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Friday, May 31, 2019

Mallorca and Girona: Thoughts

After the hype from Brad Silverberg, I had high expectations from Mallorca and they were exceeded. I was impressed by the prices, the friendliness of people (especially Linus and Karsten), and how perpetually friendly the drivers were in Mallorca. The cycling was first class, and Brad was prescient in predicting that I'd get bored right around the 1 week mark. If I'd thought about the trip or planned it better I would have gotten in Cap de Formentor as well within our 6 days. Port de Soller was great if a bit touristy (but much less so than Pollenca), and we ate superbly throughout the trip.

Without similar guidance for Girona, I almost expected to be let down. For a couple of days I wondered if I should have organized a point-to-point tour instead, especially since Mike's knee was doing better and he was more able to keep up with my cycling. But as the days wore on Girona made a bigger and bigger impression on me until by the end of the trip I was starting to think that this was a place where I could retire to.

Girona had all the attributes of a city that I liked in California: lots of different riding variety with very few repeats. It even had attributes that I didn't have in the Bay Area, such as easy access to the Pyrenees (when the snow's melted) either by train or even just by riding to it, because it was so close! If you wanted an easy short tour, you could take the train over to the French border and ride back with the wind at your back (easily accomplished in 2 days, or 1 long day).

Girona also has all the European conveniences and qualities that make Europe a far better place to live in general than the USA. The city was clean, you could walk from downtown and never need a car, and the prices were reasonable, unlikely many other places in Europe. I could definitely see myself living there for a long stay, and never getting bored of the cycling. I do not say this lightly, as I've been a Bay Area advocate for almost the entirety of my residence in the USA since 1988.

One of the big concerns for a Bay Area cyclist is that of course, the best time to visit Spain also coincides with the best time to ride in California, because their climates are so similar! On the other hand, if you've lived in the Bay Area for awhile, you've probably done all the local rides, so this is a chance to explore a new place. The climbs in Mallorca and Girona are also much more gentle than Bay Area climbs, so if you've had a difficult winter season (like I did), then it's a great place to go to get back in shape, as the number of "training camp" type bike tours on offer indicate. So I'd say you should go if you'd like something different and maybe even gentler. Non-cycling partners would have plenty to do as well, with a lot of options from cooking classes, food tours, to visiting the museums celebrating famous artists like Picasso and Dali. This trip put Spain on my map in a way that wasn't there before, and I was very glad that Brad sold it as hard as he did!

Overall, we spent $550 each on the round-trip flight to Barcelona, and $200 each on the round-trip flight to Mallorca (because we brought our own bikes). On the ground, we spent about $1000 each on hotels, and about $800 or so on food, tours, and other miscellaneous. That meant that the entire cost of the trip including flights was around $2500 per person. Scott Hess likes to make fun of me by saying that my trips aren't that cheap compared with guided tours, but for comparison, the Trek Tours charges $2000 per person for 6 night tours in Mallorca and the same for Girona without including the price of the plane ticket (though including a rental bike, so you'd have saved about $320 on the flights). So for the cost of less than one of the Trek Tours (and surprisingly enough, Trek wasn't the most expensive trip --- do a Google search and you'll discover $4000 6 day 5 night tours --- I had no idea people spent that much on cycling trips), we got 2 tours plus 3 nights in Barcelona and the misc activities, etc. Independent Cycle Touring literally saves a thousand dollars on each trip.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Epilogue: April 24th & 25th

We got up and caught the early train to Girona, paying an extra 3Euro for the faster service which had seats for us as well as plenty of room for our bikes. I looked at a map and found a much closer train station which enabled us to get to hotel within 10 minutes of departing from the train station, getting us to the hotel by 10:30am. The staff of SM Sant Antoni were once again very accommodating, giving us plenty of space to disassemble and pack our bikes. Even more amazing, by the time we were done packing our bikes, they'd somehow gotten our rooms ready, 4 hours before the designated checkin time. I cannot praise the hotel highly enough.
Google Trips suggested Montjuic Castle, and I suggested to Mike that we visit the market for lunch, but he misunderstood and thought I meant the supermarket and objected violently. Non-plussed, I pulled out trip advisor and we ended up picking a restaurant that was horribly over-priced despite its good reviews. After the restaurant, we took a taxi to the castle and got grand views of Barcelona as well as an overview of the history of the Castle, which was unusual in that it wasn't just a defense against external invasions, but also a tool of oppression against city citizens.

We bought a combo ticket to the botanical gardens, but that was a surprisingly long walk, and by the time we got there Mike was too tired to go in. I went in and enjoyed the strangely empty botanical gardens, but we had limited time before our tour if we wanted to walk (or even take the bus) there.
The walk to the bike tour place was fun, taking us through parts of the city new to us (and old to us), and mostly downhill to soothe Mike's aching knees and feet. We arrived at the e-bike tour place and were surprised to be told that we were the only people to have signed up, so it was like getting a private tour from Juleo.
The bikes were obviously in bad shape, squishy brakes and rattles from daily use by tourists. But Juleo was great as was the tour. We got a great feel for the city, as well as a ton of history, including how Catalan the region came to be part of Spain. He explained all the yellow ribbons we saw painted on the roads as we rode around in Girona, and also the recent politics. What was amazing were the pictures of Barcelona from before the Olympics and the explanation of why a lot of the infrastructure was so new. This was a great tour and I'd highly recommend it. We even got to see inside a building (what was originally proposed to be a library which got canceled once they discovered ruins of medieval Barcelona underneath the proposed site) where medieval buildings were preserved.
After dinner, Juleo sat down with us and gave us a bunch of recommendations on what to bring home for friends and family as treats, and where to go to dinner. We picked 4 Gats, a Picasso themed restaurant nearby, which served a large portion and was opened early.
With our bikes packed we were in no hurry to get back to the hotel but we were already pretty worn out by the day's activities, so we went to bed early anyway.

The next morning, we had breakfast at a chain breakfast cafe recommended by Juleo which was very good, and had great stuff that you could pack and bring onto the plane for food as well. As scheduled the taxi arrived to take us to the airport where I scanned my VAT refund documents easily and got through customs in record time. To make up for that when it came time to board the plane I was randomly selected to undergo another major inspection.

The flight passed by surprisingly fast (I had plenty to do), and at Oakland Airport I was once again reminded by how onerous passport control and customs was on the USA border. Once out, Supershuttle again disappointed us by taking half an hour to pick us up, but we were soon home and I was saying hello to Bowen and Boen. What a great trip!

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

April 23rd: Rocacorba

As predicted, it rained all night and was still raining the next morning. That meant we could wait until 8:00am when the cafe opened to have breakfast. We walked over using umbrellas borrowed from the hotel, had a relaxed breakfast, and went back to the hotel to read, start the packing process, and wait for the rain to end.
By 11:00am, the rain had finished and we could ride out, and finally, on my last day of cycling in Girona, I had to repeat the route out to Banyoles! We took the direct, Garmin-directed route, and found ourselves in Banyoles by 12:00pm, too early for any of the restaurants along the lake to serve lunch, so we stopped at the Aldi supermarket to buy lunch. You know you've picked the right supermarket when a swarm of tourists on European-style trekking bikes descend on it as well. A supermarket lunch (2 buns, chocolate, and fruit) cost about 3 Euros per person, and was just the ticket for climbing prep: not so heavy to weigh you down, but enough that you don't have to eat during the climb and on the way back to the hotel. I'd long since ran out of Clif bars and the like.
We knew we were on Rocacorba when a serious looking woman cyclist rode on the road, turned around, and not 15 minutes later passed me at high speed in her highest gear, deliberately mashing her pedals as if she was on some coach-specified power-training regiment. The road looked smooth and welcoming, but of course, the day was cloudy so I worked as hard as I could to try to get to the top fast in the case of pending rain.
Cyclists have a perverse need to brag about their local climbs as being challenging. Rocacorba is somewhere between a consistent 10-12% grade. It's steep, but nowhere close to Pragelpass or even the Bay Area's Bohlman-On-Orbit Bohlman. Knowing that today was a short ride anyway, I just stayed in my middle chainring and went up the climb, feeling small raindrops all the way to the top, which was a disappointing looking cell tower building.

At the top, I got a text from Mike that he'd encountered rain mysteriously on a ride where the pavement was never soaked, and had turned around and was headed to the hotel. I rode down, but  by the time I'd gotten to the bottom he was tired of waiting and had turned around and headed home. I explored the alternate route I'd seen on the map, but when I started on it, I realized that this was just the reverse of the route we'd taken on the Olot loop.
It was a pretty loop, however, so I didn't complain, though I became unhappy at the end when I realized that I'd routed myself onto the biggest highway into Girona. Fortunately, I only needed to be on it for 3 hair-raising exits before I recognized a signpost and bailed out, getting a scenic entry into Girona. Of course, being on a big highway had advantages --- the fear and shorter route got me back to the hotel before Mike!
Back at the hotel, we took a walk around after a shower (no laundry to slow us down this time!), and discovered that the streets were full of flower vendors and book sellers. Since we walked past the visitor's center, we stopped by and asked what it was about, and the lady explained to us that during the festival of Sant Jordi, men were supposed to give their women flowers, and the women were supposed to give their men-folk a book. What a great twist! The Wikipedia entry mentions that UNESCO has adopted that date as World Book Day, but of course in the USA you'd never hear about that!
Dinner was a L'Aglica, still to me the best restaurant in Girona, and we ate grandly, dessert and all. After dinner, the streets were still filled with flowers and book vendors. We spotted a cafe near the hotel that was opened early the next morning (it'd been close nearly the entire time we were in Girona because of the holiday, and this was the first day it was opened after the holidays), so we knew we could eat there for breakfast. We wanted an early departure to Girona, as we had to find the hotel and pack the bikes. I looked to see if this time we could sign up for any walking tours, but none of them were appropriately timed --- they were too early in the day and we wouldn't be done with packing the bikes until at least 12:00pm. We signed up for the e-Bike tour via TripAdvisor that started at 4:00pm instead. It would feel strange riding an e-bike in a place that didn't really need it (tour companies are unlikely to let you ride up and down major descents since foreign tourists would probably scare themselves silly), but the reviews were great so we took a leap of faith.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

April 22nd: St. Hilari

I was now convinced that there were an infinite number of non-repeating exits out of Girona, as the Garmin-generated heatmap-driven route led us out of Girona on various bike paths with a tailwind on the flats. Garmin loves bike paths, even unpaved ones that ran alongside the road. On a morning with not much traffic I preferred the asphalt, but Mike liked to exercise his 32mm tires.
Under cloudy skies we started up the climb. It was gentle and long, and didn't grant much in the way of views, but with no traffic (I think we saw 3-5 cars the entire climb) it was pleasant. I stopped once to put on rain pants when I felt several drops of rain in a row, but then almost immediately took it off as I started getting wet from sweat instead!
In the village of Osor I saw how little traffic people expected. 2 kids were walking their dog right down the middle of the only street in town, barely even lifting their heads to glance at me as I rode past. Once I decided to just hammer up the climb at a good pace, all my pictures were either of the scenery or of the 2 goats I saw.
 When I got near the end I saw a huge chapel, and thought that might have been Sant Hilari, but I was wrong! Sant Hilari came much later, and it was a ridiculously large town, complete with appliance shops in the middle of main street. The town went on forever, but I'd already agreed with Mike that I wasn't going to wait at the top of a summit with impending rain, but would descend and we'd meet up later.
Descending, I saw a few views but no good vantage point to take pictures from. All the area around roads were farmland with fences, etc. The overcast sky had a few holes where sunlight would beam through, giving a surrealist effect. The descent was sketchy, with lots of chip-seal sections that were still loose, so I couldn't take corners at maximum speed.
Near the bottom, the minuscule traffic pretty much disappeared as the freeway available sucked up what traffic was left, and I had to road all to myself. The road surface was great, however! We rode back into town against a headwind, but started feeling drops of rain. Right at the edge of Girona, however, I saw a gorgeous farmhouse, and felt obliged to stop for a good picture.

As we entered Girona, the raindrops became more frequent and we got to the garage of the hotel Ultonia just as a downpour ensued! With that kind of ending we definitely felt like we'd squeezed every ounce of riding out of the day!

Of course, the rain had stopped after we'd showered and did our laundry, and we walked out to the cafe for lunch. The rain was supposed to run until the next day around 3:00pm, so I looked online to see if there were any alternatives we could do. I noticed that Girona Food Tours had a Catalunya cooking class, and tried to sign up for it but they said they were full. Restaurant L'Aglica was opened for business the next day, so I booked a dinner spot for that, as it was our last day and I really wanted to eat there again before we left!
I convinced Mike to take a walk around the city, and we got to see the Arab Baths, which was interesting in a "it's only 2 Euros, we'll take a look since we're here" kind of way.

Dinner was a wild goose chase. Mike found a restaurant that looked good, we went to it to discover that it had moved, then after we'd walked over there, the opening hours were different than what was posted on TripAdvisor. Finally, when 8pm arrived we walk there and discovered they were still not opened. We ended up eating at Brots di Vi, which had competent food but in insufficient portions for a cyclist. That wasn't a bad thing, since it meant we had room for desert, and so walked over to Cafetaria el Pessic, where the desserts were so tasty we decided to come back again the next morning for a sit down breakfast, since it was going to rain.

Friday, May 24, 2019

April 21st: Costa Brava Loop

Costa Brava was strictly speaking a lollipop. There's the initial run from Girona to Llagosterra, and then from there, you'd do a loop out to the coast and back and then ride the same way back to Girona.  As usual, we reversed the loop figuring that would give us a tailwind on the coast. In practice, this wasn't a factor as the rugged coastline prevented the wind from being a huge issue.
To my delight, the ride out of Girona was yet another route that I hadn't discovered before. This was my fourth day in Girona and I had yet to repeat an exit from the city! "This place is growing on me," I told Mike, "By my 4th day at Port de Soller, I'd done every exit from the place, some twice or three times!" The road had nobody that early in the morning, and we pretty much had it to ourselves.

In Llagostera, we stopped for a quick coffee, and then rode on up towards Sant Grau, the grade was very easy, and the top was non-descript. The weather looked very unsettled and the wind built up, but once over the top we got nice grand views.
The Costa Brava coast was definitely dramatic, with switch-backing corners and the kind of swooping turns as you approached the inlets where a stream had cut through, very similar to Big Sur. What was different was that the resort towns were huge and very built up. I was very shocked at how little time the ride spent on the coast, as we were soon in Tossa de Mar, where Mike discovered he had a flat tire.
While he fixed his flat, I went into the supermarket across the street (what a great place to have a flat!) and bought lunch, eating it. We resumed climbing out of Tossa de Mar, and the climb back into Llagosterra was in an isolated wind environment, so I hoped that the forecast might be wrong and we wouldn't have to fight a headwind back.

In Llagostera the headwind came back. I'd noted that there was a train station nearby so we didn't have to ride back if the wind was bothersome, but Mike decided the ride was worth it, and it didn't look like it was going to rain soon, so I assented.

Back in Girona, we bought lunch at the local cafe, and then I had time to walk around Girona proper, noting that I hadn't probably explored the city. I visited the Cathedral, walked around the city wall, which was surprisingly intact, and found another bike shop that had the cute name of "Eat Sleep Cycle".
What blew me away though were the tour prices offered. These were expensive bike tours, and I always thought that over-paying for bike tours was something that only Americans did! They were charging Euro 2500 a head for a 7 day trip in the alps, which I guess compared favorably with the Trek Tour for $4000/head.

Dinner was at the Argentinian BBQ beef place. For a change I had no complaints about the portion size. The food was plentiful (I did have a couple of empanadas to bookend the meal), and it was very good. Mike said he didn't want come back, because the food was just meat that was grilled, but I would have been happy to eat there a second time to try the different cuts of beef.

The weather forecast had shifted again, as the forecasted rain was moved to the next day. I noted that the rain would start around noon, so if we got out early we could get in the St. Hiliari climb, which looked attractive and could be knocked out in just a few hours if we started early.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

April 20th: Olot Loop

When examining the route the day before, we decided that going through Banyoles first was the right thing to do, since the final descent into Girona would alleviate any pain from the expected wind from the North and East.
The initial ride out looked like a reversal of yesterday's entry into Girona, but our GPS kept telling us that we were going the wrong way. We finally realized that we were reversing the loop given to us by the bike shop. I didn't know about the Fenix's "Reverse Route" feature, so I just kept my Fenix 5X on the map screen so I could see the turns that were coming up. What I didn't know was that this actually drains the 5X's battery super-fast, as it keeps computing how far you were from the next checkpoint on the GPX file, and trying to restart the route from then. Fortunately, the 5X has such a big battery that it was still enough to get us home with a bit to spare.

Once out of the initial area, the loop took us alongside beautiful fields of mustard until we got to Bayoles, where we took pictures with the lake, scullers in the background.
Past Banyoles, the road took on a very rural aesthetic. We weren't seeing too many cyclists at this point, though two women were riding behind us but never got close enough for us to even identify them (we heard their voices), before they turned off on a different ride.
The descent into Olot was gorgeous, with turnouts for glorious views of the Pyrenees, with its snow covered peaks. The day was warming up, but never got hot, and we were very pleased by what we discovered. The roads designated by the GPS routes were scenic and never had too much traffic.

At the turnaround, we found ourselves riding now with a headwind, but fortunately there were hills. Even better, the biggest hill had a bike path side-route that eliminated all the traffic and noise, enabling us to climb in peace and then descend using that pavement. It was quite clear that the area near Canet d'Adri was famous for its beauty as many tourists (with cars) were parked along the road and hiking, cycling, or just taking pictures.
Then between Sant Feliu and les Planes d'Hostoles the route took us on a perfect tiny little road of such beauty and perfection and flow that Mike said "It sent shivers up my spine with pleasure." It was so good and required such attention to bike handling that we did nothing but ride, ride and ride. It was one of those roads that you wished would go on forever. We had found cycling heaven, and I never would have thought in a million years to have to discover it in Spain!

The last several miles into Girona was into a stiff headwind, but during the final approach we started climbing a few hills which made the descent down into town very easy and pretty. I was delighted. For a change we had arrived back in Girona early enough to eat lunch, which was a burger place. I then realized that I didn't have to live with not having a map in the Fenix 5X, since I could just download and install it using the hotel's lobby computer! That same computer could be used to help upload Mike's photos from his Ricoh GR2.

So after showers and laundry we did all this computer stuff. The forecast was for rain the next day, but I noted that the rain was not scheduled to fall until later in the afternoon. Mike was all psych'd out to do the Costa Brava ride, and I agreed that it looked great.

Dinner was at the Mexican place John Mitchell recommended. Unfortunately, it suffered from a comparison to L'Aglica: it felt overpriced and there was nowhere near enough food. We got dessert elsewhere, and I bought some fruits.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

April 19th: Llanca to Cadaques to Girona

When I originally planned this trip, everyone told me that I should visit Salvador Dali's house in Cadaques, and that it was a great ride from Figueres. That plan got completely derailed by the holidays, because the house visits were completely booked up over the internet for the entire week and beyond!

In any case, I wouldn't have made it to the house anyway, because my plan was to get on the early train so I could make it to Figueres by 8:30 and ride to Cadaques. For whatever reason, the early train was cancelled, as were several other scheduled trains, and we only made it onto the train at 9:30. We knew this wasn't us being idiot tourists, because local Spaniards were also nonplussed when the scheduled train didn't show up!

Well, the time spent waiting wasn't a total loss. I looked at the forecast for wind coming from the North-East, and stared at the map of the train layout, and realized that the train went all the ay to Llanca, further up the coast. Not only would this shorten the ride, it would grant us a tailwind all day! Since we'd only paid for train tickets to Figueres, I walked up to the counter and asked if I could change the ticket to Llanca and pay the difference. The counter agent nonchalantly said: "Just stay on the train. If the conductor asks you can just pay the difference."

The train showed up, and it was only a 20 minute ride to Llanca, whereupon we got off and rode towards Cadaques. The views along the coast were glorious, even though we were further from the Mediterranean side. What I would realize later was that the train went all the way to Cerbere (or Portbou on alternate cars) which was where my 1998 Tour ended, at the Spanish border. If I had known that, I probably would have gone for a more ambitious ride, though Mike probably would have demurred.

At Port de la Selva, the road turned inland and we started climbing towards Cadaques. The ride was pretty and the traffic light, though I was dismayed that at the turn off to Cadaques, most cars were headed for Cadaques, and the road didn't grant us many places to stop for the glorious views of Cadaques.
Cadaques reminded me of Santorini, except that none of the roofs were blue. We rolled into town and saw that most cars were directed to park into the parking lots, so we explored the town by bike, getting pictures and seeking vantage points afforded by the extra mobility that gave us over the pedestrians.

We ate a sandwich breakfast/lunch (because even the roadside shacks weren't serving lunch yet at 12:00pm!) and then paid a visit to the Dali house before leaving Cadaques to confirm that indeed, as the internet had said, the place was fully booked with no exceptions allowed, unlike Neuschwanstein, where some tickets were held in reserve for people who showed up early. (Not that we were very early!)

By the time we left Cadaques, the incoming traffic had turned the highway into town into a parking lot. The climb up was fairly easy, but the traffic meant that there was usually a car behind you. In California this would lead to a lot of stress, maybe some road rage, and some idiot trying to squeeze past you. In Spain, drivers would wait patiently until you found a place to pull over or it was safe.

We descended into Rose, and then rode through Castello d'Empuries, which featured river crossings and houses that, according to Mike, looked amazingly like some parts of Florida. The ride back to Girona was powered by a strong tailwind, as expected, though of course, I couldn't resist routing in some hills on the final approach into Girona to avoid the high traffic roads. This time, we realized something we didn't earlier, which was that when you get into town, all you had to do to get to the hotel was to follow the railroad tracks to the hotel. The bridge under the railroad also served as a bike path, conveniently enough!
We finished too early to consider dinner anywhere else but L'Aglica, and were once again treated to an amazing meal by the restaurant owner. Visiting the local bike shop, Mike had obviously gotten his groove back, and when they suggested the Olot route, he enthusiastically paid the 2.50 Euro price so we could have a long ride the next day. The forecast started to look grim for the days after tomorrow, so that might have factor'd into his decision.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

April 18th: Girona El Angels Loop

I got up, unpacked my bike, and stuffed into the bike case everything I wouldn't need in Girona: the kid's clothing I brought, my air travel water bottle, pillow, and noise cancelling headphones, as well as one of my 2 sets of spare brake pads, a fool hardy gesture since all it would take is one rainy descent to kill a set of brake pads.

We then rode to Barcelona Sants to catch the train. There was a closer train station, but the bigger train station would have more services in case English speakers would have any trouble. We ended up being told at the first counter we spoke to to visit the local train counter, whereupon tickets were sold to us for about 18 Euro for the 2 hour trip.

The train was absolutely packed. We stood for the entire 2 hour train ride, and frequently cyclists would come in and not even try to find bike parking for their bikes, and just sit in the entryway. Almost everybody was headed to the coast, so as one of the folks getting off at Girona we were actually one of the early people to get off!

Once in Girona, we rode to the hotel, navigating via GPS, and then once in the hotel we were told that our rooms weren't ready, but we could park our bike in the dedicated bike room and go out and eat lunch. The bike room at Hotel Ultonia was pretty substantial, with plenty of hanging spaces for bikes, a bike wash area, and a pump and various tools as needed. Mike took the opportunity to use a real floor pump to pump up his tires. Both being hungry, we went to lunch at Placa de la Independencia, finding a restaurant with a view of the river.
After lunch, we were told that our rooms were ready, so we moved in, got dressed for cycling, and debated what to do. The local bike shop was open until 2:00pm, and it was already 1:15, so we rode out to the bike shop to see what they suggested. I had the El Angels loop already preloaded on my watch, but Mike didn't, so he spent 2.50 Euro to get it loaded, and all agreed that it was a good "first day" loop.

The first 10 miles were horrible, riding next to busy roads, with trucks and what not. I thought that I'd made a mistake coming to Girona after Mallorca! After that, though, it became much more rural and the riding became very pleasant. Just as in Mallorca, not steep enough to shift out of the middle, and with swooping turns that were very pleasant to ride and descend on.
By the time we got back to Girona, Mike had turned to me and said: "Wow, this ride has really redeemed itself, hasn't it!" Then there came the problem of finding dinner. The Spanish restaurants don't open till 8:00pm at the earliest, leaving the early pickings to the tourist-oriented restaurants, which of course we turned up our nose at.

After a few false starts, we found L'Aliga, and made a reservation for 7:00pm despite the small number of reviews on TripAdvisor. When we walked there, we realized why: it was completely off the beaten tourist track, but the man serving us was extremely friendly, and when the salad arrived I was blown away by how good it was! We gave up trying to make decisions and instead had him recommend us drinks, main dishes, and even dessert. Every dish was served to perfection, and we were blown away by the price as well as the quantity, which was enough to feed a hungry cyclist. If we had any lingering doubts that the trip to Girona was going to be disappointing after Mallorca, L'Aliga went a long way towards alleviating those!

Monday, May 20, 2019

April 16-17: 2 days in Barcelona

We got up early at 5:20 and ate breakfast at the hotel before going downstairs to get out the bike boxes and await the taxi. The driver showed up on time, and we just about managed to squeeze the bike boxes into his car. The flight was run by Vueling, and we were very impressed: the flight was well organized, left on time, arrived early, and the bikes showed up but we didn't find them because we didn't realize that the Barcelona airport was so big that there was more than one oversized baggage output in the same carousel area.

We took the taxi to the hotel, and were very pleased with the service we got. Not only were our rooms immediately available, they gave us a very nice room with which to store our bike boxes. We headed out to Tapas 24 for some lunch, and then walked downtown to the Tourist information center. We'd already pre-booked the Picasso museum for 5:45pm, and a eTapas tapa tour for the next evening, but I wanted to see if there was a walking tour that would work for us.

The tourist information center told us that since it was holiday week in Spain, everything was booked up! Well, that meant I could switch to my secondary objective, which was to shop for cycling jerseys for Bowen and Boen, since I was so impressed by what Arturo could get for me last time he was in Madrid. The tourist information lady saw my sample of Bowen's bike jersey, and didn't even blink an eye. "I'll send you to ProBike." She got out a map, and gave us directions for taking the bus there.

"What sort of nerd visits Barcelona and visits a bike shop?" I asked Mike with a wink. We took the bus over there and then went and the friendly, English speaking staff showed me the rack full of kids clothing, all at astoundingly high European prices. But you can't buy this stuff in the US for love or for money, so I was resigned to it. I was especially drawn to the UCI World Champion jerseys, and bought a matching set so Bowen and Boen could look like a team. My wife would later say that she'd have been happy to wear that jersey also, if there'd been a women's version. Add in a random bike jersey for Bowen, a couple of pairs of bike shorts, and now we were well over 200 Euros. But this was where having English speaking staff members came in happy, after I asked about dropping the VAT tax for it, the staff lit up, and filled out a form for me. I remembered that there was a tax bureau at the tourist information center.

I also noticed that the Garmin Edge 1030 was on sale, and after you eliminated the VAT tax, it would be cheaper than any mail order store in the USA. I told Mike, who'd been complaining about his Edge Touring running out of battery in the middle of a ride that if he wanted a replacement unit this was a very good deal. He hemmed and haw'd about it coming with European maps, but for me it would have been a feature. "Don't tour in the USA! USA touring sucks!" I told him. He would not be persuaded.

We went back to the tourist information center with the tax forms, and they gave me a series of new tax forms to fill out. I would give the tourist information center 3% of the tax rebate in exchange for getting cash right away. In exchange, they gave me a page with a bar code to scan when I got to the airport for my departure, which validated the rebate. I've tried to get VAT rebates in other countries before, and this was by far the easiest tax rebate I'd ever gotten. I was surprised that the tourist information center wasn't crowded with Asian tourists getting tax rebates for expensive handbag purchases, until I realized that maybe only bike equipment was cheap, and no one else would come to Europe to shop for kids cycling jerseys and shorts.

While waiting for the form to process, I noticed an ad for a boy's choir up in the mountains. This turned out to be Mont Serrat, and the center did have tickets for the next day, departing at 10am and returning at 4:00pm, which was entirely compatible with our Tapas tour. It was in the opposite direction from Girona, so there was no chance that it would be easier to do a trip from there than from Barcelona, so I signed up on an impulse. Mike demurred, preferring to spend the day in the city rather than do a tour.

Cash in hand and hungry again, we went over to the city's food market. Later, a tour guide would tell us that it was a tourist trap, but the sights and sounds were wonderful, even if the food was inconsistent. I had empanadas which were wonderful, fried squid which were mediocre, a raw oyster that was fresh, and ice cream that was merely OK. Mike was still perplexed that I could keep eating, but I figured that if dinner was at 8:00pm, at 4:00pm I could eat a few snacks and still be hungry for dinner. Plus, this was the cheapest food I'd encountered in Barelona, and I expected dinner to be expensive, so it was OK to spoil my dinner.
We then visited the Picasso museum, which was small but excellent, with lots of examples of themes in his career, but also missing huge gaps in his opus, and left me feeling like I should be a Picasso aficionado before showing up, as it just assumed that I knew everything about him.

It was a good thing I stuffed myself, because after the museum Mike said he was still stuffed, so I think we just skipped dinner. On the way back to the hotel, however, we saw a Laundry Bar. You could eat dinner and do your laundry at the same time! What a great idea. I think I just bought a few fruits from a supermarket and called it good for dinner.
The next morning, we walked out to an anemic and expensive breakfaste that happened to be just across the street from Sagrada Familia, which was sold out of course, because of the holidays, but we could see the outside, which was still nice. After that, I had a walk to catch my bus and headed for Mont Serrat.

While on the bus, I questioned if the whole thing wasn't a scam, because the bus dropped us off at the mountain cog railroad which we would ride to Mont Serrat. Why shouldn't I have just taken the train from Barcelona then? It turned out that I would have had to catch the 8:15 train and gotten an extra 15 minutes and would have made it back in time for my dinner tapas tour, so the bus did save significant time!

The Mont Serrat chapel was a good place for a concert, with great acoustics. The boys' choir was also excellent, though I ended up having to sit in the aisles because the place was so crowded. After that I took a vigorous hike up the hill (which started by hopping onto a funicular), which turned out to be far more strenuous and scenic that I expected.

I got off the bus precisely at 4:00pm as promised and took a long meandering walk which magically netted me an empanada. Barcelona's city streets are empty but strangely not devoid of cars, which I would expect from a busy city center. We met the tour guide precisely at 5:00pm and were joined by a group of New Zealanders traveling as a family.
The tour included demonstrations of various forms of pouring wine/beer/alcohol products, which wasn't something I would have discovered by myself.

But obviously it wasn't catered to cyclists. We ate everything presented to us but I was still a little peckish. Mike had already assembled his bike, but I was too worn out to do so that night, so I decided that I would just eat breakfast in the hotel and then assemble the bike and head out immediately for the train station right after all that tomorrow.