23 March 2018

Vacances de février, part 2: Cioccolata calda

When I booked my plane tickets to the Floating City at the beginning of February, I believed I was buying myself a few days in a milder, maybe even warm climate.  It seems a tropical February just isn't in the stars for me; instead I got a blast of freezing cold and relentless snow flurries.

The marshes of Venice were first inhabited in the 5th century as a refuge from barbarians invading former Roman Empire territories.  The city was built on wooden planks shipped in by sea all the way from Croatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia, and the wooden structure still holds today because of its submersion in water - interaction with oxygen would cause it to deteriorate.

Every street and canal in Venice seems to be beautiful and worth a picture, and yes, the water really is that mysterious turquoise color.  It's a true labyrinth and having GPS is a lifesaver there, but it's fun to get yourself lost as well.  My entire first day was spent wandering with people from my hostel; the snow fell in big perfect fluffy gobs from sunrise to sunset.  Most tourists had ducked out of the cold by mid-afternoon, so it felt like we had a ghost town to ourselves.  We started snowball fights with complete strangers in city squares, admired everything we could from every angle, and were warned more than once by locals not to fall into the canals while leaning to take pictures.  I think that Venice is better described in pictures than in words:

Ponte di Rialto

Maybe my favorite mini photo project in Venice was capturing restaurants.  So many of them are situated along canals or pretty streets and are decorated with magnificent lanterns.

Speaking of restaurants:  For an evening out, I'd recommend buying tickets ahead of time online for the Venice Jazz Club.  The club is a tiny hole-in-the-wall bar and restaurant with professional live jazz music most evenings; you need to reserve yourself a table, and then come just for the concert or you can arrive early and eat dinner if you choose.  Here and here are clips of the band playing on Friday night.

Dining-wise, I can point you toward the restaurant Ca' d'Oro for its amazing pasta arrabiata, black cuttlefish risotto, bellini, and tiramisu.

Piazza San Marco
The main square in Venice is called the Piazza San Marco, the home of several major landmarks, including the Palazzo Ducale (palace), Basilica di San Marco (basilica), and Campanile di San Marco (tower).  Depending on the lines, they can take awhile to get through, but as it was so cold that few other people braved the Campanile, we decided to go up.  We had the unique opportunity to see Venice from above with snow-covered rooftops; the sea stretched into nothing and melted into the sky.

Palazzo Ducale
Ponte dei Sospiri
Visiting the palace is well worth it too (though if you're looking for an escape from the cold, note that it is in no way heated).  The ticket includes three other museums in addition, but I didn't have time for them.  The palace was once the government seat of Venice, and inside you can visit several elaborate parliamentary chambers of all sizes and purposes.  The main attractions are the ceilings decorated with ornate gold and countless intricate, symbolic paintings.  Another perk of admission is crossing through the famous Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs), which we renamed the Ponte di Delusione (Bridge of Disappointment) because walking through just feels like crawling through a damp, moldy anthill.

The best part of Venice, though, is taking in all sorts of small surprises while wandering through the labyrinth, like the beautiful painted now-useless-violin-turned-useless-mini-bookshelf to the left.  The streets are so narrow that you wonder how some of the shops and restaurants manage to get goods delivered to them every day; cars and even bikes are prohibited.  Seeing how locals adapt to everyday life is especially interesting: for example, we discovered that their fire department operates by boat; the boats are parked just through the lit-up arches in the photo to the right.

Throughout the weekend out in the cold, the only thing that warmed me up were frequent café visits for a hot cup of...

Italian Parole del Giorno
Cioccolata calda - hot chocolate

I don't know how the Italians manage such rich and delicious chocolate, but it is not to be missed.

One final surprise before leaving was finding a small bar on our last evening full of locals with dancing and a fantastically talented live band.

Representing South Korea, the USA, and Wales


Before the month of March gets away from me, some of the highlights of the month in Lille included finally getting to hear a friend of mine play horn with the OPRL (Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, the only professional orchestra in French-speaking Belgium) at Lille's concert hall; the program featured Prokofiev's 5th symphony.  In the same week, the ONL (Orchestre National de Lille) played one of my all-time favorite symphonies, Brahms' first, to a packed house.

Finally, I got to enjoy St. Patrick's Day festivities in Lille, complete with live bagpipes, funny hats, and all.

16 March 2018

Vacances de février, part 1: You can borrow my oven mitt.

I promise myself every year that I'll avoid Germany in February, and every year I manage to break that promise.  This year was no exception; during one of the coldest weeks of the winter, I packed up and headed to Strasbourg to meet up with a couple of good friends from middle and high school for the weekend.

Phill, who lived in Stuttgart this year, had rented a snazzy red sports car in preparation for the event; we wasted no time in heading off for a half-day trip into the snowy German Black Forest on Friday afternoon.  Just over an hour outside of Strasbourg, we stumbled upon the world's largest cuckoo clock in Schonach im Schwarzwald.  We missed the top of the hour by about five minutes as we were looking for a place to change cash bills into coins in order to see the clock mechanism from inside, but did spend a good chunk of time mesmerized by the mechanism itself.  We even got to listen to a historical spiel given by the only slightly creepy fellow below (for 50 cents).  Nearby, you can find at least two Häuser der 1000 Uhren, or Houses of 1000 Clocks, shops that boast carrying as many clocks for sale.  Stepping inside felt like falling down the cuckoo clock rabbit hole.

Germany in February was well worth it this time as we got to admire thousands of giant snow-dusted trees covering the hills.  We made a pitstop in Triberg, a small town known for Germany's tallest waterfall (creatively named Triberger Wasserfälle).  Normally, there are trails you can take to hike all the way to the top of the falls, but they were too icy and we didn't make it very far before wisely turning around and literally sliding back down.

On the way back, we took an hour-long detour south to Freiburg on icy roads, getting lost several times due to terrible GPS service in the middle-of-nowhere, Germany, and also due to putting the wrong Freiburg into the GPS in the first place.  Once we made it, we headed north on the 5, a section of Autobahn with no speed limit, and allowed the sports car to do its thing, getting us back to Strasbourg in no time.

Restaurant in Strasbourg

That evening, Ben arrived from Paris and the three of us went straight for some serious Flammekueche for a late dinner.  New food and drink recommendation: Binchstub.  There are two, and I visited Binchstub Broglie, just off the square, a cozy spot which does both lunch and dinner.  A lot of the weekend was spent relaxing at cafés, catching up and debating current events.  It was wonderful to see familiar faces and to share perspectives especially now that we've been apart living in various corners of the world for awhile and have wildly different but developed views on society.  The next morning, we found a new favorite coffee and crêpe shop, Au 5.  We visited an outdoor used book market in the Place Kléber, admired the cathedral, bought mittens, and munched and sipped on saucisse and vin chaud from a food truck in the Place Gutenberg.

For a change, we spent the sunny afternoon in the Parc de l'Orangerie, a large park up near the European Parliament building.  Phill brought along his drone so that we could make videos (and cause a stir in the park - we disrupted at least four wedding photo shoots and then wound up with a small following of children by the end and had difficulties landing the drone safely).  We did capture some nice footage of the park itself and of the Strasbourg "skyline" - I love the view of the tiny cathedral under the afternoon sun.

On Saturday evening, we had dinner (yes, more Flammekueche) and drinks at the Troquet des Kneckes with my friends Nevila and Jasmina.  It's always a treat to see them.  Again, spending time catching up and getting in some much-needed laughs was priceless.

The following day, we visited La Petite France, a charming and beautiful if not touristy part of town with lots of canals and typical Alsatian houses.  At the end of the day, we each headed back home, content that the stars had aligned for our Minnesotans-take-Strasbourg adventure.

17 February 2018

Txin txin!

Path near Barcelona's harbor
After a couple of weeks of subzero temps in Minnesota, I promised myself a short January getaway to shed the winter coat for a few days.  While my students suffered through exam week, I landed safely near the Mediterranean under bright blue skies in Barcelona, capital of Catalonia.

Barcelona really attracts a variety of people, including students of all nationalities.  Their official language is Catalan (though Spanish and English are frequently spoken as well); I learned that Catalan is a close relative of French, so it was actually easier for me to pick out words in Catalan as opposed to Spanish.  For example:

Parles anglès? : Do you speak English?

The city has no shortage of things to do, and in the end I didn't mind having a packed weekend on the go since it felt wonderful to be outside.  My first morning was spent walking the long pedestrian path near the harbor and exploring the Gothic quarter.

The Gothic quarter sits at the heart of Barcelona's old town and is known for its labyrinth of very narrow pedestrian streets boxed in by rather large block buildings.  It's also home to several neo-Gothic churches, including a basilica (pictured to the right at the end of the street) and cathedral.

The Blue Glass
Also in the area is the Picasso Museum, which I hit at just the right time to breeze through ticketing with no lines (students can enter for free, as do those who've kept their college ID and can still pass for college students).  Picasso was born in Spain and spent much of his early life there before moving to France; the museum in Barcelona has an extensive collection of his earliest works.  I especially liked paintings from his "blue period" (the first few years of the 1900s) during which he "discovered" the color blue; there were a few featuring rooftops of Barcelona at night and one in particular that I loved called The Blue Glass.  Others that I enjoyed included a series of owl drawings and a series of paintings of pigeons in Cannes.

El Bosc de les Fades
For breakfast or a sweet treat in the Gothic quarter, I'd recommend Demasie, a bakery and coffee shop just around the corner from the Picasso Museum.  Their house specialties include cupcakes and cinnamon rolls in a variety of flavors; I tried their blueberry red velvet cupcake.

For lunch, I headed to the other edge of the quarter to a restaurant that, in all honesty, is not famous for its food, but for its ambiance.  Walking into El Bosc de les Fades Café is like entering a dark fairytale forest or Alice in Wonderland-esque world.  It's like a happy hour spot plus family restaurant all rolled into one; there are tall chairs and tables for adults and tiny stools and tables for children.  As I said, the food isn't spectacular, but they have hot and cold sandwiches and tapas to munch on while you admire the decor.

That afternoon, I took a walk along the harbor and on the beach.  Half of the city seemed to have had the same idea, and rightfully so as the weather couldn't have been more perfect despite the freezing cold water.  Afterward, I continued the long walk up through some residential neighborhoods to La Sagrada Família, Barcelona's most famous basilica, still under construction.  To go inside, you need to book tickets online beforehand; there are several options, but I chose to go on a guided tour to learn a bit more about the structure.

La Sagrada Família, or Basilica of the Holy Family, was by far the best part of the weekend.  Construction of the basilica began in 1882 when it was meant to be a rather typical religious structure, but when the architect Antoni Gaudí took over the plans in 1883 (and over the next thirty-three years), the project transformed into the beginning stages of a masterpiece.  Gaudí used both Gothic and Art Nouveau styles to design a massive and intricate church.  I think one could spend years studying the deatils of the carvings and artwork of the basilica, but here are the basics:

Above the Nativity door
There are three principal sides to the basilica: the Nativity, facing the northeast; the Passion, facing the southwest; and what will soon be the Glory, facing southeast.  Gaudí himself was only alive long enough to see the Nativity.  Carvings on this side show scenes of Jesus' birth and of stories of his childhood, centered on the holy family of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.  Above those carvings is Jacob's ladder and a cyprus tree with doves, symbolizing a message of welcome.  If you look closely, you can see pops of color throughout the outside architecture of the basilica; Japanese artist Etsuro Sotoo is responsible for these and for shaping the continuation of the project.

There's a lot more to it, and if you're interested, you can read more about the symbolism here.

On the opposite side, the Passion shows scenes from Jesus' death, and again there are many hidden secrets in the carvings.  For example, any row of four numbers in the 4x4 grid below and to the right (horizontal, vertical, or diagonal) adds up to 33, Jesus' age when he died.

Altar and organ
Ceiling and columns
As incredible as the outside appears, the inside is what really stopped me in my tracks.  I would imagine the stained glass creates incredible colors at any time of day, but my tour was at 5pm and the colors reflected by the sunset at that time were breathtaking.

It is unlike any other church I've seen; the stone inside is all light-colored; in fact, the columns supporting the basilica are sculpted to look like white trees and to create a forest effect.  You can see different types of stone; the stone choice depends on what the columns need to support above.

Much of the stained glass itself looks simple and repetitive, but every circle above a rectangle (found in groups of three) represents the human body of a saint.

There are upper lofts lining either side which will be able to house one thousand musicians, and when it is finished, it will have eighteen functional bell towers.

The basilica is scheduled to be finished in 2026.  Due to modern technology, the rate of construction is going fairly quickly.  The model below to the left shows what is already built (in grey) and what is yet to be finished (in gold).  The "miracle" attached to the basilica is that it has always been funded by donations (including admission fees), never official funds.

Once you enter, you can visit a small underground museum which houses the tomb of Antonin Gaudí.

If you're lucky, you can catch a short bell concert at the start of Mass time sitting in the park across the street.

Casa Battló
Gaudí's presence can be felt throughout Barcelona as well thanks to unique bits of his architecture here and there.  Casa Battló (pictured to the right) was just around the corner from my hostel and a breathtaking sight getting off the metro, for example.

I took a few hours to visit Park Güell, also designed by Gaudí.  The park sits a little outside of the city center on a hill with an excellent view.  You can visit it for free, but to go inside the monument area, you will need to book a ticket with a specific time.  Gaudí's architecture within the park is fascinating to admire, but everything is above all functional and practical.  Even in January, though, there was no shortage of tour groups or selfie sticks, so I didn't even try to take many pictures through the madness.  The park has an app that you can download to your phone when you walk in that acts as a guided tour and will get you back on track if you get lost.

The most famous bit of the park is the long colorful curved mosaic bench that frames a lookout of Barcelona and the sea in the distance.

Lasagna at El Jardí
After a long morning of walking and dodging selfie sticks, it was nice to head back into town and sit down for a nice long lunch.

Most restaurants don't even open until 1pm, and I was the first one at El Jardí at 1:30.  The restaurant is basically a terrace inside the Conservatory courtyard with tables, benches, and pillows lining a shallow decorative pool.  I can recommend their friendly service as well as their vegetarian lasagna and fresh salad.
Boldú treat

(On the way back from the park, if you'd like a unique-looking sweet treat, stop at Boldú, a bakery specializing in sugary snacks like the one to the right.)

Speaking of cuisine, one of my favorite parts of Barcelona was discovering their tapas culture.  A woman working at my hostel recommended the Carrer de Blai, a quiet, calm, out-of-the-way pedestrian street known for its tapas bars.  In addition to tapas, they have pintxos, a variety of self-serve small snacks on bits of bread with picks through them to indicate the price (1-2€ each).  I had these for "dinner" a couple of nights because I was too tired to stay out for the typical Spanish dinner hour (around 10pm).  I really enjoyed the ambiance on that street and was grateful for the recommendation.

Tapas and vermouth
Another specialty of Barcelona is vermouth; certain bars are known to make it themselves on site.  Colibrí was recommended to me, a quiet and quaint spot in the old town with plenty of decorations for me to study while I sampled the vermouth and tomato tapas.

That was one of my general revelations about Barcelona: their cafés and restaurants are masters of decor and ambiance.  You don't feel as cramped as you do in French cafés, and there is no shortage of tasteful decorations to look at.  They feel light, welcoming, and relaxed, whether you are eating solo or with a group of fifteen, and the servers always seem happy to talk with you.

1992 Olympic park
My last adventure in Barcelona made up half of a 35-km walking day (says my phone's health app).  I climbed Montjuïc by foot; it's a rather steep climb, but mostly on paved roads and paths.  The hill is large, though, even once you reach the top - there is a castle, hiking paths, a cemetery, an art museum and fountain, and the 1992 Olympic park.  I first went to admire the castle from the outside, and I continued along a path that lined the coast for some beautiful views.

Advancing to the other side, I admired several views of Barcelona and the hills behind the city before finally finding the cemetery and then the Olympic park; you can even peek inside the stadium itself.

Afterward, I found the art museum which is beautiful just from the outside, as is the fountain in front and the shallow pools on the steps leading up to the museum.  The sun was beginning to set as I took a short break to people-watch and try to make out different monuments throughout the city from afar.

I finally looped back to the castle only to find out that I was too late to go inside, so I returned to the overlook next to it to watch a spectacular sunset over the water.

The pictures probably say a hundred times more than any of my words; Barcelona is a beautiful, comfortable, and lively travel destination that made me look forward to seeing Spain itself and experiencing more of its culture.  I certainly wouldn't say no to a return trip.