To all of you, regular or accidental readers of my blog, have a Merry Christmas! Or Happy Holidays, if you would prefer me to be politically correct. Anyway, drink a lot, be happy and don't drive!
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
My aunt was nice and allowed us to stay with her in Bucharest for a few days. We had planned to see the city (or at least that I would show the city - which I have seen many times before - to Angela), take some pictures, and perhaps see a museum or two. But things didn't go as we intended. Laziness and constant bad weather slowed our engines; instead of taking to the streets, we locked ourselves up in my aunt's apartment, read old National Geographics and watched TV (which in Romania, with the exception of cartoons, is mostly in original language, so Angela didn't have a problem understanding).
Despite our general lack of interest for street hiking and the huge distance (my aunt lives all the way at the edge of town) we managed to get downtown twice. Once we spent most of our time looking for a toilet - luckily McDonald's is well represented in Romania - the other time, one evening, together with my aunt, we tried to get into a restaurant for dinner and kept running from place to place across downtown, since all our choices were booked for company Christmas parties. Either way, there wasn't much to enjoy in downtown Bucharest during those drab winter days. The streets and sidewalks were covered in a thin layer of liquid mud - the eternal curse of all Romanian towns during the rainy season - there were works on all the main streets and unmarked man-made pot-holes adorned many corners. In summer, the same streets are swept with dust by the hot wind of the southern plains, but at least the trees are green and the skies are blue; you can walk and feel good and stop in a beer-garden and then walk some more. But not in this wailing December weather; no, the warmth and shelter of the apartment were much more appealing than the cold boulevards...Posted from Cluj-Napoca.
Saturday, December 22, 2007
How do you know if you're getting ripped off by the taxi drivers waiting on the curbside in front of the airport? There's no easy answer, but it pays to check a few things ahead if you want to keep your money in your wallet. Depending on country, local laws, and the strength of the cab-driver unions, you may or may not be in danger of getting suckered into paying a little fortune for the ride downtown. Sometimes you don't have a choice - the airports are usually far out of town, and if no other transportation alternatives are available (it's too late at night or you have too many bags to drag yourself to the bus) you are stuck with whatever price the taxi drivers ask, and you have very little room for negotiation. Egypt is one example: there the taxi drivers working at the airports are like a crime syndicate (and the others are just petty thieves). You think you can just walk over to the next one and negotiate a better price?
I knew there were going to be taxi sharks at the Baneasa airport in Bucharest. Romanian cities have always had two kinds of cabs: the radio-dispatched cars affiliated to companies, practicing decent, uniform prices, and the "independents" who prey on unsuspecting out-of-towners and foreigners, and who would often charge ten times as much as the others. The trouble is, there's no easy way to distinguish between them. I didn't know what to expect: I hadn't visited Romania in over three years, money and prices had changed, and I had never taken a taxi from the airport, preferring the bus or having friends waiting for me. But we were going to land at 2AM; there was no night bus, and I had no friends left in this town anymore. Before the flight, a quick online check on Lonely Planet's ThornTree travel forum clarified things a bit - at least all taxis had to have the prices per kilometer posted in clear view on the passenger's door.
With that information in mind I stepped out of the Bucharest-Baneasa airport at 2AM, in a pouring, cold December rain. An army of yellow taxis with black checkered stripes was waiting at the curb, but none of the people who had just gotten off the same plane was rushing to them. Most were calling others on their cell phones, waiting for friends to pick them up. "Taxi mister, taxi?" I kept hearing as I cruised the sidewalk avoiding the puddles, trying to read the prices printed on the passenger doors of the cars. A few times, when the touts became insistent, I told them to sod off in Romanian. They were all independents, charging around 8 RON per kilometer (1 USD is about 2.4 RON), and some even had the audacity to try to convince me that it was a good price. If I believed them, for the 20km ride to my aunt's neighborhood at the other end of town, I would end up paying 60 to 70 dollars.
Patience paid off - Bucharest-Baneasa is one of those lucky few airports located in town and not out in the fields; thus new cabs arrived often, even at that early hour of the morning. Before long, I was able to stop a company cab as it pulled in front of the arrivals gate. 1.79 RON/km said the door sticker. Don't let this one get away! During the ride I talked with the driver about the "independents" and their shameless prices. The company-affiliated drivers often have clashes with the sharks about rates and territory control but in the end it's a free country and everybody is allowed to scam whomever they want. As long as the prices are in clear view (even if they are in minute print), it's OK to take the money away from the poor suckers who come to visit our beautiful country...
Not from us though, you won't. We've been to too many places. I may be wearing glasses, but I can still tell the crooks from the honest!Written in Cluj-Napoca.
Monday, December 17, 2007
“It’s 370 Euros for the seven nights, pay ahead,” the guy at the front desk said. Making a quick calculation, I frowned: “We don’t have so much money with us now, but in any case, when we talked on the phone you told me it was 50 Euros per night, so this doesn’t add up.”
“No, I told you 60 Euros.”
“You already charged my credit card for one night, 50 Euros as we agreed.”
“No that was just the deposit; the rate is 60 per night, due on arrival for the whole stay.”
“Now… you may have said something about the payment being due on arrival, I think I remember, but it was definitely 50, not 60 Euros per night.”
“Ok, ok, 50, I don’t care, I don’t want to argue. You can pay the whole sum tomorrow morning.”
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here for the Barcelona set
This conversation was taking place at 1AM on our arrival night in Barcelona, at the hotel Rembrandt, first in Spanish, and then in English - the guy nursing the reception desk at that late hour was an Indian and all three of us naturally drifted to the one language we could best use for arguing. He was clearly trying to scam us (later on I found the notes that I took when I booked the room on the phone, and I had indeed written down 50 Euros for the room with bathroom, and 40 for the one without) but we didn’t agree on what to do: Angela became angry and wanted to leave immediately; I advocated sleeping there for the night and leaving the next morning - it was already late, and finding another suitable hotel at that hour wouldn’t have been easy. To minimize the damage, I made sure the guy agreed he wouldn’t ask for more money besides the 50 Euros he had already charged us, and I made clear we won’t pay before the next day, if we decided to stay. I had my way, but not without getting an earful from Angela, how “this isn’t right and we should have left immediately!” I appreciate people with principles, but only when it doesn’t imply dragging a 50-pound backpack about the streets in the middle of the night… The moral of the story: don’t go to Hostal Rembrandt in Barcelona, even if it’s featured in Lonely Planet. It’s a dump, and you can find better budget hotels at a cheaper price. Besides, you’ll avoid an argument with your wife, if things go sour…
All ended up fine the next day as I found the Hotel Principal (two stars), which, for being more pricey (80 Euros), offered all the comforts longed for by backpackers who had been sleeping for too long in cheap hostels: a large, tall room, a view to the street, a gigantic bed, TV (although all channels except for EuroNews were in Spanish), hard-wood floors, silent air conditioning that actually responded to the temperature controls, and a bathroom with futuristic showers that required a PhD to operate. It even had “original artist paintings” (touted as such in the hotel brochure) on the walls – maybe that’s why the extra Euros… the starving artists who had sold their hearts to the necessary evil of corporate design had to make a buck too. No breakfast was included, but internet access, including wireless, was. I didn’t balk when I heard the price; I got it as soon as I saw the room.
For us, after so many cities visited, Barcelona was just another big town, albeit one that you can fall in love with in the long run. It isn’t a flashy poser like Rome but a city that slowly grows on you because of its very distinct personality. Food… well, food just kept getting better. You can’t be wrong if you had three shots at the culinary art of a country (Madrid, Seville and Barcelona) and things have steadily gone from better to best. Spanish cuisine is now definitely the sweetest of my love-affairs with food.
What do you do if you’re a tourist in Barcelona? You climb up the escalators to Montjuic and snap some uninspired panoramic photos of the city below; then you sit and relax watching the kids at play in the beautiful terraced gardens that take you back into town; you walk the never-ending blocks with “shaved” corners in the Eixample and get lost in the all-identical streets; you visit the Picasso museum and stare in amazement at the many cubist studies of Velasquez’s Las Meninas; you stroll up and down the Ramblas and enjoy the crazy crowd of passersby, gawkers and living statues; you cannot miss a visit to the Sagrada Familia temple, and if you still have energy and taste for architecture you go and see the Gaudi houses – Casa Battló and La Pedrera - at least from the outside, if you’re not willing to spend the money to get in. And these are just some highlights…
In Barcelona I met Robert again, my Dutch friend that I knew from my Nuremberg days in 1999/2000, when we both worked for Lucent Technologies, and with whom I somehow kept in touch all those years. He brought along the lovely, wry, sharp-tongued Eva, his Spanish long-distance girlfriend. We went out every night, taking the city by storm, one restaurant at a time and got home mostly drunk, defeated by the abundance of exquisite tapas and good wines. To them I owe the fact that I finally saw the “Bodies” exhibition. If they hadn’t insisted that they wanted to go and that Eva could get cheap tickets using some “points” from previous purchases, I wouldn’t have bothered dishing out the 17 Euros for the regular entrance. This exhibition had been on display for months at the convention center, two blocks down the street from our apartment in Seattle, and I didn’t bother visiting – not because of the price (in any case it was lower than in Europe) but because of lack of interest. I had to admit it was in fact very interesting and instructive, although by the time I got to the second room I had developed an uneasy feeling that didn’t leave me for the rest of the time I spent inside: I became aware of my heart pumping blood, my bowels working and my nerves trying to transmit vital impulses… If you are still smoking, the Bodies exhibition will make you want to quit… at least until you get out and light one up…Published from Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
Saturday, December 15, 2007
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here for the Seville set
As we boarded the train at the Atocha station in Madrid, we had lots of plans for the four or five days we were going to spend in Andalucía. But when we arrived in Seville everything fizzled out little by little and we ended up spending the next three days eating well and shopping. First, the plan to travel to Granada petered out; taking the train or bus there and then getting from Granada to Barcelona was going to cost too much. So when we found a cheap plane ticket from Seville straight to Barcelona we decided to forgo the Alhambra. In Seville itself, we weren’t very proficient with the monuments – we walked the beautiful narrow streets of the old town but didn’t enter one single tourist attraction. The magnificent Seville cathedral was charging 7.50 Euros entrance fee, and I decided that the Catholic Church would not have my money anymore. If I can’t get into a church for free, I won’t get in at all (although I was going to break this oath later at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona).
We compensated our lack of cultural interest by spending a lot of time at fnac (the French cultural and consumer-electronics megastore) and El Corte Ingles, buying the iPod Nano G3, and downloading a lot of music. And no doubt, we redeemed ourselves by sampling the elaborate culinary offerings of the many tapas bars spread all over town. “Es arte, no es cocina,” the waitress at Los Coloniales told us as she brought a delicious plate of sandwiches with foie gras and cold roasted pork cuts, topped with fried quail eggs. I licked my fingers knowing I have reached a new apex of culinary delight. And things were going to get even better…
In defense of “traditional” cultural activities, on one of the evenings we went to see a free flamenco show in a bar. The singer and the guitar player put up a good, passionate performance, but it was not amplified, and a lot of the people in the back of the bar kept on talking. The background noise bothered the singer (who had to keep reminding the audience not to speak and not to smoke) and annoyed the people who were actually there for the music. Of course, if the show hadn’t been for free, this wouldn’t have happened.
The Oasis Backpacker Hostel, our lodgment in Seville, is a nice renovated building with a great location, but, as it happens with most places which have “backpackers” in their name, it is very loud. The hotel is built around a small inner courtyard which has been covered with a glass roof, and now holds the reception, a few couches and the computers with free internet access. As such, this makeshift “lodge” is a very popular place, and it’s no surprise that the rooms at the higher floors get a share of the conversations that happen downstairs. The hostel seemed to be full with nothing but young American students, most of them girls; the word “like” kept popping up in their conversations - which were mainly about drinking or bad boyfriends - with an unprecedented frequency. But among all those aliens we meet Paul, an American traveling alone around the world not for one, but for two years (of which he has completed half). We spent some time with him exchanging travel ideas and blog tips (is there even one person traveling for a long time nowadays, who doesn’t keep a blog?). He has lots of stories and good pictures at http://pauls-paradigm2.blogspot.com.
At the end of the three days, we left Seville largely unexplored and headed for Barcelona hoping for good weather, more good food, and eager to meet my friend Robert whom I hadn’t seen in something like 5 years…Written in Barcelona