with towering trees, and clean.

Side note: Wide open spaces are a common experience throughout Barcelona. I think I'll need to talk more about this, in a later post.

My goal this day is to hike to the peak to visit the old castle; by “hike” I mean take the tram halfway up and then see what happens.

Well, what happens is I get an exercise bug nagging in my ear, and so I do take the challenge. Ignoring the cable car system that will take me to the top, I just start walking. I stay on the streets, setting a quick pace, and wind my way back and forth slowly up the mountainside. It's quite pleasant … most of the time I'm the only one on the road. I imagine it's 2km to reach the top, at a semi-steep road angle. Sort of feel like I accomplish something when I stand before the drawbridge.

The view of the Mediterranean harbor from this height is spectacular. I sit and watch the ships being loaded with cargo. Then, walk to the opposite side of the promontory and watch the tiny white sails out in the distant blue. Or the toy cars zooming down the gridwork of roads among the buildings. A steady breeze keeps everything cool as the sun hides behind waves of clouds.

I'd love to show a ton of pictures, but my camera battery died way down below. So, you'll have to take my word for it … that, and the fact that I was able to squeeze 3 pictures out of a last gasp spark.

For those dying of curiosity, here's what I had to do: I leave the camera off for 30 minutes, then find a good location I want to photo, turn it on, have my finger ready on the button, and snap away as soon as the rear screen shows the image. Wait the required time and repeat. So, the photos you see are 1.5 hours of anguished hard work. And to the last one here is the final picture my camera takes before the battery finally says, "fuck off and stop waking the dead."

July 22, 2010

My Only Spanish Friend - Barcelona 2010

Title says it all:

Somethin' for Da Ladies - Barcelona 2010

Okay, ladies, never say I don't look out for you. Here's a special catch for ya:

Wacky Video - Lunch Time at Aquarium - Barcelona 2010

L'Aquaria ... or ... Time for You to Sleep With Da Fishes -- Barcelona 2010

I spend a couple of hours at the Aquarium this morning. Quite good, actually. The tanks are laid out really well and all the animals look healthy. Well, as healthy as something cold, slimy, and underwater can look.

I have some video, to highlight the good stuff. This first one is a friendly manta ray:

Now for something a little more sinister:

The Aquarium offers a special "Dive With Sharks" tour. I'd love to do that, but two things:
  1. I don't have my dive card with me.
  2. It costs 400euro. That's a lot of chum!

Next two videos are set to a slightly different beat:

And this last one highlights what's becoming a theme for my Barcelona week. I could seriously put this short vid on a loop and watch it for hours:

July 20, 2010

I Know It When I See It – Barcelona 2010

Let's talk Modern Art … ah, the two words that mean absolutely nothing because what is modern and what is art?

As with my critique of Van Gogh, (everyone's a critic), I set the standard for either of 2 values in art:
  1. Realistic attention to detail – focusing our attention on minutia of life in a unique way through whatever medium the artist wants.
  2. Surreal interpretation of our world – sort of like reality on LSD.
Therefore, modern art must be a delicate combination of the two … a borderline mixture, which can't dissolve into a jumbled mess, nor something so “real” as to be ordinary. The Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (Contemporary Art Museum of Barcelona) happens to be filled with both of these worst cases.

Where can I begin? How about a simple picture:

Yes, that is a bed hanging on the wall, with a couple of chairs (I think) and the numbers “1 2 3” hand scrawled above. Why? Who cares?

This is a perfect example of the primary fault of modern art, one I label as the “You're too stupid” form.

To show you what I mean, here's a short video:

You sit in a dark room on a wooden bench. Against the far wall is an inflated weather balloon hovering in the darkness, on which a projector shines nothing but white light as a disembodied voice releases short phrases in monotone. The words are in French, I think, though it was hard to tell exactly what language it is, or even if it's supposed to be a language.

Okay, I get Orwell's “1984” tangent. And I take in account it was created in 1950, so the whole communism-taking-over-the-world fear is rampant. But still...

For me, this presentation illustrates the principle, simply put, if you don't understand that the art in front of you is a beautiful, creative, unique work of outstanding depth and insight … well, then “You're too stupid.” Why don't you gather up your dirty animal skin clothing and huddle back to your cave to gnaw on dog bones. Well, guess what, Mr. Artist Man? I'm not too stupid. And a bed hanging off the wall is useless. White light on a huge balloon is ridiculous. The atmosphere you're envisioning is trite, repetitive, and, frankly, idiotic. So there … and then I club him over the head with a rock.

Another type of modern art falls under the “My child did this and I'm pretending it's mine.” As in this example:

The artwork (Really? Can I call it that?) is hanging in a museum. Someone, somewhere, has given it a rave review and someone else, somewhere else, has paid lots of money for this. Right now, thousands of people stare at it every day and shake their heads in deep, ponderous thought.

I, on the other hand, smirk and mutter “Oh please!” just loud enough to disturb the guard by the doorway.

Finally, there is this stereotypical piece, which seems to pop up in every modern art museum in one form or another:

I don't hate it? I don't particularly love it either. It just is. And honestly, is that enough?

So, all this negativity. Why do I bother? Because occasionally I come across something that does create a twisted view of our world in such a way you stop, think, stare, think, and stare some more.

A close up:

I like the repetition that seems the same, but isn't. I like the “death mask” quality of the faces with random (or not random?) words across the front. The entire work is about 2 meters tall by 7 meters wide (5ft x 18ft) approximately and looks hand crafted. That takes patience, time, determination and … aha! … talent. What does it mean? I have no clue.

But I admire it immediately when I see it.

p.s.  I'm a blast at the museum. My snide cynicism really comes into good use.

ITC Hotel Reviewed - Amsterdam 2010

This is a tale of two hotels, sort of a yin and yang.

Some rooms of ITC are barely livable. My first night I stay in a standard single room in the annex building, which is basically utility-room, claustrophobic small. No closets. A desk the size of a laptop. A small window which looks out at a wall. And a bed slightly better than an army cot. While lying down, I am hesitant to stretch out because my feet would end up in the toilet. Okay, that's a slight exaggeration. There is at least 2ft between the edge of the bed and the toilet rim.

My next night, I'm lucky to upgrade to a double room in the main building. Two closets. Chest of drawers. Nice desk. Two large windows opening to an inner courtyard. And a perfect double bed. The difference in cost? Less than $100 for the entire week. Well worth it.

Other quirks of the hotel that sort of make you stop and wonder?

The stairs are incredible steep and narrow and there is no baggage assistance –  lousy for almost any standards. The interior is well maintained (mostly) and relatively clean, if a bit run downed, but when it rains my ceiling has a leak – enough for a loud dripping sound but it's located away from anything of concern. There is free wireless in the front reception, but costs 7.5euros a day in your room, which is on the floor right above? The connection is spotty, at best. However, after paying for one day, the password ends up working for the entire week. Am I suppose to keep paying? Sorry, I don't...it's provided free less than 10 ft away! (Okay, I feel a little guilty)

Most of the staff is really nice – Justyna is exceptional and deserves a raise (or a better job?). However, reception is closed from midnight to 9a.m. Not very convenient for early risers like me who need a couple of things.

Lastly, and to no fault of their own, the tram no longer passes on the adjacent street due to bridge construction. This may last for months; as of mid-July 2010 the bridge is dismantled completely. No one bothers to mentioned this and so I take Tram #4 as recommended and wait for my stop to be called out; it never is. I backtrack on the return tram, and the nearest stop is a long 3 blocks away.

These examples are indicative of what's wrong with ITC Hotel. At times, it seems more of a hostel than a hotel – it's filled with young, loud, partying backpackers. But the price is more at a hotel level, about 80euros a night. So, it's hard to really give this hotel an accurate rating. If I had been stuck in that single room, paying for an spotty, unreliable internet connection, I can award a single diamond. But with the room upgrade, freeish internent (though still spotty), and the location being great (walking distance to everything), I can give it 3 diamonds, maybe.

Yet, when you come back at the end of a busy day, ITC Hotel is simply not that welcoming. I would not really recommend it to anyone. It's not horrible. It's just not great, either. I'd try out a different hotel if I return to Amsterdam (chance of that?).

I'm going to end up with a conditional 2 diamonds. Stay away from the annex building and the single rooms, and it's good enough.

ITC Hotel - Amsterdam:  ◊◊

ratings explained

How Bad Is My Travel Day – Sunday, July 18

First off, I need to announce something all of you already know: I'm an idiot.

In this case, I'm referring to my amazingly stupid idea of booking all my flights through Heathrow. This means I fly to Amsterdam and return to Heathrow to fly to Barcelona and then return to Heathrow to fly to Stockholm...etc. My original reason was that it would be cheaper, and in that respect I'm a genius. However, as I manage to make a 2 hour flight from Amsterdam to Barcelona somehow turn into a 12-hour travel day with stop overs and whatnot (I fly Swiss International through Geneva!), I want to dump cold water on my head and set fire to myself. (I know this punishment seems contradictory, but, hey, I'm an idiot.)

How much money did I save? Maybe around $500 - $600 dollars on my total combined flights this summer. Yet, I trade that for the stress of worrying about weaving my way through Heathrow's passport control and different terminals to catch my connecting flight, which is a different carrier of course because why would I make things easy and use the same airlines for all this? It was all about the money and it should have been about convenience. Ugh.

So, on this Sunday, I get lucky. I'm through the passport maze and luggage pick-up, on the Tube to get from Terminal 4 to Terminal 1, and check in under 1.5 hours. Yes! At least my idiocy allowed a minimum of 3 hours for very connection. Who knows if that will be enough for my future trips.

Besides this sudden insight into my intelligence, my trip goes fine. Noisy, but fine.

So, how bad is my travel day rated? Actual travel, including the quality of the flight and a few lucky guesses, as in which direction to exit the metro or which line to get in: 8. Even the travel gods occasionally have mercy on idiotic travelers.

And how is the realization that I need adult supervision before I plan my next trip rated? That's a 1.

rating explained

July 19, 2010

Loose Ends – Amsterdam 2010

Here are some leftover photos that don't really need a post of their own.

A few gratuitous shots of me. Yes, I realize it's beginning to look as if I've stayed at home and spend my time photoshopping my head onto different backgrounds.

A great salad I ate at a place called Masala's at Scheveningen beach. At first, I thought the name of the restaurant is “Masada”, as if they'd name it after the place where Jewish fighters ended up committing mass suicidal of themselves, their families, their animals, and even the majority of the flies and cockroaches rather than surrender to the Roman occupational army. It that doesn't get your mouth watering, what would?

A couple of scenic views. And a short sunset video of my last day … meant to take the edge off the positive/negative post about this place.

Lastly, just some of those weird images I see and need to photograph.

Positive/Negative – Amsterdam 2010

Time to rate Amsterdam, based on my week here. Is that enough time? Well, it's enough for me to make fundamental judgments of exaltation or condemnation.

Overall Opinion:
Amsterdam is a fine city; it's easily accessible and fun, on occasion. However, nothing much here really grabs me. Many of the aspects I thought would be a blast, end up a bust. Part of that was bad timing – see all the lousy weather videos – and another part was the lack of real energy in this city. Apart from the tourist hives, regular Amsterdam simply sits there. So, it's a nice place to visit but I don't see myself returning anytime soon.

  • Walkability – This city seems smaller than it is. Everything of interest less than a half hour walk away. Most of the time, it takes an easy 10 minutes to get anywhere. That's fun.
  • Party – The Dutch like to gather, drink, and party. Every night local pubs are filled with regulars. I like the friendliness of that.
  • Boredom – There's really not much to do here. When you see one neighborhood, you've seen them all. Each canal starts looking like the next. The houses are all lined up and decorated in identical styles. Where is the individuality? Where is the energy? After 2 days of walking around, I feel like I'm done. I spend the next 4 days seeing the same all over again.
  • Restaurants – The food is fine, for the most part. It's the strange hours that bug me. Some restaurants open at noon. Some at 1pm. Some at 5pm. Most don't even post their hours, in any language, so you sort of guess when to show up. Is it that difficult to make up your mind? One day I spent over 2 hours trying to find someplace that was both open and had a decent vegetarian dish. Ugh.
  • Museums and such – I went to Rijksmuseum (for Rembrandt stuff), Van Gogh museum, photography museum, film museum, the palace, and a couple of other places. The prices are high – cheapest was 10euro (about $13). Okay, fine. But you'd hope there is something worth seeing. I am surprised at how poorly the museums are organized. Most are crowded, bunching everyone into small rooms trying to glimpse mediocre work over each others' shoulders. Now tell me this: How can you have a Van Gogh museum and not have “Starry Night”? That's ridiculous. (For a further discussion of Van Gogh, click here.)
  • A Dark Side – Click here for my thoughts on this.

A Trend Further Understood – 2010

Oh, now I see. What I think is a “baby on the plane trend” is really something else. I confuse the message and the messengers.

My flight to Barcelona (through Geneva) had no children. Ah, I think. The curse is broken. Nope. It's simply changed pathways. It's not babies who are the trend. Noise is the real theme for my plane travel.

The 2 noisiest women I have ever heard sit behind me and talk nonstop for 2 hours. Their voices aren't simply loud enough to carry over the engine drone, but are high pitched, boisterous, overlappingly loud. I seriously doubt they listen to each other. The sound of their voices is the sole purpose.

How bad is it, seriously? The woman sitting next to me is trying to read, and suddenly (an hour into the flight) tilts her head up and lets loose with a “Sssssshhhhhhhh!” Not the gentle please-be-quiet movie theater request, but the angry, forceful, I've-warned-you-two-times-already librarian attack.

The entire plane goes silent. Even the engines roar a little softer. Pure, blissful peace for about 15 seconds. Then the 2 women start at it once again, but this time they talk about how rude it is for someone to suggest they might be a little quieter. The Ssh-er gave it her best, and then surrenders. She closes her book and the noise continues on and on and on.

The Underbelly – Amsterdam 2010

My original idea was to discuss this topic in the “Positive/Negative Amsterdam” post. However, as I think it through, I realize I need more room. So, here's more room.

Amsterdam has a certain seediness to it. Obviously, the Red Light District is the first thing that comes to mind. True, sex for sale always carries an unavoidable Ick! factor. Even here, where it's legal. As I pass by the display windows, the half-hidden desperate and empty return glances are so sad. When I see the foreign faces (and every woman I saw was dark skinned and Asian) with the forced smiles that are supposed to be come hither but are more like strung out, I want to run up and hug them, say everything is going to be okay, and then spirit them away from this life and into school or a home or somewhere where there's value in everyday work.

Am I being too condescending. That's a bad habit of mine.

Regardless, this part of Amsterdam is not pretty.

Another expectation of mine before I arrived was visiting the “coffee shops.” Coffee, obviously meaning drugs. Hearing about the marijuana bars and how you can simply hang out, smoke, and enjoy makes it all seem so alluring in my planning stage.

In truth, these shops are uninviting, dark, and depressing. Maybe it's the “hide it and nobody will notice” theme? Glancing in (and I notice many, many of these), all I see are huddled groups of young men, age 16 to 24 I suppose, not speaking, looking down at the floor, with their shoulders hunched forward as if a huge weight is crushing them. Outside on the stoop, two or three drunken, drugged, angry customers loll about and stare at you, as if you had a beat-me-up sign on your forehead: “I've got 50euro in my wallet!” Where's the joy?

I expect a happy, open, sunshiney environment where everybody loves each other and laughter spills out onto the street, and as you walk in everybody knows your name, and someone's rambling but no one's listening while still being able to say “I know exactly what you're talking about!”

Am I being too naive here? That's a bad habit of mine.

Okay, every large city has it's seedy underbelly. Yet, here it's different. Amsterdam takes two enjoyable aspects of life – marijuana and sex – and makes them into a soul-crushing business. That's just wrong and it bothers me.
(Sorry, no pictures here because it's too depressing.)

My Only Dutch Friend – Amsterdam 2010

And no, I don't feed him, because then he might follow me home and I'd have to keep him.

Trend #3 – Amsterdam 2010

Something about me makes people want to ask directions. So far this week, 4 groups have stopped me to ask for directions: Korean, Spanish, Italian, and some indistinct Eastern European accent.
Maybe it's just that I walk constantly throughout the city, so I've increased the probability of being stopped. Or maybe it's my wise face and confident demeanor?

Trend #2 – Amsterdam 2010

Plan to spend my last day at the Vondelpark. Get here just in time. For a time reference, this is 2 days after my last attempt at outside activity at the beach. It's following me:

UPDATE: 30 minutes later! My prayers have been heard by the great weather gods:

UPDATE #2: 15 minutes later! Nope. Just a tease: