National Palace of Pena, Sintra

The bus windows fog up, taking away more of our view than the morning drizzle. Quietly our bus makes its way up the steep slope and tight turns that lead us to our reward – National Palace of Pena. The colours of the castle punctuate the hill, but we’re forced to imagine the view. The valley fog provides a mystical back drop for our unguided exploration. Pena does its palace label justice providing color, tile work and plenty of ‘pretty things’.

Despite the fog and drizzle we take advantage of the vast park surrounding the palace and visit the High Cross, Duck House, Horse Stables, Goats (“little tiny ponies that make delicious cheese”) and the Valley of Lakes.

 

 

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Barcelona Architecture

A quick search on the internet and you’ll be aware that Barcelona has a creative history of architecture, mostly notably Antoni Gaudi.  He’s an acquired taste that has left an impact and whose work dots the landscape.  Tourists flock to mainstays, such as:

  • Sagrada Familia – a church whose construction remains incomplete after starting in 1822 – yes, over 100 years! The building is visible from throughout the city with it’s many towers and accompanying tower cranes. 

  • Buildings in the central city including Casa Batillo, La Pedrera, Circulo Ecuestre street with 3 of his buildings
  • Park Guell – the park on property purchased by Eusebi Guell and entrusted to Gaudi to plan and develop for well off citizens in the early 1900’s. With changing times, the park ultimately went to Barcelona City and opened as a public park in 1926. You see innovation in the design and details of the park that no doubt have supported its maintenance and success over the many years. Much of the tile work was planned by Josep Maria Jujol.

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Beyond the show pieces, everyday Barcelona offers a lot to consider when contrasted against typical North American built form. It brings to light how perspectives on privacy and space are greatly influenced by the experience and opportunities we have at ‘home’.  The bulk of the streets are dominated by four+ storey development, with small restaurants and shops scattered throughout.  A rolling overhead door is much more than a garage door here – it’s shop security and a street art canvas. Parks are full of chairs and benches that people sit in throughout the day. Restaurants and cafes provide much of their seating on tables and chairs out front. You see that garbage and recycling is within people’s daily views, not tucked away to forget about. The life is out on the street to experience and see, not hiding away in one’s own home.


One of my favorite finds was an apartment building located within a few minutes walk of Camp Nou (where FC Barcelona plays). Each unit appears to include sliding rounded doors that can create a visible outdoor space or allow for a private space. This simple feature provides flexibility to the residents and serves them well with the weather in Barcelona.

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XXX <3 Fiets!

Amsterdam loves bikes! Heading over to the Netherlands I was eager to see their bike culture in action. In the far away suburbs of North America it’s hard to imagine a place where bikes are a main stay of transportation and part of a city’s identity.

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Look at all that bike parking! 1000’s of places to rack a bike mere steps from the main train station, trams and buses.

After a few days it’s easy to see the many reasons why it works here and poses a challenge in duplicating elsewhere. However, I think it can and should be pursued elsewhere, with every city finding the right mix to create its own successful bike culture.  Influences on Amsterdam’s love affair with bikes:

  1. Convenience – it’s easy to get around the city on a bike and meet your daily needs. The bike specific infrastructure exists lanes, traffic lights and parking/racks. Plus there’s the infrastructure of the city itself with functional and efficient mass transit, density and mixes of use that put your daily needs within a reasonable biking distance. Plus, Amsterdam is flat making biking an option for many fitness levels.  Bikes come in a milieu of shapes and sizes to meet the needs of a person(s).

  2. Cost – bikes cost less than cars, period. While this is true everywhere, in a place with greater limits on space (relative to most North American cities) I suspect the additional costs of car ownership (ie. parking, gas, insurance) are even more prohibitive.

  3. Culture – bikes appear to be part of daily life, the same way cars are in North American. I didn’t witness any stink eyes or oddness for people hoping on their bikes after coffee with a friend, or heading away from the market. Bikes are simply the way you get around.

Other observations about bike culture in Amsterdam, which likely support the success:

  • no one wears a helmet on bicycles or scooters and more motorcycles
  • scooters and wee mini cars are allowed to use the bike lanes
  • most bikes are basic one gear bikes that have you sitting up in a normal position, and have some form of rack (front or back) for carrying stuff
  • year round weather that would allow for biking

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Years in Review …

Just because the blog has been quiet doesn’t mean that life has!  Before heading off on another adventure it seemed appropriate to take stock of what’s happened since the last post in 2012.  Easier said than done!  Here’s the sample platter. Retroactively posting confirms to you the lense you saw places in and what imprinted on your memory. 

  • Prince Edward Island – Amazing summer bike ride from tip-to-tip on the former railway corridor, now recreational trail – Confederation Trail. Beautiful way to see the province while keeping healthy. Experiences the province’s wonderful bed & breakfasts’ and small town restaurants.
  • San Francisco – Lovely place to visit in the spring as the snow melts at home. I got a wicked sunburn to prove it. Yes, it is hilly. Golden Gate Park (not near the bridge) offered a great day with a diverse schedule: 420 celebration, Easter celebrations with Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (complete with a Jesus look alike contest), and outdoor roller skating.
  • Iceland – Odd choice for a Canadian winter getaway. But, totally worth it! Wonderful place for a novice traveller as they make it easy to explore. Reykjavik and area kept me busy and entertained.  Take full advantage of all the wonderful geothermal heated pools!
  • Las Vegas – A place of gluttony and excess, Vegas isn’t my top pick. However, Rollercon only happens in Vegas.The size of this roller derby convention makes the trip worthwhile! Well organized Rollercon offers amazing learning from top notch players and coaches that you simply could not get otherwise! Highlight was getting to play on a banked track.
  • Seattle – How on earth has this place not fallen into the ocean? It’s amazing how humans are so stubborn. Experience Music Project (EMP) Museum is totally underrated and worth a full afternoon’s visit.  The full fields of tulips north of the city were gorgeous.
  • Chicago & Area – Hiking in Starved Rock State Park in jeans in an exceptionally warm spring weekend.  Wonderful place known for its waterfalls, although disappointed at the random garbage people chose to leave lying around. Nobody likes picking up used waterlogged diapers along the path.
  • Vancouver Island – Canada’s west coast earns is reputation for beauty and won’t disappoint! Especially when blessed with sunny days. A paddle boarding adventure off of Gabriola Island was stellar as I was witness to seals and a bald eagle.

Thanks to all those friends who were a part of these adventures!

BOOKS
The past few years have seen a number of books being read too! I’m picking “one” to recommend:
Maddaddam Trilogy (Orxy & Crake, Year of the Flood and Maddaddam) by Margaret Atwood.  Atwood is a well known and very accomplished Canadian author that I’d never had the chance to read. At the recommendation of a friend I took on this trilogy. Not shockingly the post-apocalyptic world is less than ideal and thus the books aren’t a lighthearted read. Rather they’re thought provoking and offer us a reflection on the path we may be leading ourselves down. I’d encourage the trilogy as a worthy investment of time on a well crafted story

The True Challenge of Darkness

Everyone has had the question posed to them: if you had to lose one of your five senses which would you want to lose?  Vary rarely have I met someone who would opt to be blind.  Brother and I had a chance to experience blindness (in a small dose) by dining at ‘unsicht-bar‘ in Berlin. Here all of the wait staff are visually impaired or blind and you eat in complete darkness.  While we were a bit put off heading into the meal given the hoops we had to go through to get into the restaurant (FYI – you MUST make a reservation despite this information not being on any of their materials or even posted on the door) post meal we both thought it was worth the effort.

Prior to entering the darkness you select one of five set menus: vegetarian, pork, beef, poultry or surprise.  Each set menu includes soup, salad, main and dessert but unlike most menus you are provided with a description of the flavor palate, rather than the details (contents) of the dishes.  Brother opted for beef and I opted for the surprise.  During the meal it’s up to you to use your other sense to experience the food.  For a picky eater like Brother, it was quite an adventure because he ate things he’d normally avoid (raw tomatoes), plus tried some new things.  As someone who has broader taste preferences I did a much better job of figuring out what I was eating as we went along.  The meal was delicious, there were no major spills and the experience did make us both realize how much one depends on their eye sight.  Post meal they provide you with a copy of the menu that lists the dishes in case you are curious.

I know that there are other restaurants like this around (Montreal has one) and I’d encourage people to try it once simply for the experience.

Stupid Tourists – D’oh

While Brother and I managed to navigate our European adventure with little trouble it was bound at some point to go astray – eventually it did!

We opted to spend most of the last week enjoying Berlin.  Both of us enjoyed the city’s rich 20th century history and the way in which you can see the city and its people taking on the challenge of redefine itself as a united city and the country’s capital.  The city is full of curious trinkets like our hostel which was a moored boat adjacent to a remaining portion of the Berlin Wall that’s been turned into a gallery.  Brother had the pleasure of sleeping like a stowaway on the floor beneath the elevated bed in our cabin.During our stay we immersed ourselves into getting to know the various layers of history from its early beginnings to the rise of the Third Reich, Hitler’s reign, World War II, East and West Berlin, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall and the new Berlin.  We saw evidence of all these layers and meet people with stories to add to them. Like many of the people we meet (Berlin’s by choice)  I fell in love with the city. We both melted into the funky and dynamic vibe of the city – perhaps too much.

On our last day we walked to up to the nearest train station as we’d done many times before.  Deep in conversation we walked onto the open doors of the train and took a seat.  In only moments we realized that the train had slowed to a stop only a few hundred meters from the station.  At this point we disengaged from our discussion to realize that 1) there was no one but us on the train, 2) we could see the conductor walking away down that tracks and 3) we didn’t even get a ticket for the train.  After laughing at our complete stupidity and taking pictures in the void train we opted for the polite Canadian reaction.  We read the sign above the door way and simply opted to stay calm.  Eventually we tried to push the intercom button, but that did little but set of a mildly annoying alarm.  Thankfully our train trap was short-lived as perhaps 15 minutes later the train started up again and went back to the station – it had just been switching directions.  Fortunately for us we weren’t greeted by a mob of transit police or even staring passengers – when the doors opened we simply hoped off and melted into the waiting crowd and headed to purchase a ticket for the right train.

PS Besides our ‘stupid tourist’ pictures I’ve put a host of pictures up from around Berlin including a number from a visit to the Berlin Wall section near North Station, as well as the East Side Gallery (adjacent to our hostel) and other random art spots.

Goooooooal!

What would be a trip to Europe without some football (aka soccer to us North American types)! Brother and I planned our German adventure to ensure we were able to see a Bundesliga top division game.  Upon arriving by train in Stuttgart the mission was on!

Step 1: Get Tickets – This was easy enough as the travel booth was quick to send us done the road to the ‘fan station’ to get tickets.  The price was irrelevant as we were going to the game no matter what (thankfully the tickets were reasonable for a professional sporting event). Although seemingly easy, as patient and polite Canadians we somehow managed to have to stand in almost 5 different lines to get the tickets  – Brother was getting a little annoyed.

Step 2: Get to the Game – When in doubt follow the throngs of people dressed in the local teams colors (red) and branded gear and get off at the train stop for the stadium.  Almost every place we went with a football team clearly marked the stadium stop with an icon on the transit map.  Of course we embraced the cultural experience and bought ourselves VfB Stuttgart scarfs!  The people pour off the train towards the stadium and hover like bees to honey around the beer and food stands surrounding the stadium.

Step 3: Watch the Game (Match Day 9 VfB Stuttgart verses 1899 Hoffenheim) – In my opinion our seats were awesome from a ‘cultural’ experience perspective as we were 1) right beside the gated of section for the away fans, 2) had a good view of the Stuttgart’s  ‘super fans’ and their banners, and 3) we could see the game nicely.  Truthfully I think I spent more time watching the event as a whole, than focusing on the game!  Heading into the game the two teams were 7th and 8th in the standings thus it was a well matched game.  There was minimal soccer drama!We (Stuttgart) won 2-0, with the second goal coming from a penalty kick late in the game.

During the game I was on a side mission for beer and bratwurst.  While they have developed a very efficient system for purchasing beer and snacks, it is also an obnoxious money-making scheme for those who attend only one game.  To pay for anything at the canteens you must use a special loaded Master Card, that costs 20 Euros! Given that our two beers and a bratwurst were only 12 Euros, I opted to befriend a fan to load the money onto their card.  Another amazing efficiency of the canteen – plastic beer glasses that stack by the handles, thus you could easily carry 4 (or even more)!  Of course, this isn’t required in Canada where often we’re restricted to two at a time anyways.  Plus you can return the beer glasses at the end of the game for a refund – thus less mess and more environmentally friendly. Of course, we kept ours as souvenirs.

Step 4: Safe Exit the Game – The Hoffenheim fans were pretty tame – only a few flares in the stands and some tossed beer cups.  Of course security and the police are close at hand (with video cameras) thus any really threat of hooliganism seems to extinguish quickly.  A fellow in front of us was kind enough to give us his Hoffenheim scarf after the game to complete our soccer souvenir collection!

The game was a great excuse to visit Stuttgart, spend a sunny afternoon and all around was a good time!

Brother was fortunate enough to also take in a hockey game during out visit to Mannheim.  The Mannheim Adlers game back in the last period to win the game!  While the caliber of play was close to Junior level in Canada, it was a rocking good time!  The stadium had halve the fans of a Calgary Flames (NHL) game but twice the spirit and noise!  Like the soccer game everyone comes in team colors, with scarfs (to double as banners) and cheer throughout the game!