Monthly Archives: June 2009

Europe 2009, Day 3

I had a fantastic day today.  I took the subway to Placa Catalunya to pick up a bus trip to Monserrat.  This is a mountain range which literally means mountain of swords/knives, as it has sharp outcroppings piercing into the sky.  It took an hour to get out there, but our first stop on this bus trip was a local winery.  I don’t know very much about wine, but I enjoy visiting wineries because they seem to have a blend of tradition and craftmanship and modern production engineering.

The Torres winery is situated just outside of Barcelona and is one of a hundred local vineyards as part of the entire Catalonian wine industry, which will ship over 250 million bottles of wine this year.  The Torres family runs a multinational wine business, spanning Chile and the United States, and has won many international awards. How do I know this?  Promotional video as part of the winery tour.

Unlike other winery tours I’ve been on, this one was very organized and we were taken on a trip around the compound in a small train of wagons.  When I was in Nizza, Italy, I went to a small local vineyard where a young woman who was a little flustered with her English skills gushed through a description of the vineyard while demonstrating to us her portfolio of English swear words.  She showed us their old steam train engine, the strange implements used to press grapes from the old days, and the new facilities they built over time, walking us through the boilers and cellars.  We even met the owner in his Maserati, though admittedly he was there to greet the local restaurateur association.

Torres, on the other hand, is a magnitude more advanced.  At the front gate, a control station checks incoming grapes in trucks.  A picker arm is used to sample grapes from all parts of the truck’s hold and the bunches extracted are tested for sugar levels and other requirements.  As if on cue, a man in a lab coat appeared (I’m not kidding) behind what appeared to be test tubes and flasks on the second floor of this guardhouse.

We then drove around some of the plant used to process wine, driving around down a ramp that encircled a post modern concrete building.  Now parked in front of what seemed like a blank wall, an opening suddenly appeared, the seams flush with the siding.  We drove in and were presented a multi screen video presentation in the dark, which seemed a bit disingenuous, at least until the screens raised and lights flooded the special reserve room filled with special casks of premium wine.  The lady next to me remarked it seemed a little James Bond-esque, which I agreed.  I later found out these reserve bottles were a hundred euros each and came in an attractive wooden box in the gift shop.

The tour continued around into the regular production factory, which kept bottles in a chilled warehouse of wire racks.  I guess when you build such a large business, it can’t be monks putting bottles in handmade wooden shelves in a cave.   We drove by another building, which in the floor to ceiling windows, had people in lab coats working behind equipment and what seemed like a focus group meeting in another.  If we weren’t prepared by the promotional video ahead, I suspect I would have guessed they were actors putting on a show for investors.

They even have built a window along the whole side of an automated bottling line, capping each bottle with a cork and packing them into cardboard boxes.  As an industrial engineer, I found it fascinating, though I would have appreciated actually going out into the vineyards and learning more about how they grow grapes.  They do that on the tours in Niagara.  We did see a few people picking grapes out in the field, but I suspect those were tourists who maybe even paid for the fun of doing it.  Well, I’d pay for the fun of trying it.

I guess what was impressed upon me was the seriousness and scope of the wine business here.

Today I was really happy about having that 75-300mm with me.  I was standing out in the vineyards on my own and I wanted to shoot the plants in a creative way beyond a wide shot of the rows of grapes.  I ended up compressing the background nicely, even though I was changing lenses in the middle of a dusty field to do it.  You can see the dirt on the FF sensor on the shot above, but I really like this shot.  One of my BP-511A’s is reporting back bad voltage, or it’s pooched.  Nothing ruins a day like a low battery indicator at 9AM.

The bus continued to Monserrat, winding up the mountainside.  The range juts out of the country side, multiple outcroppings reaching skyward.  At the base is a station to take a short rack railway up along a twisty path to a thousand year old Benedictine monastery situated almost all the way up the mountain.  The railway was originally built in 1892 but the current railway uses modern electrified trains with a narrow gauge track.  Just out of the station, four of the five kilometers are built with racks in the middle.

In their monastery, the monks tend to their shrine, which attracts thousands of visitors a year.  They also have a renown boys choir, which sings every day at noon, except this week, when they were on summer vacation.  The monks have built a basilica up on the mountain which contains the Black Madonna, a carving that is the source of all those pilgrimages. The basilica front was surrounded by the rest of the more modern monastery building, forming a square, illuminating the floor with bright sun.   Visitors somehow naturally gravitated to the center of this square, taking turns at standing in the sun, arms open, basking in the glory of the church.  I’m not sure where they got their cue to do that, but it was an interesting sight.

I had an interesting lunch which included rabbit with snails and salted cod over salad, bought a postcard and mailed it off and looked off the observation decks into the valleys below.

The final stop of the bus trip was the town of Sitges, one of the most popular beach resorts in Spain.  Unlike Calella de Palafrugell yesterday, Sitges’ beach is huge, with thousands of beachgoers in their chairs and towels out on the ocean.  Sitges does have its own charm, in the form of old houses built by the Americanos and Indianos, expatriat Spaniards who went to the New World to trade and returned with wealth, building mansions in Sitges.

I can’t say I really enjoyed Sitges that much, as the afternoon sun was shining bright again and the place seemed tuned for the beach party crowd that had not shown up yet as they were sleeping off their hangovers.  I ended up at a small bar, drinking the local beer and chatting with travelling Australians.

After we returned, folks on the bus had suggested a local tapas bar called Cal Pep, far away from the Ramblas, not far from the place I noted to go back to the night before.  They were going to take a cab, but I elected to walk down on my own, as I like wandering the city.  Wandering around on your own on foot leads you into surprising discoveries.  Sometimes it’s trivial but quirky, like walking into a Barcelona electronics store and hearing Nelly Furtado on the stereos.  Tonight I walked into a church I happened upon, quite nondescript on the outside as it was nestled into adjacent streets and buildings.  Inside was a beautiful gothic nave, lit perfectly in the early evening.

After walking around in progressively smaller squares, I got to the right placa and couldn’t find the restaurant at all, though I confirmed I was in the right square referring to the guidebook map I’d snapped with the HTC Touch I took along with me.  Nestled into the corner of the square, nondescript, was this place and entering, I amazingly got a spot at the bar.  It is a very small place, highly rated by food and travel guides and a lineup at this early evening of 8PM already formed twenty deep on the back wall.  It apparently stretches outside and around in the proper 10PM dinner service the Barcelonans usually take.  The proprietor motioned me to a seat immediately as there was a spare spot right up front for one and joked about the 5D/24-70mm I dropped onto the bar top.  It’s not the place where you study the menu, he said.  I agreed to seafood and soon plates of food appeared in front of me.  Apparently they serve whatever is fresh from the sea that day.

Unlike other places I’ve been this week, this feels like a place where the locals and expat crowd hangs out.  The guy next to me was from San Francisco and wanted a bit more beer.  So he was poured a beer in a small cup.  A couple was being introduced to the city by a resident to my left.  He was doing a play by play as the meal progressed.  It felt immediately warm and friendly, down to the point where the guy actually forced me not to use a fork when eating a plate of fresh clams, done up in garlic, chilies and salt.  Before I could finish this first plate, along came a plate of roasted scotch peppers, and a second plate of miniature prawns, smelt and calamari.  The squid was perfectly done, taut by not gummy; the fried prawns and smelt crunched lightly, dosed in sea salt.  I got a handshake when I paid my bill and left.  It made me feel warmly welcome, which in a world of drawing your name backwards on your tablecloth / greeter at the front door kind of service, felt unusually authentic.

Europe 2009, Day 2

The Spanish appear to have an appreciation for public communal spaces.  As I walked along back to the hotel around midnight, I noticed people still hanging out in the streets, families sitting on the park benches together.  Neighbourhoods appear to be set up for street cafes, where patrons are still having a beer late into the night.  The observations of Jane Jacobs continues to appear whenever I travel.

This morning I took the subway to the Liceo station, where I needed to find a bank and get to Placa Catalunya to start a tour.  I got there pretty early, so I went to the market, La Boqueria, a place where Barcelona has traded since 1204.  The American comment that Barcelona is laid back resounded when merchants were still setting up the stalls at 8AM–reminding me of the time I went to the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo at some godforsaken hour to watch fish being sold.  If the Tsukiji market in Japan was about the variety of seafood on display, raw slabs of tuna being brokered and dispatched in an intricate display of motion and fury, La Boqueria’s element was fresh fruit, carefully stacked into geometric placement.  I couldn’t stay for long and will return tomorrow morning, but I grabbed a cup of fresh fruit juice, which is ever present in the stalls of this busy market.

The tour I booked today was to get out of the city, something I figured I couldn’t easily do using trains or other forms of public transit.  Our first stop was the town of Girona.  Today Girona is often known as the place where foreigners land in group tour charters so they can be trucked off to the Costa Brava, apparently. The city itself has a varied history, stretching back two thousand years, sieged and conquered by Moors, Visigoths, and Francs over the years.  We walked around the town following the reconstructed wall that surrounded it, which yielded beautiful panoramas as we ascended to each turret and peak.

We visited the old Arab Baths, with light streaking in from its vaulted ceiling.  Amongst the ruins of the baths was a display of a local artist, who built modern sculptures out of welded rusted steel.  It’s a little unusual to see one art display in the midst of a historical venue, but I’m reminded of the time we found a Braun industrial design exhibit in a Shinotist temple in Kyoto.

As with every trip I take, I agonize over which lenses to bring along.  However, I have come to the conclusion the 5D/24-70mm f2.8L is best setup I’ve used and since taking with me to France, I’ve found it perfect.  I did however contemplate needing my 70-200mm f2.8L IS for the second stage of this trip, which I decided against due to weight and expense.  I again brought along the worst lens ever made, the 75-300mm f4-5.6 for those telephoto reach and compression scenarios I found in Florence back in the fall of 2007.  Today I figured out a great way to carry it, using an old fanny pack, ripe for pickpocketing in the hopes some Barcelonan thug will steal it so I can get something else.

Despite my complaints about this lens, it came in useful for shots like the beautiful Girona Cathederal, proudly standing in the skyline from the old fortified city walls.

The main street of Girona’s old city is beautifully covered with tall, overarching trees, shading shoppers from the harsh sun, which was in full force today.  Yesterday, I expected the weather to be painfully hot, which wasn’t the case as the winds from the sea blew by in a cooling breeze as I walked around the city.  Today though, the sun burned down, blinding the countryside in bright light as we drove around outside Barcelona.   My suspicions about small towns in Europe have been confirmed–while touring around Girona, it was clear the river that cut through clearly divided the old town, replete with its old buildings, churches and structures, from the new town, complete with apartment buildings, supermarkets and industrial buildings.

Our next stop was unusual.  The countryside around Girona appeared to be criss-crossed with dusty roads, dry in the brilliant sunshine.  As we drove around, old farmhouses and new developments dotted the landscape.  In some cases, we would drive through a brand new neighbourhood, almost like a Playmobil set minus people figures, ready with houses, stores and playgrounds.  In others, we sped through industrial parks with warehouses, offices and small factories.  However, nestled in these new developments was a little medieval town called Pals.  Imagine driving through say, the outskirts of Mississauga or Oakville, looking at new big box stores and old farmers’ fields being built on.  Then imagine suddenly driving into a medieval town with a small fort.

Pals, so very small, was incredibly picturesque, the kind of thing people paint small artworks of.  The sunbleached stone walls were covered in vines, bright flowers hanging from old wooden windows.  The streets wind and twist around, with steps and stairs revealing neat little alcoves and plazas.  It’s hard to describe this little town, which seems too large of a word to describe what appears to be a hamlet, nor is it easy to explain its immediate charm.  But I liked it very much, even though it felt like we were walking through someone’s house.

Around two in the afternoon, locals often will close down their shops for the siesta, the afternoon break.  I had only read about this, but I could never understand why anyone would take a break in the middle of the day.  Now, with the searing Mediterranean bearing down on us in the fields of sunflowers, I understood exactly why–it’s hot and people need a break.  It also means you can have dinner later.  I now completely agree with siesta.  We should have it in Canada.

Our final stop for this tour, now into the afternoon, was Calella de Palafrugell, a small town on the Costa Brava.  While there are large beaches for the party goers, this little beach town reminded me of driving through Nice towards Cannes on the south of France.  The sun highlighted the azure blue sea, dotted with rocks and families swimming, fishing and sunbathing.  Topping the beach was a haphazard set of piers, boardwalk and steps, following the contour of the coastline, dotted with small shops and restaurants.  We sat down for a drink here, the immediate summer sun balanced by the delightful cool breeze from the ocean.  In the shade, wind blowing, it was a perfect setting to stare out into the horizon with a mix of clara, a local beer and lemon soda combination.


Europe 2009, Day 1

A few years ago, I began a list in my head of places which I wanted to visit.  Unlike other people who write their list down, taking copious notes, my list would seem to grow only by one extra country per year, and coincidentally as I finished each travel, the list would nudge up one entry further.  As I returned from Denmark, on came Germany, as I returned from Japan, it appeared that Italy would be the last one, that was, until France came up.  This year, the list had grown exponentially to include Spain and Egypt plus some that I likely would never be able to do on my own, such as Russia and Africa, where I imagined myself staring down wild animals on the far end of a telephoto, baring dust storms and waking to the arching branches of Joshua trees in the desert sky.  Note the word “imagine”.

Given the newfound opportunity to pack up and leave for a while at a whim, I decided to take a vacation.  I got onto the plane with a minimum of planning and found myself lying across three seats as the row in front of my assigned seat was empty.  As the sun shades came up the next morning, I woke to the bright light of the Mediterranean coast strayed into the cabin.

This entry comes from the city of Barcelona, along the sunny southern coast of Spain.  I picked this city because it was cheap to get to and friends who had gone there before seemed to like it.  In past travels, I’ve typically found each hotel day by day, playing it by ear.  But instead this time, I decided to play dumb and randomly search for a hotel using a hotel aggregator.

Amazingly, I found a brand new four star hotel for $120 dollars a night, the Hotel Diagonal Zero.  It seemed too good to be true from my desk in Toronto, but despite it’s strange name, I booked it.  What was a Diagonal Zero?  Is that little stroke across the zero on computer printouts?  Today as I walked up to hotel, in it’s brand new splendour, I found out:  It is situated on the Av. Diagonal at the very end of this major thoroughfare that cuts across Barcelona.

The hotel is far too cool.  It is incredibly stylish.  The room has ambient lighting reminiscent of high end fashion boutiques.  Each floor has a giant numeral with backlit coloured lighting.  And the bathroom has one of those strange glass half panels in the shower.  As I walked to the hotel, an American couple I chatted with mentioned Barcelona was very laid back and things closed late.  Given this information, I figured I should take a nap.  Every city should be open late.

Now into the afternoon, I walked out into the street and jumped into the Barcelona Metro.  While it’s not as clean and stylish as the Copenhagen subway, the scope and density of stations make this a very effective way of getting around.  I didn’t have a real schedule or agenda, but just wanted to walk around the streets and shoot some photos.  I got out in the middle of town and walked around, running through the Gothic Quarter and looking at the shops and people as they milled about.  The first landmark I found was the Barcelona Cathedral, but this was being repaired, so I continued to walk across the city.

Towards dinner time, I felt somewhat hungry after hours of walking around.  I had managed to find Las Ramblas, the central street along Barcelona and found myself at a Tapas bar, sitting on their patio in the centre of the street.  I know very little about Spanish cuisine, but the monkfish I ordered seemed to exemplify the local food culture:  It was a grilled skewer of monkfish and avocado, dressed with olive oil, sea salt and lemon.  A very simple preparation, but perfectly balanced in flavours and exactly cooked.  I drank the admitted German beer very quickly.  I was thirsty.

It appears the Ramblas is self divided into zones based on the vendors which exhibit their wares.  One block seems to be all flower stands, further down seems to be nothing but sketch and caricature artists.  Now, if I ran a flower stand, I would probably want to go put it further away from other florists to differentiate myself and not get into predatory pricing between me and other flower vendors.  But that’s just me.


I walked down the street to the Placa Catalunya, where I found people playing chess in the open air.  What was surprising was the numbers of onlookers all studiously watching and examining the players’ moves.  Barcelona seems to be a big vacation town.  While walking around tonight, along came a bunch of British ladies all wearing home made tank tops with inkjet printed lettering stating it was “Emma’s Hen ‘Do 2009”.  I hope the wedding goes well, cause God forbid Emma needs another in 2010.

At the south end of the Ramblas is the Monument a Colon.  You can walk further onto the Rambla de Mar pier into the marina, where the sun was beginning to set.  It seems fake bag and sunglasses hawkers found in my trip across Italy are also in full force here.  They are much more clever here in that they have sewn rope to the corners of their mats, allowing for a quick snatch of  their wares should the police come along, kind of like an upside down parachute.  I’m still deciding which Prata bag I want.

As I walked up back to the Jaumi I subway station, I noticed down an alleyway and found myself along a beautiful shopping street with a cathedral tucked in between.  I will have to come back there tomorrow night.  I wanted to finish the evening by going up to the Sagrada Familia cathedral.  Perhaps Barcelona’s most well known landmark, this unfinished church was started by Antoni Gaudi in 1882 and is uncompleted.  My plan was to get their later as the sun came down to shoot the church bathed in flood lights, as the bright sunlight was cutting down contrast and colour saturation.

When I got to the Sagrada Familia, the sun had not set yet and the building was backlit into the sky.  I was disappointed, thinking I would have to come back again much much later.  However, my persistence paid off–within a few minutes past ten, the flood lights came on and the church was bathed in warm light in the evening.

Europe 2009, Day 0

I went to lunch yesterday with my friends Jennifer and Vesna and outside the door of the restaurant was a basket of fortune cookies.  As Jennifer complained she never got actual fortunes in her cookies and Vesna found hers didn’t even contain a slip of paper, I broke mine open and found the above fortune. How prescient.

Folks, it’s time for Meats and Cheeses 2009.