Monday, July 28, 2008

Barcelona and Mazzaron, Spain

Hola! Well, it took me 48 years, but I finally made it to Spain. It's pretty much as I pictured it: dry, hot (it is late July, after all), bright sunlight, lots of cafes serving wine and cerveza, menus I can't read much of (except tapas and con carne), people speaking Spanish who actually aren't from Latin- or South America. Also a relaxed, slow attitude that positively envelops you as soon as you get here. Everything closes and everybody disappears between 2 and 5pm for the afternoon siesta, and it's a great idea as that's when it's hottest. In the evening the towns wake up and everyone comes out into the streets.
It was pretty cool riding the train here from France along the coast, skirting the mountains that have long separated the two countries and stopping at a couple of little harbor towns along the way to change trains. One pharmacie sported the odd sign touting "Doctor Bobo"... not sure I would want to get my prescriptions filled there.

You can almost feel the temperature rise as you enter Spain, and it seems sunnier. Being on the coast there was at least usually a breeze, and no humidity, so the heat wasn't bad. In fact it was pretty nice after rainy England.
I always pictured Barcelona as somehow more Spanish, more mediterranean, than the big, bustling city it really is. It has some nice sights here and there, Gaudi's Sagrada Familia cathedral most notably, but it doesn't have that sense of history, of distinct culture that cities like Rome and Paris have. There are too many modern buildings, condos, offices and hotels surrounding the tiny Barri Gotic (old quarter) to give it much flavor, and the shops hawking tourist trinkets and fast food in the middle of it don't help. Even the Familia was surrounded by scaffolding and cranes, and I heard that the inside was also under construction so I didn't pay the high price to go in. I saw some of his other buildings; very unique, but he's a bit too eccentric for me.
The city has a modern harbor complete with ugly modern shopping mall and IMAX on a pier, a huge shopping street (los Ramblas) that seems to go on forever, where you can ramble down and find just about anything, including skinned goat's heads on ice, complete with eyes still staring. (I took a photo but I'll be nice and omit it). I even found a great organic vegetarian food stall in the open market and had to beg the guy to stop loading my dish with food, he gave so much. I noticed only young Americans and Brits were in line; everyone else was eating tapas and kebabs and the like. Hopefully the enlightened youth visiting will begin to spread a new "tradition" of vegetarianism to the area.

As usual for southern Europe there were lots of stray cats, and as usual, I walked too much instead of paying for a sightseeing bus; but I did make good use of the fantastic metro system. The trains were even air-conditioned, thank Neptune. A two-day pass gave me unlimited rides and I made use of it! The second day I visited even more sections of town including the Olympic stadium area. There is an interesting-looking tower that caught my eye; it looks like something from a Star Wars movie. I was too late to get into the zoo, but perhaps it was for the best as I don't see how they could cram so many different species (according to their brochure) into such a small area; I probably would have gotten kicked out for complaining.
I walked 11-12 hours each day (stopping occasionally to eat or rest) so by the third day I just had to rest. My hotel was next to a pretty nice shopping mall with a 16-theater multiplex, with plenty of the latest American movies that I wanted to see, but every single one was dubbed into Spanish, so I wouldn't have understood what they were saying. The same with television, except for CNN and BBC news. At least I'm up on current events! But I think when I get home I'll have to movie-hop for about 3 days to catch up.

Rested up, I took the train down the coast (Costa Dorada) past Valencia and by smaller and smaller towns until I was the only gringo on the train and wondering where I was going. I was met at the tiny train station in Tatona by Gail and Andrew Hurrell, a wonderful couple from the U.K. who now live down there, along with lot of other British ex-patriates. They have been volunteering for the Noah's Arc animal rescue full-time, and I had contacted them by email and offered to help if I could. They generously invited me to stay in their house, which I gladly accepted, having spent far too much on my Barcelona Ibis hotel.
They don't have an actual sanctuary, but keep the dogs they rescue either at theirs or other volunteer's houses, or pay to keep them in kennels. Another volunteer, the busy Andrea, drives the groups's van and answers the many calls they get, and still had time to show me around. We made a couple of home checks which was fun because it meant we got to chat with really nice people who've adopted dogs from them, including one cool dog who needed sunglasses for the bright Spanish sun. We also had a nice evening out at the pretty harbor in Port Mazzaron.
All these volunteers are incredible, because they work long hours not for money but simply to better the lives of what local dogs (and two burros) they can save. They mostly take in greyhounds (galgos) which are used by the Spanish hunters to run down rabbits and such; for some reason many of them are abandoned, shot or worse, usually after hunting season. Some Spaniards, just to save a bullet, will cruelly hang them rather than pay for their upkeep until the next season. Such abuse is beyond my understanding.
Anyway I was finally a bit useful when one of the Hurrell's foster greyhounds took a tumble and cut his leg pretty badly. We bandaged it and took him to the same vet's clinic where I worked and the Argentine doctor on duty there did a good job of patching the poor thing up. He's fine now but has to wear his 'collar of shame' for a bit; oddly enough, he seems to actually like it, and milks the whole "wounded dog" thing for all the extra attention he can get! Gail and Andrew lavish as much love on their foster dogs Oscar and Lucy as they do their own greyhounds; and in a few weeks they are due to be adopted by people in Holland. They can also be sent to America; if you think you might be interested or are just curious, check out their website at
We also stopped by a little circus during the day to video their animals in their shabby conditions [see below]. Even the Noah's Arc folks, used to seeing cruelty, were saddened by the dreary little cages the big cats and baboon were in; as for the sole elephant, he looked miserable, and Gail couldn't bear to look at them any more. I can only hope videos like the ones I took will help spread the word how badly circus animals are treated behind the scenes.
All too soon it was time to leave, and after saying a sad farewell to the Hurrells and their doggie family, I hopped the train for Madrid, which comes next. See you then!
[*4/12/09- note: the baboon on the video below was later rescued by a Spanish animal rights organization. It turns out his name is Moses, and he's doing great in a sanctuary where he is finally cared for and loved for probably the first time in his life!]

Monday, July 21, 2008

Lyon and Montpellier

Bonjour! *Note: this will NOT be a minute-by-minute accounting of my actions this time. I have a feeling I'm getting boring with those kinds of postings (due to a glaring lack of comments). Instead I'll just relate a few interesting experiences I had in these two French cities.

After visiting Rennes I actually wanted to go to Spain, but it turns out this can be rather difficult sometimes. It seems the whole of Europe is leaving on vacation this week (some bringing their dogs like this cute thing that slept most of the way), and all of them want to spend it in sunny Hispanola. I waited in long lines and probably taxed the patience of many a rail clerk poring over train schedules and maps for me... "Ok, what about Beziers? Can you get me to Beziers tomorrow?" Sometimes it really IS true; you can't get there from here. You have to go somewhere else.
So my first stop was Lyon (pronounced "Lee-ON" with that French nasal twang), which I read (while standing in one of those lines) was a great place to visit, full of history and old cobbled streets and cathedrals and such. I had to check it out, and it was on the way south.

After Rennes, Lyon was a nice change. It just seemed sunnier, warmer and brighter there... possibly because it wasn't raining like in Rennes?   Lyon really is a smaller and friendlier "Paris of the South", like the guidebooks say.  There was an almost modern basilica (only a hundred years old) that was a joy to explore; so much so that I spent the 5 euros (about $7) for a guided tour of the upper rooms and views from up high... I'm usually too tight-fisted for such wild extravagances, but this time I made an exception. I think it was worth it just for the photos. The guide was pretty cute too, and brought us all the way to the rooftops, helpfully translating what she said for me, the only American in the group. In fact I've seen hardly any Americans anywhere in France so far, except a few older folks lugging those gigantic suitcases through the train stations. Honestly, all they really need here are some shorts and t-shirts... how much clothes can they possibly wear?

Anyway, I had a good time in Lyon; I bought some great cheeses after making a poor merchant let me try eight or ten different ones, and have been trying to resist the Irish pubs and taste the local wines instead (all good). I was actually approached by some friendly young guys who were interested to talk about their country ("Go to Beziers! You'll like it there.") It's unusual to find such open friendliness in northern France; down south there seems to be a more relaxed attitude-- kinda like in America.
And I got some great photos: I think in places like Lyon, as in Tuscany or Venice, you could set the 1-second delay on your camera, throw it up into the air, and almost always get a Pulitzer prizewinning shot.
Montpellier was almost as good. It's a much smaller city (town, really), so it doesn't have all the fancy museums and monuments and such that Paris and Lyon have, but I hardly go to them anyway, so it's ok. It did have a large, totally car-free historic district, which I love. It didn't have the almost obligatory huge ferris wheel that are all the rage these days in almost every big European city. It had all the usual cafes, shops and restaurants all over the old town, making strolling or sitting a joy. I only spent one night there, but it was plenty of time to see what I wanted. It also actually has an Arc d' Triomph to (almost) rival the one in Paris.

The only bad experience was when I approached a young, scruffy-looking couple of backpackers carrying some young, scruffy-looking dogs. I was curious as to why the dogs weren't walking (they certainly looked old enough) and if they were ok. When they stopped to rearrange the pups, I asked if they spoke english and the girl sullenly shook her head. Then I pointed to the puppy she was holding and asked, "Dog ok?" She nodded. Wondering if I couldn't help, I started to say, "I'm a veterinary--..." when the guy, picking up his pup by the scruff, yelled around his cigarette, "I don't speak english, so f*** off!" At that they walked off, and at first all I could mutter was "it sounds like you speak some english". Then suddenly angry I called after him, "What about as****e? Do you know what that means?" They ingored me and kept walking. Unfortunately the picture I took of them came out dark, like the stray kitten pic as well.

I have a theory about them: I'd bet you euros to navy beans that they sit all day in public places with those dogs, begging for money, then take them "home" to some godforsaken place where they tie the pups up and drink and smoke away the day's earnings. I've seen people like that all over Europe with dogs (sometimes young puppies), using them to gain sympathy. I never give them a ha'-penny. It's no life for dogs to be kept on the streets just so bums can beg for beer money.

There were also some ponies used for rides, tied fully saddled to a rail for who knows how many endless hours, probably bored out of their minds and unable to even lower their heads due to their short leads. (see photo) But hey, as long as people can have them conveniently ready to give their kids rides, that's what's most important, right?
It's also not much of a life for stray cats, which I'm seeing more of the further south I go (and the closer I get to Spain). I wonder what I'll find there. At least there's no more bullfights in Barcelona, where I go next, thanks to the good Spanish activists who managed to get them banned from the city two years ago. I wouldn't want to end up in a Spanish jail.

Next: Barcelona

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Paris & Rennes: the French connection

"Ok, so there I was in Paris, France, see..." Why do people always have to mention that Paris is in France? How many times do people tell stories of going to Paris, Montana, or wherever another town is with the same name? It's like those action movies that pan back to show the Eiffel Tower and the city, and then the words appear on the screen: "17:00 hours: Paris, France". Gee, really? That big tower isn't in other cities as well?
Anyway, I WAS in Paris, and although I didn't go into any of the great galleries or museums this time, I had fun just wandering around. My hotel was just a block off the Champs de Mars, the grassy "Mall" in front of the Eiffel, so my first afternoon I went there and walked down to the tower. The lines were incredible, so I opted not to go up (been there, done that). I kept going across the river and got some great photos of it with the sun behind me. From there it's a rather long walk to the Louvre, but walk it I did, savoring the fact that I didn't have any itinerary to rush through this time and could just enjoy Paris like Parisians do. This was my fourth visit to this beautiful city and darn it, I was finally going to relax here!
The only place I really wanted to go inside was the Grand Palace, a huge edifice that looks like a giant greenhouse/old-time museum. i discovered that it was closed, but wasn't able to tell why as all the signs in front were, rudely enough, in French. You'd think they would have had the grace to know I was coming and put out something in English. Seriously, it's the same almost all over the world; countries seem fiercely determined to perpetuate their own languages, thus they refuse to use any others in notifying the traveling public (except the barest minimum) about basic information they might need to know. The U.S. is not much better at this, I rush to admit. But you'd think these small countries like, say, Hungary or France, where everyone who visits communicates in English (including all of Asia, India, Africa and, well, the rest of the world), would think that it might make it easier for visitors to get around instead of having to bother tired information clerks with the same questions over and over. Hello? Is it sinking in yet? Perhaps by my next visit.

Also, I didn't even think about it, but my full day there, by lucky coincidence, just happened to be July 14. Ring a bell? Yes, it was Bastille Day, the French version of Independence Day. There was a big military exhibition in front of the old Ecole Militaire (Army College), and the fireworks that night on the Mall were glorious, timed as they were to thundering classical music. I have a little video of some of it posted on YouTube if you're interested.
I 'also saw all the usual sights: the Louvre pyramids were as grand as ever, the Arc d'Triomph as imposing (and the traffic around it as frantic), the cafes just as pleasant and the shopping more materialistic than ever. Seriously, how many shoes are bought to pay the rents on all those expensive shoe stores on the Champs Elysees? Don't people have enough yet? Just looking at them all made my feet tired, and I was wearing my (only) pair of comfortable tennis shoes!
Speaking of dogs it's good to be in another country where the animals are taken care of and you don't see any street dogs; although there are some rather decrepit-looking people who do have them. I've seen some guys who hang around the steps of a square and always have several dogs sleeping with them. Poor things, one had a bandage on its face that was doing a poor job of covering an open wound. I asked them about it and they seemed to be managing it; the wound looked clean and the tissue healthy, so I let it go. It was hard to communicate with them but they were friendly enough and I think the dog had seen a vet already. If it had been neglect I would have reported it or something. Maybe done some kung-fu on the guys.
The last thing I did before boarding the train to leave was go up not the Eiffel Tower, but the Parnassus building, a skyscraper with a great view of the city, including the Eiffel. (pictured)
Next I wanted to see Mont St. Michel, that cool-looking cathedral on an island off of western France that I'm sure you've all seen pictures of, if not the actual thing. So I went to Rennes, a nice town west of Paris in the Bretagne (Brittany) area that isn't too far from St. Michel's. Most of the hotels were full but a nice receptionist called and found me a place; it wasn't the finest place on Earth but had a quiet room, which is always a gem beyond price. And the view from my window of a ramshackle assortment of buildings was, ah, interesting. (pictured) Even more interesting, people actually lived there; at night I could look across into their kitchens and smell the cooking.

The old section of town turned out to be prettier than I expected, with lots of cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses, creperies and the obligatory cafes. There was probably a museum or two somewhere in there as well, but I spent my time mostly wandering and investigating which cafe made the best hot chocolate.
I planned to find a way to St. Michel the next day, but couldn't sleep til past 3 a.m (probably due to having a late hot chocolate, which I always forget has caffeine too), and ironically enough was short on sleep from the noise in Paris, so I slept til noon and never made it to the abbey. But when a door closes a window opens somewhere else, and I discovered that Rennes was having some kind of festival-- I never found out what, even the locals I asked weren't sure-- with bizarre giant figures paraded around the streets. It reminded me of the Dinotopia books; there were even people wearing funny costumes handling the giant, dinosaur-like figures. I also tried some of the pub cider that's a local speciality in Brittany, and managed to not ony try some local wine, but found a couple of Irish pubs as well!
I tried to get an overnight train the second day to Spain, to meet some folks who run animal sanctuaries down there, but they were all booked for at least several days so I wound up staying two nights. The next day I lazily wandered back to the gare (train station), had a breakfast crepe outside in the square, and got the noon train for Lyon. It looks like Spain will have to wait.
Well, there's always more research to do on hot chocolate.

Next: Lyon and beyond