Monday, December 19, 2011

Madrid (Spain)

Although Catalunya is lovely, it's a little disappointing that, after over a year, I haven't seen more of Spain. Madrid, the capital, made for a great getaway. For some unfathomable reason, the fast AVE train (2.5 hours) between the two cities was ridiculously more expensive than the flights (1 hour) from any of a handful of discount airlines. Later, a quick poll of Barcelonins revealed the AVE to be far and away the preferred method of travel, which explains how this business model thrives.

With Madrid being Barcelona's rival in all things, it's difficult not to make constant comparisons. Right away the architecture tells you that you're not in Barcelona any more. Whereas Barcelona's Modernisme delights are full of color and whimsy, the edifices of the capital are imposing, wanting you to cower before their might and money. The city's bigger and sprawling, with an extensive subway system and an enviable amount of greenspace, like the Parque del Buen Retiro (300 acres), near the center. Even with the size, we still opted to walk to the tourist haunts. Puerta del Sol, famous all over Spain for its televised New Year's Eve celebration à la Time Square, was dominated by a giant Christmas tree light structure. Plaza Mayor was packed with a Christmas market selling mostly tat and overrun with Bob Esponja (that's Spongebob Squarepants) and other odd characters available for photo opps - at a price, of course.

You can also visit the Palacio Reial, the official residence of King Juan Carlos... although the royal family actually live in another "more modest" palace? (Somehow, those words don't really jive.) It is oppulent with a grand staircase, a mile-long table in the state dining room, countless gold clocks, and five Stradivarius instruments!

The real jewel in Madrid's crown, though, is the Museo del Prado. In visiting one of the world's best art museums, we knew we had to pace ourselves... so we spent nearly an entire day there. It is impressive. In an average museum, you might be lucky to see a few paintings from each master. In the Prado you can wander through gallery after gallery devoted to the different periods of Goya, El Greco, Velazquez, and others. [It was really cool seeing Velazquez's Las Meninas in person, especially after seeing Picasso's labored deconstruction of it in our Barcelona museum]. The Prado's permanent collection is so extensive that it allows for interesting arrangements. One room might contain a formal family portrait alongside complementary ones of each member at their own hobbies, all by the same artist. Another room had portraits of dwarves that had been associated with the royal court. Of course, this being Spain, one would expect to see many religious-themed pieces. What I didn't expect to see was so many representations of breast-feeding, at least 2 dozen. Amongst the most disturbing variations on this theme were a heavily bearded lady nursing... and the Virgin Mary dribbling her "bounty" onto the fires of souls in purgatory! And while we're talking disturbing, Heironymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights also figures prominently among the Prado's collection. If it wasn't so strong an assertion against temptation and sin, it would have been Exhibit A in the case for burning at the stake back in its day (the late 1400's). The wild and trippy masterpiece has more in common with surrealists like Dalí - heck, it could even grace a Pink Floyd album - than anything else you've seen in a church.

Lastly, the food... While Barcelona has some fantastic eats, everyone agrees Madrid has superior tapas. Consequently, we went out for a tapas pub crawl in the La Latina neighborhood. There were a couple of false starts, including some croquettes that we later saw featured randomly in a Spanish foodie magazine (disappointing). But we had some fine beers and cheap beers (not the same ones though): and hit the motherlode in a bar where each tapa was so big, it was a challenge to put in your mouth. Bacalao (salt cod) and other seafood was piled 2.5 inches high, and other tasty treats needed the old knife and fork. Other typical Madrid treats we got to try were cocido madrileño (lovely chickpeas and different meats stewed until tender) and gulas (baby eels)! All in all, we had a nice taste of Madrid, but we definitely would like to go back.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Mountainboarding in Sant Pere de Vilamajor (Spain)

When I met Rich, he was into a sport called mountainboarding. Picture snowboarding... without the snow... and with industrial-strength monster wheels to navigate the terrain. I didn't quite grasp its significance in his life, until I asked him, "Hey, what's that say on your hoodie? I don't recognize the brand." Ever modest, Rich replied, "Oh, it's stands for Dangerous Brothers. They're my sponsors." WTH?!? Despite his protests that the sport was quite safe, I saw - not one, not two, but THREE, ladies and gentlemen! - dislocated shoulders in the first competition I watched.Nevertheless, we spent much of his first year in the States driving up and down the East Coast so he could ride with the Americans. Over time, as other responsibilities grew, much to our disappointment, Rich's participation in his first love dwindled... what better way to remind him that turning 30 didn't mean he was an old fart than to get a brand spankin' new board!?! On a brief trip to Oregon this summer, I was able to pull off the stunning feat of finding a skate shop in the small town I was staying in that happened to have in stock(!) exactly the board that he wanted, for an excellent price, and pick up a last season snowboard bag to ship it in, to boot! Now it seems only fair that Rich offers his perspective on his mountainboarding adventures in Spain, so without further ado...

There seems to be a fairly healthy mountain sports vibe in Catalunya, especially since the Pyrenees mountains are just a few hours away, and there are smaller mountains lining the coast. Upon moving to Barcelona and finding out that there is a small mountainboarding scene close by, it seemed like the perfect time to get a new board. This time I've gone for a more freestyle-friendly MBS Comp 95 The odd bit of freeriding is still on the table, of course.

One example of a nice freeride spot is Parc de Collserola. Just behind Tibidabo (the large church-topped mountain that pins Barcelona up against the sea) is a huge, unexpected, protected wilderness. Just half an hour on the commuter train gets you from the city centre to the entrance of the park, which is a popular spot for mountainbikers, dog walkers, and families at the weekend. It also contains some long downhill stretches, ideal for a bit of high-speed boarding. Unfortunately, the aforementioned popularity of the park means that some dog-dodging is sometimes in order, and powerslide dust clouds are not too popular...

In a small village called Sant Pere de Vilamajor about 1.5 hours away, El SoT is really where it's at, as far as freestyle mountainboarding goes. It's a bit of a trek to get there (plus I have to ask nicely for a lift once I'm close), but well-worth it to ride with some like-minded mountainboarders on some purpose-made terrain. Recently, El SoT celebrated its 3rd anniversary, and I was lucky enough to join them for the weekend. Unfortunately, the rain in Spain had skipped the plain that week, and had fallen mostly on Catalunya. So the conditions weren't ideal. However, we made the most of it and did our best to shred up the new terrain that had been carefully manicured in the preceding weeks. Among the new attractions were a beautifully-shaped tabletop and an amazing drop-off, which does a good job of scaring the bejesus out of you since you can't spot the landing until you're in the air! The wet prevented any big tricks, but it did give us the opportunity to work on our technique. A few photographers were also in attendance, so we could review our style (or lack thereof)! Judging from the photos I've seen, all of us need to work on our facial expressions: I look like I'm constipated...

I'm already looking forward to returning to El SoT. Wet, sticky landings took their toll on my joints after a day of riding, and I want to work on a few things that require a bit more air time. With winter on its way, things should dry up quite nicely so I'll soon be making that phone call to beg for a lift from the train station to the park. Can't wait!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Montserrat (Spain)

We returned to Montserrat, Spain. This time we gave the religious establishment a pass and headed straight out for the trails surrounding the monastery. Well, ok... first we did stop by the row of bright stalls tempting hikers and pilgrims alike with dried fruits and cheeses. Apparently, the town is known for their take on miel y mató (honey and Catalan fresh cheese similar to curd or ricotta), and at 1€/mini-tub, who could resist a little protein to start the trek?

We took the easier way up to Sant Joan, the steepest funicular I've ever seen. Riders seemed to lean subconsciously as it climbed the greater than 65% slope. Pepper, normally a confident public transport rider, did not like it.

Even from the top of the funicular, it is still a ways to go before making it to the highest summit at Sant Jeroni (1236 m/ 4055 ft). The trails snake around rocky outcroppings and some scrubby forest. Another hiker took advantage of the acoustics of the setting, serenading us with arias while we took a snack break. He appeared several minutes later - another case where the person did not match the voice... The rich tenor came out of a nerdy-looking skinny guy!

While some of the path has been fortified with poured concrete steps, other areas give way to crumbly shale. Occasionally, you'd turn a corner and bump into climbers setting up their harnesses, or one would appear out of nowhere from over the precipice. The views from the peak were worth the climb. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Mallorca, one of the Balearic islands.

Without the benefit of taking the funicular back to Montserrat proper, the way down was a grueling chain of seemingly endless staircases. At some point, people just stopped talking to push through it, and we lost half of our party in our pursuit to get it over with. Even the gentle slope from the parking lot to the restaurant was a struggle on shaky legs and the increasing cold as the evening drew in. A tiring, but great day in the open air!