Thursday, May 12, 2011

Getting Our Bearings in Barcelona

At one end of La Rambla, Christopher Columbus gestures the explorer's vague but determined "thataway."  At the other stands the Plaça Catalunya. In between: an opera house, art museums, street vendors, living statues, and tourists, tourists, tourists finding their way through the Catalan capital city's most famous walk.

Our flight arrived shortly before noon, giving us plenty of time to head over to our hotel, get settled and cleaned up, then hit the city for our first immersion in Spanish culture (or, I should say, Catalan culture; Barcelona may be a part of Spain, but it is first and foremost a part of Cataluyna--with a separate Romance language that reads to the uninitiated like some cross between le français and Español, or Castillian).  Though we were staying out in the Forum neighborhood--a mishmash of modernisme architecture, contemporary corporate-consumer-antichic, convention center, and overdeveloped beachfront--Barcelona's public transportation is excellent and got us to the city center in short order via a 5 minute walk and 20 minute Metro ride.  And though Barcelona is deservedly described as an eminently walkable city, the 3-day Metro passes we picked up for around €12 were well-worthwhile investments.  (One other thing of note: Barcelona's Metro is similar to the London Underground more than to the Washington, D.C., Metro from our home in that transfer stations are apparently two separate stations connected by a few flights of stairs and a kilometer or so of tunnel.  I'm much more used to walking 100 meters and taking an escalator to switch lines--I'm glad we took a cab from the airport instead of trying to take rail and bus!)

In the Plaça Catalunya, but not the more humble Font de Canaletes
We began our promenade down La Rambla from the Plaça Catalunya, though somehow we missed the most of the plaza itself--apparently taking the Metro exit closest to the street instead of the square.  I suppose over 10 hours of flying and nearly 14 of total travel is a lame if honest excuse for that oversight.  That was too bad as we missed the Font de Canaletes, the fountain whose waters guarantee he who drinks them will return to Barcelona.  For what it's worth, I don't think it takes a mystical sip from an antique fountain to ensure that we'll one day visit the city again--Barcelona is certainly one of my favorite cities from even our brief stay.

The street itself is named for the Arabic word for "intermittent stream" or "riverbed" (n.b. I'm relying on my guide books and Wikipedia here--Arabic is unfortunately not a language I know enough even to curse in) after the drainage paths around the old city walls of the Barri Gòtic.

Even on a mid-week afternoon a bit ahead of the real tourist season, La Rambla is busy!  Fortunately, the street is limited to pedestrian traffic--I can't imagine if a la Bangkok the narrow thoroughfare had cars, motorcycles driven by the terminally insane, tuk-tuks, and the occasional lorry or two trying to plow their way through the crowd.  The press of people alone is more than enough for the agoraphobic ambulator.

Several of our guidebooks mentioned the "living statues" performing along La Rambla as a point of distinction--now, perhaps I'm just culturally ignorant here, but I've certainly come across these folks elsewhere in the past, from the French Quarter in New Orleans to Chicago's Grant Park to an appearance in the countryside village of the British buddy-movie-satire Hot Fuzz.  Said simian statuary does appreciate a coin tossed into the hat much as any public performance artists--but do watch your pockets (as you'll be far from the only blithe tourist stopping to gawk, snap a photo, and fish out some spare change).  We had no problems with pickpockets and felt pretty safe in Barcelona as a whole, but I'd be remiss not to pass along a gentle public service reminder about not ending up as "that tourist" who has to call up American Express for a new set of traveler's cheques (does anyone use those anymore?) and the embassy for a new passport...

To be honest, we didn't stop for many of the more traditional tourist sights along La Rambla; several were undergoing renovations (the most familiar architectural element in Europe does seem to be scaffolding, followed closely by construction cranes), and the crowds were just stupendous along much of the route.  Nonetheless, there's something for almost anyone to see, from several impressive churches (at home in any self-respecting city from old Europe) to a large outdoor market to the Gran Teatre Liceu to homes and businesses cast in Mediterranean colors with their balconies overlooking the street and its passengers (see the photo leading off this post).

Streetscape near the portside end of La Rambla
One thing I must point out: like so many once-darling streets and squares in cities across the world, La Rambla has lost a bit of its charm in recent years with the gradual incursion of high-end retail chains, coupled with the profusion of cheap, made-in-China souvenir stands--what I'm looking for in a city are quaint local shops and restaurants set alongside plazas slightly off the beaten path (of which there are plenty in Barcelona, mind you--more on that in a subsequent blog post).

The Plaça Rieal
Snacks in the hotel lounge at lunchtime weren't quite enough to keep us going as the afternoon wore on, but neither of us really wanted to grab a bite at the sort of trite, tourist-filled eateries directly along the course of La Rambla.  From our last trip to Europe and visits to Frankfurt and northern Italy, we had our hearts set on spending several afternoons out on the patios of a smaller cafe or the like.  We took in a few side streets, straying into nearby neighborhoods like El Raval and the Barri Gòtic but saving a more in-depth exploration of them for a later day of the trip.

Finally, dwindling blood sugar reserves drove us into the first likely restaurant we came to, a place named "Trobador" (which location, I honestly don't recall--they've got three or four in Barcelona, with at least two along the route we walked).  There we settled in for a quite tasty late lunch; I had a crispy whole-fish and Beth a pasta, along with a nice bottle of wine.  The waiter told us he'd worked in Georgetown at a hotel restaurant for a couple of years and was well-familiar with our hometown of Fairfax, VA, and directed us to a nice wine shop in Barcelona where we could pick up what we'd enjoyed with our meal or anything else which caught our fancy.

Refueled, late afternoon found us at the opposite end of La Rambla, at the Monument a Colom.  Christopher Columbus, the explorer famous to every American schoolchild, made Barcelona his port of call upon return from his discovery of the New World, reporting back to his financial sponsors Ferdinand and Isabella--and the city erected the monument for the the 1888 Expo to commemorate his historic achievement.  (As a side note, our trip also included the spot where Columbus made one of his bids to the Spanish crown, proverbially falling to his knees within the Alhambra's walls as he wore down the royal reluctance to coughing up cash for his expedition.)

Much like New York's Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, the Space Needle in Seattle, Paris' Eiffel Tower, and any number of other tall, vaguely-phallic monuments, tourists can pay a few dollars (or Euros, as the case is here) to ascend to the top of the edifice for a panoramic view out over the city.  There's a tiny elevator--with room for the operator and perhaps two to four visitors depending on their girth (I'd err on the lower side for the typical American on holiday...)--which runs to the top, opening out onto an observation platform nearly 200 feet above the street level.  Barcelona on a good day nonetheless presents a fairly hazy view.

The Port Vell, or Old Port
There's plenty more to do at the base of La Rambla, between the Port Vell (Old Port) area, a large if boring mall (the Maremàgnum, complete with tourist-standby IMAX theater and aquarium), a sprawling and fantastic Maritime Museum, and the nearby neighborhood and beach of La Barceloneta.  Honestly, we'd planned to visit the Museu Maritim, upon the ringing endorsement of a coworker and my general enjoyment of such things (a highlight of the trip to London a few years back was the Cutty Sark)... but we simply ran out of time.  Well, even without a sip from the Font de Canaletes, I have little doubt we'll pay a return visit some day, particularly given the fact after the trip Beth identified Barcelona as one of her favorite cities to have experienced.

But for us, with the setting sun, we headed back to our hotel for a well-needed night's sleep with our first taste of Barcelona sated, our tummies full of delights, our wallets somewhat lighter, and a better idea of what we planned to tackle over the next few days. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Notes for the Frequent Traveler, Part 1: Lounge Hopping for Our Spain Trip

The frequent traveler lives by airline lounges and what amenities each offers: showers after a long international flight, perhaps? Free snacks and booze? Which has the best views of the comings and goings out on the tarmac?  Where is the best place to check e-mail, unwind, or catch a couple of hours of shut-eye before the next flight?  Is there even a reason to trek over to the lounge instead of just sitting at the gate?  No doubt the infrequent air traveler won't find much of interest in this blog post, but for those of us who love to travel, these are weighty matters indeed!

Beth and I put these issues to the test during our recent trip to Spain, which involved flights from our nation's capital; Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany; Barcelona, Spain; Málaga, Spain; and Brussels, Belgium.  So how did the lounges stack up?

IAD: Lufthansa Senator Lounge

  • Decent selection of hot foods
  • Free beer (Shock Top and Beck's) and other alcohol
  • Showers available downstairs in the Business Lounge
  • Light, airy, and modern design
  • Located in B Concourse
  • No free wifi (other than airport's)
  • Alcohol isn't self-service and attendants are sometimes hard to find
First off, we paid a visit to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge at Dulles (IAD) on our day of departure, despite the fact we were flying United across the pond.  A somewhat little-known yet open secret is that the IAD Lufthansa Lounge is a Star Alliance Gold lounge, meaning that any traveler who holds gold status with a Star Alliance member airline can visit it in connection with a Star Alliance flight (for a real shocker: domestic flights, too; I've had no problems visiting when flying United to St. Louis or Seattle, for example)--not just those flying Lufthansa.  The lounge is over in the B Concourse, but it's almost right across from the train station, making it an easy trip from check-in at the main terminal.

Beth enjoys a Beck's in the IAD LH Senator Lounge
The Lufthansa Senator lounge is a welcome alternative to the United Red Carpet Clubs as it is generally far less crowded (excepting the times around the morning ANA flight to Tokyo or the later Germany flights) and offers food--and no, the RCC's selection of cheese cubes, crackers, and celery sticks does not count as food.  It's also much brighter, cleaner, and more more modern.  Really, the only downsides are the hours--it opens around 8:30am (the RCC opens at 6:00), the Germans uncharacteristically take a siesta around lunchtime, and the lounge closes earlier than the RCC--and the trek over to your United flight in the A, C, or D Concourse, which means leaving the lounge at least 45 minutes prior to scheduled boarding.  The wifi isn't free, either, and although IAD offers airport-wide free wifi now, the signal quality inside the lounge was so poor I found it nearly worthless.

Just be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to catch the train loop back to the main terminal, A, then the train to C or shuttle to D (or to walk to the shuttle station at A or the far end of B): I'd leave the lounge no later than 45 minutes before your flight boards, earlier if flying internationally (as you'll have to do a document check at your gate).

There are showers downstairs in the Business Lounge--which Star Alliance Gold passengers should be allowed to access regardless of their class of travel, as the Senator Lounge is technically the more "prestigious" of the two.  I've never had the chance to try them out, though, since Washington is my home airport and there's really no need for me to shower given I could have at home.

Unfortunately, due to ABC laws in Virginia, the Lufthansa lounge isn't self-serve when it comes to bier, wein, schnapps and the like--which may come as a surprise to the seasoned international traveler used to pouring their own.  Attendants can be hard to find; I've noticed they will occasionally open the mirror behind the bar and glance out quickly, so you can either catch their eyes then or go over and knock at the kitchen door.

Finally, over the past couple of years, the Senator Lounge's food selection has fallen off a bit in quality, and it can be more crowded than it used to be.  Still, it's leagues ahead of the Red Carpet Clubs, as you'll soon see.

IAD: United Red Carpet Club

Locations: Near gates C7, C17, and D8
  • Three locations
  • Free house wines, beers, and bottom-shelf liquors
  • Free wifi via T-Mobile
  • Dingy and outdated
  • Very crowded
  • Food options almost non-existent
Beth and I left the Lufthansa Senator Lounge about an hour before our flight, and the train (B to Main Terminal to A to C) followed by the long walk from the  station (you see, C/D Concourse is "temporary," and has been for 20+ years--and the train station is where the MWAA eventually plans the real C/D concourse to go) took us a good 15 minutes.  That still gave us time to visit the United Red Carpet Club closest to our flight: the C7 location.

Anyone who's visited the IAD Red Carpet Clubs knows why the lounges play second fiddle to the LH Senator Lounge.  They're all poorly-lit (located at tarmac level, e.g. in the basement) and are typically too hot and are ridiculously crowded--the past few trips to Europe, I haven't been able to find a seat anywhere in the lounge!  Nor do they offer any real food: mornings mean bananas and toast (maybe), with the rest of the day offering cheese cubes straight off a 1970s party tray coupled with crackers and celery and carrot slices.  At least the Red Carpet Club went to free booze about a year ago (dispensing with the often-argued "chit" system where international travelers were supposed to receive two drink coupons)... but the gratis selection is limited to a couple of cheap beers on tap, house wines, and bottom-shelf liquors.  Still, the house wines are usually okay.

The lounge does offer free wifi--members automatically get it, and Star Alliance Gold or international  first or business passengers can request a one-time T-Mobile voucher card--and it typically works far better than the free wifi in the airport (though when the lounge is busy, performance predictably drops).  You can also talk to flight agents (Beth and I did our EU-bound document check at the club, for example, instead of waiting at the counter at the gate).

FRA: Lufthansa Business Lounge

  • Good selection of free bier, wein, and other beverages of choice
  • Decent food items, including an omelet station (mornings only?)
  • Light, airy, and modern design
  • Typically very crowded
  • Long waits for showers
  • No free wifi
  • Hot!
In Frankfurt, the Star Alliance traveler has plenty of options, as the airport is a hub for Lufthansa.  As we were connecting onward to a Schengen-zone destination (Barcelona), that meant first going through passport control (immigration) and then clearing security again, but we still had plenty of time even with as confusing a layout as FRA can be.  We ended up at the Lufthansa Business Lounge near gate A26, as we were departing via A29 for Barcelona.

Beth with an espresso in Frankfurt
The Lufthansa "lounge dragons" (a play on the fact that they, like most airline lounge attendants around the world, stand guard like dragons before a moat and often have less-than-sunny demeanors if you're trying to sneak by them) have the admittance process down to a science, using a barcode scanner on your boarding pass.  The downside is that you thus need an onward Star Alliance flight (switching to another alliance or terminating at FRA means no lounge for you).  If you're flying business--as Beth was--or first class, the lounge scanner sends you right in.  I, as a Star Alliance Gold member flying onward in economy class, had to also present my Star Alliance Gold membership card (United 1K or Continental Platinum for me) before the computers would allow Fraulein Lounge Dragon to let me pass.

The Schengen-zone Lufthansa Business Lounge, like many of the Frankfurt lounges, can be very crowded--feeling almost like a domestic Red Carpet Club in the US.  We did manage to find an open table, though, near the buffet area, and settled in for some much-needed espresso, juice, pastries, and, in my case (despite it being around 8:30am) a big, delicious witbier.  One other comment: like apparently so many European airports, Frankfurt (including its lounges) seems to be kept at sauna temperatures by management.

BCN: Star Alliance Lounge

  • Spacious and not too crowded
  • Okay selection of free alcohol
  • Poor food selection (particularly for an international lounge)
  • No free wifi
  • No arrivals facility
In Barcelona, there are two sets of lounges available in Terminal 1's Schengen area, where hub carrier Spanair operates: the Sala VIP Lounge, and right across from it, the shared Star Alliance Lounge.  (Spanair doesn't have its own flagship lounge for some reason.)

There was a lot of talk a couple of years ago when the new terminal (T1) opened--when Star Alliance passengers shared the Sala VIP Lounge--that the new Star lounge would be absolutely posh, with such things as Playstation 3s, massage tables, and a golf simulator.  Apparently, some contractor pocketed all the funds for those things (I'm joking, I hope), because they're either not well-marked or simply aren't there.  The lounge is pretty spacious, anyway--though granted we were there at 6:00am prior to our flight down to Málaga, so the time of day could have something to do with it.  Food selection wasn't great--certainly not on par with what I expect of international lounges--but the pastries and a café were fine to start the day since we left our hotel earlier than they had breakfast available.

I understand there's free wired Internet access, but the wifi is pay-only. We only had a few minutes in the lounge, anyway (with a 6:50am flight out!), so I didn't really worry that much about it.  A little food in our tummies and some caffeine to start the day is all we needed, and we avoided paying the ridiculous €2+ for vending machines at the airport.

AGP: Sala VIP Lounge

  • Not crowded
  • Spanair is too cheap to treat it as a Star Alliance lounge
We started to stop by the Sala VIP Lounge in Málaga on our way back to Barcelona, but it was a dark omen when there was no Star Alliance signage outside the lounge.

I presented my United 1K card and boarding pass and asked the agent at the counter if they honored Star Alliance status, and she explained that Spanair wasn't willing to pay the airport and lounge for passengers to use it.  She did say that they'd let me in (as a Star Gold flying Spanair), but that as it wasn't a Star Alliance lounge, I couldn't have a guest.  Beth was willing to see me on inside, but I demurred and thus we both bypassed said lounge.

BRU: Brussels Airlines Business Lounge

Beth enjoys some Trappist-brewed
 Leffe in  Brussels 
Beth and I finished up our trip with a connection in Brussels, Belgium, and we completed our lounge tour with a stop at the Brussels Airlines Business Lounge after shopping several chocolate vendors in duty-free.

  • Two varieties of Leffe (a Belgian abbey beer)
  • Temperature actually somewhat comfortable
  • Food options leave a bit to be desired
  • Espresso a bit weak--particularly by Euro standards!
  • No in-lounge bathrooms!

Belgium is known for both its chocolatiers and its brewers, and I certainly didn't let the morning hour dissuade me from sampling the Leffe ales (I had both a brown and a blonde to start my day--how's that?!) the lounge had on hand. Granted, InBev/Anheuser-Busch produces said beers and does so in quantity (InBev is headquartered in Belgium), which would typically preclude any kind of quality, but we're definitely not talking Bud Light, either! These "abbey beers" are very similar to some of the Trappist ales I've tasted and made for a good morning indeed.

I do have to say the espresso machine let me down a bit; the stuff it put out would be strong by coffee standards in the US, but we're talking Europe here. Judging by those more stringent specifications, the stuff was little more than muddy water. Food was only so-so, a bit above the Spanair lounge but still little more than a few croissants and a dish of snack mix (well, the lounge dragon's counter did have a bowl of gummi bears, too). Beth accidentally poured me a grapefruit juice, and I found that as an adult I found the stuff palatable--last time I tried it I was probably 10 and had triple the tastebuds I do today.

The biggest downside was that the lounge lacked its own bathrooms--or if any were in evidence, I couldn't find them. There were some shared facilities in the hall outside the lounge, shared apparently across the Star Alliance and OneWorld lounges--but which made the average US shopping mall bathroom look like something from a penthouse suite at the Four Seasons. I'm used to even the domestic Red Carpet Clubs having bathrooms a notch over the rest of the airport, if not full shower facilities to boot.

Still, the beer alone made the stop worth it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Updated Chateau Papillon Bird List

It's that time of year: Spring migration, and time to keep an eye and ear to the skies for any new birds for the Chateau Papillon list.  Although we haven't added any "life birds" via the yard in a while (not since the Red-breasted Nuthatch last September), April and May have nonetheless contributed three new birds to the yard list.

In addition to two more warblers (a nicely-colored male Palm Warbler a few days back and a Northern Parula I identified by ear this morning), a long-time expected species finally put in an appearance with a mixed blackbird flock in early April: the Red-winged Blackbird.  Though the latter is perhaps North America's most abundant bird and the Palm Warbler one of the most common wood-warblers, they're still welcome additions to the list.  I also heard a Great-crested Flycatcher several times today, despite never being able to get my binoculars fixed on him.

Male Eastern Towhee on the fence at Chateau Papillon
All of our work naturalizing the yard and making it as bird-friendly as possible is paying off, and I only expect us to see more new species ahead--we're only at three warblers so far, and we ought to be able to chalk up a dozen or more in time.

Spring has brought the early arrival of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds as well, forcing us to dig out the nectar feeder a couple of weeks before we usually would, along with several "old friends" passing through, including a large flock of Purple Finches, several Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and a Northern Catbird.  The springtime evening breeze carries the calls of the Barred Owl from the woods behind us, and of course our friend the Pileated Woodpecker pays frequent visits for our suet.

Sally asking for a meal worm handout

And, of course, Harry and Sally--our resident Eastern Bluebirds--are hard at work on a clutch of four eggs.

We stand now at 59 confirmed species in the yard; maybe we can make 60 before the end of springtime:

  1. Blackbird, Red-winged
  2. Bluebird, Eastern
  3. Bunting, Indigo
  4. Cardinal, Northern
  5. Catbird, Grey
  6. Chickadee, Carolina
  7. Cowbird, Brown
  8. Creeper, Brown
  9. Crow, American
  10. Crow, Fish
  11. Cuckoo, Yellow-billed
  12. Dove, Mourning
  13. Finch, House
  14. Finch, Purple
  15. Flicker, Northern
  16. Flycatcher, Great Crested
  17. Goldfinch, American
  18. Goose, Canada
  19. Grackle, Common
  20. Grosbeak, Rose-breasted
  21. Hawk, Cooper's
  22. Hawk, Red-shouldered
  23. Hawk, Red-tailed
  24. Heron, Great Blue
  25. Hummingbird, Ruby-throated
  26. Jay, Blue
  27. Junco, Dark-eyed
  28. Kingbird, Eastern
  29. Mallard
  30. Mockingbird, Northern
  31. Nuthatch, Red-breasted
  32. Nuthatch, White-breasted
  33. Owl, Barred
  34. Parula, Northern
  35. Phoebe, Eastern
  36. Robin, American
  37. Siskin, Pine
  38. Sparrow, Chipping
  39. Sparrow, Fox
  40. Sparrow, House
  41. Sparrow, Song
  42. Sparrow, White-crowned
  43. Sparrow, White-throated
  44. Starling, European
  45. Swallow, Tree
  46. Thrasher, Brown
  47. Thrush, Wood
  48. Titmouse, Tufted
  49. Towhee, Eastern
  50. Vulture, Turkey
  51. Warbler, Palm
  52. Warbler, Yellow-rumped
  53. Waxwing, Cedar
  54. Woodpecker, Downy
  55. Woodpecker, Hairy
  56. Woodpecker, Pileated
  57. Woodpecker, Red-bellied
  58. Wren, Carolina
  59. Wren, House