March 28 - Spring Skiing and Barcelona

We met our new company manager, Thomas, backstage in Nuremberg, but really didn't get a chance to talk to him until the next day on the long bus trip to Austria. That night, Brad, Rob and I decided it was our duty to take him out for Mexican food, and get to know him (and find out what he already knew about us, which turned out to be not too much). The restaurant took a very long time, and by the time we finally were seated and had our food, we were all on the second pitcher of Margaritas. It had been a while since I had gone out at night and we all had a great time -- we ended up at a Scottish pub around the corner from our hotel, where the bartenders were wearing Kilts, and whenever anyone ordered whiskey, the glass was put onto an electric train set and sent around the room just below the ceiling -- I suppose the idea being that if you can still find your drink, you're still sober enough to have another.

In the morning, seven of us met in the lobby to go skiing on the mountain just outside of town, Gerlitzen. The town itself was far enough south that the weather was warm and sunny, and none of the mountains we could see had snow, but the hotel desk assured us that we could still go skiing. It ended up being a perfect day of spring skiing. We took a cab to the base of the mountain, and from there took a very steep, scenic and somewhat raucous gondola ride to the top of the visible part of the mountain. Just past the front ridge, was another, much higher peak, that we couldn't see from Villach in the valley floor. This mountain was mostly bare off the slopes, but the slopes themselves were covered and inviting. I rented one of the best snowboards I have ever ridden, and the rest of the group rented skis and we went up. The snow was great - soft, spring corn, fast and easy to turn in. Patrick, Michael and Rob were at the very beginning level, and spent the day learning to snowplow and turn, with the assistance of Kim, Christine and Laura, who all took turns playing teacher. I watched for a few runs, but being on a snowboard, I wasn't much help to those on skis, so I spent most of the day on the other parts of the mountain, accompanied by either Christine or Laura.
The weather was perfect - sunny and warm, with no wind at all, so when we all ate lunch together at the base, we had to strip down to our T-shirts on the picnic bench where we chose to eat. Even on the slopes, with the exception of the windswept peak, I had to keep my jacket open. That night at the show, we told everyone else who hadn't gone skiing what a great day we had, and the next morning, Paolo, BA and I went back up at 9am, followed by a larger group at noon. The weather was a little colder, and the snow a little icier that day, (no problem for me, being used to the ice in New England) but still all of us had a great day. The real surprise skier that day was Thomas...a technically perfect skier who we found out used to teach ski school in his hometown, Garmish-Partenkirchen, where we had been skiing only a week before.

That night at the show, our company manager told us that our Producers had not been able to work out a payment schedule for the full 120 shows, but promised us that we would have an answer the following Saturday...we weren't happy about this, but because of the long travel and personal vacations in the next few days, we decided as a company to wait it out and see what would happen.

The next three days, the bus was scheduled to drive the three days to Burgos, Spain, where our next show would take place. Brad, Rob and I could think of no torture greater than spending three days on the bus, so we bought train tickets to Barcelona on a sleeper car, and left immediately after the show. Lydia and Paolo went off to Milan, and Jamie, Angela, Peter and Patrick Bodd found a cheap flight from Vienna to Barcelona. Those who did stay with the bus apparently two wonderful evenings on the French Riviera, but we were glad for the break anyway.

We took the sleeper car to Milan, and in the morning changed trains to take us though the mountains to France. At one of the last stops before our transfer, our train was delayed to load a car of handicapped children, causing us to miss our final connecting train to Barcelona. So we stopped in a picturesque town (I can no longer remember the name) at the base of the French Alps, and had a lunch feast before catching the last train out to Montpellier, where we decided to spend the night. Brad had a friend there, with whom he spent dinner and Rob and I decided to make it an early night to catch the very first train in the morning to Barcelona.

We arrived in Barcelona before noon, and walked from the train station down to the old city, to the hotel we had stayed at on New Year's Day. Brad had decided to stay in Montpellier for the day, so we had planned on taking a room for two, but the only room left was a room for three, which ended up working out perfectly, since Brad also remembered the hotel, found the note we had left, and showed up just in time for dinner.

After checking in, we started walking through the city. When we were in Barcelona before, we arrived after dark and left before sunrise, so we had never seen the city by day. The main city of the former kingdom of Catalunya, it views itself as separate from the rest of Spain, and proudly speaks its own language - similar to Castillian (what we know as Spanish) but different enough that Rob could not understand what was spoken until the speaker sighed, rolled their eyes and spoke in Castillian Spanish. Most of the city is laid out along wide avenues, with gracious squares every few blocks, and is perhaps one of the most gracious cities in Europe. In contrast, in the old city the streets are narrow and twisting, often no more than 6 feet wide. We found a small restaurant, Eternal, with an inexpensive but satisfying lunch special and ate before attempting any real sightseeing.

Walking back from lunch to the main square, we saw posters for Cirque du Soleil, which was playing in town. We stopped into the main department store, El Corte Ingles, and bought ourselves tickets for the following afternoon. We then poked our heads into the tourist information desk, and asked how we could get to the park designed by Gaudi, where we were told to take a bus that stopped directly outside. The long bus trip took us through the center of town and then up a steep hill at the edge. As soon as we entered the park, we had sweeping panoramic views of the entire city.
The park had started out as a utopian community planned by a local aristocrat alarmed by the rapid growth of the city at the turn of the last century. He purchased this hilltop and asked Gaudi to help him plan a community to prove that urban growth and nature were not necessarily in opposition. Gaudi designed a central entrance with fountains, guard booths, an open plaza (with a mosaic tile bench S-curving all the way around) supported by columns, under which is an amphitheater. Above this, winding their ways up the hill are paths that lead to the plots of land open for sale. Only three houses were ever built: The man who commissioned the project, his lawyer, and Gaudi were the only ones ever to live here. Apparently the aristocracy of Barcelona had other hills where they built their mansions, and this was looked on as extreme folly. With the death of Gaudi in the 1920s, the city repurchased the hill, and turned it into a public park, one of the most amazing in the world. Gaudi's signature style, Modernismo (a sort of futuristic Art-Deco) is evident along all the bridges and pathways twisting up the hill, and the entrance square and staircase with its elaborate mosaic fountains are breathtaking.

After spending about two hours in the park, Rob and I decided to check out the cathedral Gaudi designed. Though only half complete, it has already become a symbol of the city with its fantastic arches and details. Looking almost like a sand castle, its turrets rise high above the city grid, with bright colors accenting its peaks. We had a view of the city at sunset from half-way up one of the completed towers, and then, exhausted from a long day of travelling and lots of climbing, headed back to the hotel to rest our feet and plan for dinner.

Brad arrived just as we were about to walk out again, so the three of us went to a tiny little restaurant in the old city that had been recommended to us on our prior visit, but we had not yet visited. We stuffed ourselves with seafood, Paella, Sangria and Crema Catalunya (similar to Creme Brulee). Then went for a walk along the newly restored harbor area. Barcelona is obviously in the process of giving itself a face lift, a process which began in preparation to the 1992 Olympics, and which continues today. Already one of the most pleasant and cultural cities in Europe, it is busy making itself more accessible to the rest of the world, with the old shipping harbor renovated into a marina at the edge of the old city with the wharves recycled into shops, restaurants and nightclubs (which pulsate well into the morning every night). The heavy ship activity has been moved elsewhere, and the result is an inviting destination which makes me wonder if the New York planning department will ever do something with the series of abandoned piers along the Hudson river.

In the morning, we stopped at a sidewalk cafe along the Rambla (the main pedestrian street, running from the central plaza to the harbor) and had our cafe con leche and chocolate croissants. After poking our heads into the covered market area with each stall piled high with fresh produce and seafood), we then split up, and Rob and I went to the Picasso Museum in the Latin quarter. The museum itself turned out to be a little bit of a disappointment. The museum contains a comprehensive series of his work from his days in Art school up to 1917, but then contains absolutely nothing dated before his series of line drawings in 1957 - a 40 year gap when he was at the height of his creative and artistic powers. Most of his most famous pictures are in Madrid and Paris, but we had expected to see some of his best work in the city of his birth. More satisfying to us was the other exhibit focusing on the artistic community based in Paris' Montmartre district at the turn of the century, which had shaped Picasso's early career a great deal. It was also nice since we had been to Montmartre in December, and recognized many of the now famous landmarks and squares depicted in the paintings.

We had planned to meet Brad for lunch but the restaurant we had picked was closed that day, so Rob and I went back to the same neighborhood where we had eaten lunch before getting on the bus to take us out to the show. On the bus ride, we passed the Olympic Village and made our final stop along the beach in the park used for Olympic track events. The white circus tents were sitting right along the beach, and we were swept up the throngs of excited people streaming across the park towards them.

This was the show QUIDAM which played in New York last year which Rob had seen before, but I hadn't. I had seen their show Saltimbanco in Los Angeles the summer before I moved to New York and had always missed their later shows in the city because I was out of town. Barcelona was the perfect place to watch the show -- Since the show is sung in a made-up language, it makes no difference what language the audience speaks. It is nearly impossible to describe a Cirque du Soleil show to those who have not had the privilege -- a mixture of modern dance, musical and absurdist theater, performance art, and astonishing circus masterfully woven into a single show -- it is something that everyone should see. This was perhaps the highlight of our trip to Barcelona: even though the company is French Canadian, the carnival atmosphere of the show transferred well.
We decided to walk the two miles back to our hotel along the beach rather than jam ourselves onto a packed bus, and saw a series of the Olympic facilities built along the water: Sports complexes, hotels, a new marina and wide boardwalk -- the first stage of the urban renewal project in that section of the city. When we got back we met up with brad again, and walked back to Eternal, where we had had lunch the day before, but this time the experience was much different. We arrived at 9:30, and the restaurant was completely empty. As soon as we sat down and ordered, the restaurant filled up and the lights went down. It turns out that the restaurant is famous for its drag shows, and we were serenaded and screamed at in Catalonian by two 250 pound, 7 foot tall drag queens who paraded around the tables every half hour, with a complete costume change between each set - sadly, I didn't have my camera that evening. We didn't finish eating until after midnight (service was a little slower at dinner, with no orders taken or food delivered during the 'performances', and we decided to skip any further nightlife that night.

Brad had gone to the train station earlier that day to purchase our train tickets to Burgos, but because of a train strike, was forced to purchase us bus tickets, departing at 7:30 AM. So early in the morning, we got up, stumbled down to the street and found a taxi to take us to the bus station. We wondered if the rest of the cast that had traveled to Barcelona would make it in time for the show that night, but they ended up renting cars and driving the whole way.

Next: Burgos, Alicante and Madrid