Our Riviera/Alps Railing Itinerary
It’s interesting. For all the times I’ve been to Europe, I hadn’t yet explored this part of Europe. I’ve been to Spain and France and Italy and Switzerland before, but—aside from Barcelona—not these specific parts of them. And the Adventure Partner For Life hadn’t been to Spain at all. So we thought we’d fly into Barcelona and rail the Riviera into the Alps. And add in Andorra, Monaco, and Liechtenstein.
The Way to Barcelona
We worked a panicked half-day before racing home to pack and battle the infamous DC traffic to the airport. In just a couple hours, we’d be off the Barcelona, Spain. When we were shuttling from long-term parking to the airport, we saw what I can only assume was an official White House plane on the tarmac. All white with “United States of America” on the side and a seal.
Couldn’t be 45 himself, I guess. He’s literally on a 17-day working vacation at his golf course in Jersey, making celebrity appearances at random weddings and Tweeting nuclear threats to North Korea. And golfing, of course. It’s some other appointed official doing business that will no doubt only survive three weeks in their post.
I work in downtown DC now, a few blocks from the White House, and for those of you that don’t know, DC is a restricted airspace. You see a helicopter or two, but never a plane in close proximity; that would mean serious trouble. The only planes you see are a distance away departing and arriving at Reagan, just outside the DC border.
What you do see is the Marine 1 posse flying around. They generally travel in sets and are very distinctive—olive green with white tops. I work on the 10th of 11 floors and they fly right past my window at least once a week. If not more.
These days, I just shake my head and wonder what trouble we could possibly be getting into next. Same thought with the plane. And why are they departing BWI and not Bolling or Reagan? Just curious. I just hope I don’t get spit on this trip as a result of our recent international insanity. Anyhow…
Traditional Pre-Flight Libations
BWI’s international terminal is pretty small and check-in and security was uneventful. We managed to get a rock-bottom deal on first-class seating for our 12-hour Japan stretch by asking at the gate right before boarding, so we attempted to do the same for the 8-hour flight to Frankfurt to no avail. Fully booked. Too bad, so sad. So… on to our traditional pre-fight libations.
We actually hadn’t heard of the airline we were flying with before—Thomas Cook Airlines—but, we’d taken the same leap of faith before and all worked out well. (Pegasus Air in Romania, for one.) It’s a subsidiary of Condor, which is owned by British Air. Probably fine, right?
Never Again Will I Fly Thomas Cooke
…I’ve never been so wrong in my life. When we sat down in our seats, I immediately noticed there wasn’t any in-seat entertainment… for a seven and a half hour flight. Just some old school TVs mounted to the ceilings in the aisles.
To boot, we had no seat chargers. Or individual air conditioning vents above each seat. No WiFi. When I lowered my tray table, the fabric on the back of the seat in front of me was splitting at the seams.
Every time I looked down at the floor board to grab something from under the seat, I noticed a decade-old Milk Dud wedged between the seat and the window. The seats were worn and hard, and I literally sat on the plastic-wrapped blanket for the entirety of the flight to give my tail bone some cushion.
Every time we experienced turbulence, all I could think was that we were in a 30-year old piece of machinery and there was no way we were making it over the whole Atlantic. But we did. Obviously. (Here, I write.)
The good news is that the usual pre-vacay marathon exhausted me to the extent that I slept for the vast majority of the flight, despite being incredibly uncomfortable.
I woke up part way through the night and had three half-finished water bottles and an empty Baileys I don’t even remember asking for littering my tray. Jeff asked me if I was thirsty and I was… perplexed. He insisted I requested every single one of them. And I had wet Baileys spots all over my pants, so I suppose it must’ve been me.
At any rate, the flight to Barcelona seemed to pass pretty quickly… for what it was.
Smoke Break In Frankfurt
Frankfurt is a super easy airport to navigate and customs was a breeze. They have numerous smoking sections available, all right next to coffee shops. (“Ze Germans” know the magical combination of coffee and a smoke… They know…)
There are always a couple of special characters in the smoking lounges. Like the Canadian “man of the world” who reeks of alcohol at ten in the morning. He’s got a guitar and some sort of Native American flute, bloviating to random strangers about Bach and how he speaks, like, eight languages. He asks us for a lighter and notes that it’s a 7-11 lighter; Jeff and I reply nothing for fear he starts a conversation with us.
There was also some sort of Russian or Eastern European Muay Thai team in there. They were all jacked up in their track suits with high-and-tights and walked the terminal like they owned the place. Smoking lounges are a particularly great place to people watch… if you enjoy that sort of thing.
Landing in Barcelona
Our flight to Barcelona was delayed a half hour due to a gate change. No big deal, thankfully. Also, thankfully, Lufthansa’s planes are much more what I’m used to traveling in. It’s too bad our long stretch on our return flight is also through Thomas Cook. Never again. I always want to root for the little guys, but… not this time. Nope. Nope. And nope.
Easy two-hour flight. Over the Catalonian coastline. I think the pilot loved turbulence because we seemed to spend a lot of time in choppy jet streams. We’re descending and, aside from turbulence, he can’t seem to level out the wings. Sure enough—a sudden ten foot drop and an abrupt slam on the runway that caused me to grab my seatbelt and yank to tighten while I slammed forward in my seat. But we made it.
A Tourist Safety Checklist
Everything went well with our transfer as well. Maybe a half hour into downtown. We’re staying in the Gothic Quarter with a view of the Barcelona Cathedral (header photo!). Not too shabby; I’m not hating it one little bit.
Jeff and I had fantasies of strolling around for the afternoon and grabbing a bite to eat. But alas, we’re getting old and lack the stamina we once had. We decided to mingle in the cathedral plaza, check some tchotchke stands out, and eat at a restaurant right there. He got tapas, I got risotto with some kind of Spanish pork. He had scotch and I had the local beer.
One interesting thing was that the waiter told us to be careful about leaving our phones on the table; that people might snatch them. This was after the concierge at our hotel gave us a “safety checklist” that, among other things, advised to stay away from people selling roses because they’ll pick-pocket you.
Stay away from people pointing out stains on your clothes because they’ll pick-pocket you. Stay away from people telling you you have a flat tire because they’ll rob you, etc., etc. Basically, in every conceivable scenario, I get pick-pocketed or robbed.
A pretty standard safety concern in any major city, but the way they’re warning about it here makes me feel like I’m in Juarez or something. Maybe it’s a bigger problem than I thought here?
No matter where I am, I do regular passport checks. And I’m always paranoid of anyone in your personal space. I can’t stand when people touch my stuff on the Metro at home, and I really don’t like it traveling.
A Blast In Downtown Barcelona
We had dinner and enjoyed our tasty beverages, people watched. They had all kinds of performers, musicians, even a little parade with a police escort come out of the cathedral. We wandered around some vendor stands when we heard this huge. blast.
Some girls immediately around us starting running in the opposite direction, completely panicked. I kept walking in the direction I was already headed, away from the sound, looking back to figure out what it was. Everyone else seemed to be standing in place trying to figure out what happened. And, what’s my husband doing? He starts walking back towards the sound. Like, oh, hell no! But he slowed down and headed back my way after a quick minute.
…And then we heard a second blast. It was some kind of firework, I think. Without any sparkle. Or sparkle sound after the blast. And it wasn’t dark out. (It’s still not dark out as I write this.) That’s all I can think of. It literally scared the living daylights out of a whole plaza full of people in front of one of Barcelona’s main tourist attractions. Current state of the world, I guess.
Other than that, not too much to write about today and yesterday, unfortunately. Traveling, resting. Just gearing up for the week. Tomorrow, we’ll be doing the whole hop-on/hop-off bus thing through the city. So, stay tuned, folks.
Phew. Today was a long day. Actually slept in (as late as Jeff and I sleep in). Had coffee, showered, had breakfast, and started our day. We took a morning stroll around the Barcelona Cathedral to catch some sites in the immediate area—Placa del Rei and the Sant Felip Neri church. We stopped to marvel at a woman in an alleyway behind the cathedral singing opera. It was truly breathtaking. Then… we jumped on our hop-on/hop-off bus.
Folks always ask how we manage to cover so much ground in one day and how we manage to save so much money—well, this is one way. I love hop-on/hop-off buses. It provides transportation and extra coupons for all your sights for sometimes up to 72 hours of touring. We walk between stops and use it other days to visit things not even in the guides, just to get from Point A to Point B.
You can get discounts online by liking companies on Facebook or booking through Viator or Groupon or Travelzoo. If you get a 3-day pass for $25, you actually do save more money than metroing. And, you can just bus it when you’re tired of walking. We literally toured all three city routes in one day. (We didn’t stop at everything, obviously, as not everything appealed to us, but we stopped at quite a few spots.)
Sagrada Familia & Poblenou Cemetery
Interestingly, the bus tour also had an advisory about beggars not being trustworthy (surely, not all of them) and not participating in street gambling (duh). We stopped at Casa Batllo and Sagrada Familia (one of the most famous landmarks in Spain, of course), and even went all the way to Platja Bogatell (the beach) for lunch.
I got to try some Iberian ham (salty, greasy, good) with a local beer and dipped my toes in the Med for a minute. Jeff brought one of our nifty little super absorbent baby towels to dry our feet off with; worked like a charm.
After the beach, Jeff and I went to visit what was supposed to be this amazing cemetery—Cementiri del Poblenou. As we walked inland from the beach, the streets got sketchier and sketchier and more and more desolate. The cemetery was supposed to be just to the left at this intersection ahead.
When we got to the corner, we looked down and saw a long ass wall, with no doorways, running the entire length of the block. Not a single soul in sight. To make matters worse, there was graffiti of a sad, sad child’s face as we hiked along.
I commented that that’s what the children here look like when they’re being kidnapped and sold into human trafficking. And where is my husband taking me, anyway? We finally found the entrance at the very end of that block. Kind of a let down. We thought it would be all mausoleums and what-not (New Orleans-style), but it was just graves in walls, really.
A Traveling Emergency
It was then that we continued on our all-day bus marathon and discovered that Jeff left “His Precious” in one of the prior buses we just transferred from—his iPhone. We asked the tour guide if she could call the other line to see if they had the phone, but she advised we stop at the office to have them call.
We jumped off at the office stop and just called Jeff’s phone from mine. Fortunately, someone picked up. An American, at that. Joe, from Wichita, Kansas, who was so kind as to meet us at a transfer stop to exchange it. We just had to wait an hour and a half for him to make his way around the city.
All ended well, though. Precious is back with its rightful owner and in one piece. This is literally the most stressed I’ve ever seen my husband. Ever. (Okay, maybe top three. But, right up there.) He’s corrected me and told me he wasn’t stressed, he was frustrated. (Gah.)
Spanish Tapas & A Sunburn
Got some dinner at a tapas restaurant recommended by a friend in the L’Eixample neighborhood of Barcelona. Really good. Walked back to our hotel from there through a super edgy shopping district. Lots of people.
We actually found when we arrived back to our place that there was a full-on festival in the Barcelona Cathedral plaza… which might explain the parade the day before, and the fireworks, and the vendors.
Found a supermercat and grabbed some postcards for my baby niece and nephew and some drinks for tomorrow’s adventure. Another long day, my friends… in Andorra! Country #41 for moi. #36 for El Jefe.
I’m off to rest up… and to baby the insane sunburn I earned myself. A side note that Jeff and I own twenty bottles of aloe. All back at home, all overpriced purchases on vacations.
Barcelona to Andorra
Woke up super early this morning to catch a 12-hour tour to Andorra. For some reason, I can’t figure out the exact order of the European Keurig steps and the espresso maker starts pouring water without my cup being under the spout. I’m also scrambling to grab the unpunched pod out of the dispenser to replace it and close the lid so it’s actually dispensing espresso.
The machine sounds like a rocket ship taking off, so I’ve been inadvertently waking Jeff up at five in the morning while engaging in this disaster of a process. I need my caffeine, though, so… what’s a girl to do?
I also thought I locked myself out of the hotel when I went for a smoke with my espresso and kept trying to pull the front doors open instead of… pushing… them open. I texted Jeff to let me in, but he didn’t get my text, so it’s a good thing I figured it out all by myself. Difficult stuff at five o’clock in the morning, you know.
Gearing Up For Andorra
We walked to meet our tour in front of some pretty fabulous Barcelona music center, Palau de la Musica. Funny enough, it was on Jeff’s list of things to see the day before and we skipped it because we were tired. Little did we know, we’d end up right in front of it the next morning by default.
There was a newlywed couple in our tour group, wearing “bride” and “hubby” baseball caps. Because Jeff and I are super into kitschy stuff like this, he asked me which one of them he should punch first.
I told him the husband for being complicit in the horrible charade at all… but I would never even ask him to do something so absurd in the first place… so maybe it should be the wife, after all. He simply replied that this is why he married me. Match made in heaven.
We pretty much decided we’d stay away from that couple for the day. They seemed lame and we hadn’t even actually spoken to them yet. Hopped on our mini bus and off we went! For all the deets on our Andorra day trip from Barcelona, stay tuned for Volume 2 of Railing the Riviera and the Alps!