Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities: Barcelona and Paris

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  Charles Dickens

Barcelona Cathedral

I love Barcelona! My three-day visit was a last-minute add-on because I couldn’t get a reasonably priced flight direct from Florence to Paris. Anything that didn’t cost nearly 500 euros was routed via Barcelona, with a long transit but not really long enough to go into the city. Luckily, I took this as a sign that I should schedule a proper visit there.

Before heading for Spain I took the train north from Florence to spend a night up in the foothills of the Alps near Turin with friends Giorgio and Amy, daughter Olivia, dogs Honey and Beauregard, and the cats. I had spent some time with them in 2010, just a few months after I started my new life. It doesn’t feel like all that long ago… We had a fun evening and a two-hour walk with the dogs in the morning before Giorgio took me to Turin to catch my plane.

The Barcelona trip turned into a scouting visit for a longer stay later in the year. I love the place. It’s just the right size, easy to walk around, and there’s so much to see. The food is fabulous, with much more variety than I found in Italy. I could have spent all day grazing in the central food market, La Boqueria, on La Rambla, where the fruit, vegetables, dried and preserved foods, olives, charcuterie, fish and seafood, cheeses, chocolates, marzipan fruits are displayed like still lifes.

Although I didn’t have a run while I was there, there is a meetup group that gets together for runs each week; and there are some good places to run, including along the seafront. The Barcelona marathon is held mid-March, so I’m pencilling that in for 2015.

Plus, of course, there’s the amazing architecture, art, museums, film, history.… The weather was also perfect while I was there.

I got a crick in my neck from walking around looking up at rooflines and facades of buildings. I visited a number of churches, including the beautiful Barcelona Cathedral, which has a garden that is home to a gaggle of geese. I like the Museum of Contemporary Art, which has a stark white interior and is easy to navigate through. The Museum of Modern European Art is in a beautiful old building crammed with figurative sculpture. The Museum of Contemporary Culture is a large industrial-looking place that puts on events and film, but there was nothing much happening during my stay. They have special programs for people with Alzheimer’s. I heard recently about another gallery that’s doing something similar, but I can’t remember where that was (hahaha). The Museum of the City of Barcelona doesn’t attempt to present even an overview of the city’s history, but the building is interesting and on the lowest level there are important and extensive excavations of a walled Roman settlement here that dates back 2000 years to when the city was called Barcino.

My hotel was very near La Rambla and the Raval barrio. I would happily stay anywhere in the central city, from Raval on the western side across to Born (near the Picasso Museum, the seafront and the park) on the eastern side. There is excellent public transport, but I walked everywhere.

I had a perve at the Erotica Museum on La Rambla. There is a big collection of early photography, and some home movies dating from the 1920s that were in the collection of a king whose name I forget. There is erotic art from all over the world.

The highlight of my visit to Barcelona was seeing the interior of Gaudi’s still unfinished La Sagrada Familia. I knew the exterior from photographs, but if I’d ever seen pictures of the interior it didn’t make an impression. It’s absolutely stunning. All the religious iconography that you expect to see inside a cathedral is on the outside. The interior is still busy, but with very clean lines. The columns and walls are a beautiful muted grey; all the colour comes from light filtered through stained glass in simple abstract designs. It must be wonderful to attend a musical event there.

La Sagrada Familia

Whereas I found Barcelona very welcoming, Paris was the opposite. I thought I would make good use of my week there, on what was my fourth visit. (I visited Paris in 2001, 2011 and just last month.) Instead, I felt constantly thwarted and became increasingly frustrated, as if I were moving in ever-decreasing circles. The apartment I’d lined up in Montmartre just didn’t work for me.  One problem was I couldn’t get and stay online. I decided the next morning to bail and walked the streets looking for a hotel. I finally found somewhere on the edge of Montmartre, in a rather seedy area. However, I could only book for three of my remaining seven nights. Paris, it turned out, was booked to the gills for the French Open tennis. 

With the help of Monique, a friend from Bali, I got a couple of nights in a decent hotel near her (but again with unreliable internet) in the Bastille area. That still left me with two bed-less nights. After spending a very frustrating night and morning looking at all the options, I gave up on Paris altogether. My friends at Albury Travel in Oz got me on to a flight to Dublin the next morning, two days before I was meant to transit through Ireland en route to New York, and I found a good hotel for two nights. Finally, the day before I left, after a VERY frustrating week, I could go and visit some museums and take a long walk with Monique around some areas I hadn’t seen on previous visits. Rue Mouffetard, in the Latin Quarter, is gorgeous.

I had hoped to enjoy not being under work pressure, but I just ended up in a week-long funk. My bad mood affected everything, so that nothing flowed smoothly or easily. I take responsibility for this, but I just couldn’t get out of the loop.

I did achieve two things, though. I ran two races back-to-back: a 10K women’s event on the Saturday, and a 20K race from the Bois de Boulogne out to St Germain en Laye on the Sunday. This was fairly ambitious, given that I could count the number of runs I’d had in the last two months on the fingers of one hand: a morning run beneath the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur at the end of March; and, in April, a half marathon in Florence, Min’s and my Paris landmarks run, and one solo run in Florence along the Arno. I hadn’t run at all in May. I managed the distances without any trouble, though my times were slow: 59:33 minutes for the 10K and 2:12:32 for the 20K. I wasn’t bothered; I just wanted to get out there and clear my head. Monique trekked out to St Germain en Laye for the second race to meet me at the finish line, and made us a lovely lunch afterwards back in Paris. Unusually for a race with 3,000-odd competitors, there were no loos at the start (and only about six at the finish). We all had to dash off into the bushes of the Bois de Boulogne to relieve ourselves!

On Tuesday morning, after six nights in Paris, I checked out of my hotel and got a cab to the airport, having left it too late to get a shuttle bus. I ended up with an insane taxi driver. When, amazingly, we arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport in one piece, I shouted at the driver: “I thought I was going to DIE!!!” I threw 80 euros at her. “You’re a f@*king terrible driver!!!”

Of course, to top things off, on checking in I was charged for excess baggage. It was that sort of week…

I’ve spent the last two days calming down in Dublin, going to the cinema (“Mud”) and the theatre (the amazing Paul Reid in “Man of Valour”), having my hair done, walking and reading. This was my first stop after I left New York seven months ago, so it seems fitting that I’ve had this chance to regroup here before returning to my New York life today. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Arrividerci, Italia

I first visited Italy in 2007, when I entered the country on foot through a mountain pass during a two-week trek around Mont Blanc. My second entry was by cable car, over the Alps near Courmayeur, during the same trek.  My third and fourth entries were by plane into Venice from England, and into Rome from Malta, also in 2007. In 2010 I did some walking in the Piedmont area with my runner mate, Giorgio. Last year, I lived in Florence for all of September, and I’m now near the end of a visit of two months, again using Florence as my base. The chances are good that I’ll return to Italy.

Since my return from Venice I’ve been winding up a big workload and squeezing in excursions and day trips where possible. Lucca was a fun place to spend a morning. It’s only an hour by train from Florence and has some interesting buildings and a lively centre, but I was attracted by the old city walls that are intact and form a sort of square. The walls were intended to defend the citizens of Lucca from their enemies, the Florentines, but the planners had the foresight to make them wide enough for recreational use. Today they are used by runners, walkers, cyclists and dog walkers. I ran twice around them and then walked down to a central piazza for breakfast.

Another day I took the train (and the bus back from) Prato, which is a big place (190,000 or so people) only 30 minutes from Florence by rail. There are two overseas universities (Monash from Melbourne and an American college) with campuses here. It was early afternoon and most of the shops were shut and very few people were about. It’s probably really bustling in the early evening. At the textile museum I saw an exhibition called “Vintage”, about how fashions and garments are recycled. There is an important museum of contemporary art that is undergoing redevelopment, so nothing from their permanent collection was on show. The conceptual art in the two current exhibitions showing in a temporary space did nothing for me, and I like conceptual art. I think it has to work on some level without needing to be explained, though, and these didn’t do that for me. The gallery is in a very bland location out by the highway, though the building itself will be impressive. Cities (like my hometown Albury) that have a cultural precinct are very fortunate. I doubt that many of the students based for a few months in Prato would bother to make the trek out to the suburbs to see this museum.

My main excursion was to Lake Como for three nights last week. I’ve heard a lot about this area and tried to visit it last year when friends Sue and Neil were there from Oz. It was grey and drizzly on Friday when my train pulled into Como from Milan, but then it cleared up and the next three days were beautifully sunny and warm. I stayed in Bellagio, which is halfway up the lake and on the tip of the promontory that separates the two lower arms of the lake. From here there is just one arm that extends north towards Switzerland. There were a lot of German speakers around, so I guess many of them were Swiss from around Zurich.

I was surprised by how many villages and towns there are along the lake. There is also a pretty extensive road system linking the towns. It would be fun to spend a couple of weeks walking here, so long as you could stay mainly off the roads. I got lost on some of the walks I took and ended up hugging some rock faces while cars whizzed by at my back. That got the adrenaline pumping!

One walk I took around Bellagio visited a number of “suburbs” (they have their own churches), accessed via steep cobbled paths. Lots of flower boxes were out, so it all looked gorgeous. I had dinner in Varenna one evening (I took the car ferry across) and breakfast on my last morning in Menaggio. The gardens of the Villa Melzi are worth a visit. Azaleas are out everywhere at the moment and look gorgeous.

On the Sunday I took the hydrofoil back to Como (past George Clooney’s villa at Laglio) because I wanted to take the funicular railway up to Brunate. The track is very steep and the views over the lake and the town are pretty awesome. I walked back to the lake on the path that winds mostly off-road down the mountainside, then had a gelato and made a quick visit to Como’s very beautiful Duomo before taking the slow ferry back to Bellagio. There was a half marathon held in Como earlier that morning but I hadn’t been able to get entry and wasn’t motivated enough to jump in and run it as a bandit as I did in Florence last month.

My friend Lisa from New York City (and upstate New York – I visited her in Woodstock last summer) has arrived in Florence. Yesterday we saw a Steven Soderbergh film, the psychological thriller Side Effects, at the Odeon and found the fabulous NapoLeone (in Piazza del Carmine), which instantly became my favourite restaurant in Florence. Earlier we had visited a craft fair in the Corsini Gardens, where I bought a necklace from a glass artist.

So much that is beautiful in Italy is to be found behind the beautiful big wooden doors that line the streets; beyond the high stone walls that contain private gardens, behind the painted wooden shutters, or further up the covered cobbled or stepped lanes that locals use to get from place to place. Italy is very compact, but there is a lot going on that is mostly out of sight of visitors like myself. Florence is so rich in architectural treasures it took me more than a month even to notice a church around the corner that has been dated to the year 910 or thereabouts. It’s a privilege to be able to call Florence home for any length of time. I'm very grateful to have had these two months.

Grazie mille.