Sunday, September 25, 2011

Spain, land of mañana...

At Vienna airport I was delayed as my ticket had been 'bought' by another airline, whose system then refused to cooperate. Fortunately I was eventually issued a boarding pass, and flew out of a cloudy Vienna into sleepland. A rainy and bumpy splash landing in Barcelona was followed by an extremely overpriced dinner and a weather-delayed second flight.

In the end, I arrived in Malaga only an hour late, with 50c of phone credit and a 20% charge. At this point I realized my friend T couldn't reply to international numbers, so I sniffed unsuccessfully for wifi and waited.

In the nick of time T turned up and we set about finding a suitably dumpy pension for me to crash. We found it in the form of Hotel Olympia. From a distance the sign even resembled 'DUMPIA'. The stairs were broken, the electrics sparked and smoked, the plumbing was questionable, and my door's bolt hole was secured by a single loose screw. It did, however, have a sink at which I washed my clothes, and a bed flat enough to sleep on. It's worth mentioning that since neither the shower nor bathroom door could close all the way, I could keep an eye on my room door down the corridor while showering; an added security feature. And thanks to early morning garbage trucks, cat fights, and two-stroke vespa booty calls, my morning sleep was punctuated by a series of extraordinary lucid dreams featuring volcanoes, alien invasions, mountain climbing, engineering projects, and so on.

But perhaps I am too hard on Malaga. T and I spent most afternoons chilling indoors, then wandering the narrow flagstone streets of the old city from tapas bar to tapas bar. I visited the magnificent cathedral, the hilltop palace and castle, which were pretty cool. In particular, the surviving Moorish architecture and landscaping/gardens were spectacular. The (free) museum of modern art was well priced and had a few works that really impressed me.

Breakfast was bread, lunch was something yummy T drew from cooking classes, and dinner was tapas, full of flavour and variety. Continuing my Croatian effort to cover the animal kingdom, I had rabbit, squid fried in ink, bull's tail, and many other bizarre but awesome dishes.

T and I caught up on at least a year of news, and I even managed to describe my research whilst ensconced in a rather atmospheric teahouse. The physics was good, but not as good as the tea!

After only two days, it was time to say goodbye. I bought a bus ticket to Granada, T revised the Spanish subjunctive for an impending exam, and we toasted absent Australian friends with very pulpy orange juice.

The bus was luxurious, better even than the ones in Turkey. Only three seats across, inflight food, and clean windows. If you adjoined this bus in Hilbert space with the one from Kosovo to Montenegro, then you'd completely span the space.

The only downside was that at one point the man in front catapulted his chair backwards into my kneecaps, and then his snoring shiny noggin kept reflecting the sun into my eyes! :P

In Granada I spent an hour finding the train station, then walked up to Alhambra (the real one), while dodging spikey and knee-high traffic bollards seemingly intent on finishing what the bus had started. A steep climb through a forested hill took me to the 'gate of justice'. Sadly the ticketed parts had sold out, so I had to be content wandering the grounds and accessing available buildings. There was an exhibition of primarily religious art in one of the buildings. A painting of San Juan de Dios and another of the Nasrid family leaving Alhambra were, IMO, particularly excellent.

On the walk back down I saw a world photos exhibition on forests, which was pretty cool. I've never spent much time in rain forests, and I still want to visit the world's northernmost forests in Taymyr, near Khatanga.

Back in town I had a look around the cathedral, built in a renaissance style upon gothic foundations, decorated with baroque elements, massive in size, and surrounded by other buildings! Looking into the dozen or so chapels arrayed around the periphery, it struck me again just how disgusting and gruesome so much of the Christian, and in particular, Catholic religious imagery is. Life size hyper-real sculptures of Jesus in varying states of torture and decay, not to mention a glisteningly anatomically precise model (I hope) of the severed head of someone later beatified for their troubles. Is idolatry (not to mention polytheism) okay provided you leave your lunch behind?

I walked up through the old town, taking turns at random until I found a plaza with a great view over the town and castle. I sat in the shade munching bread, drinking juice, and watching an endless procession of tourists fill up their memory cards with the same photo. Worth mentioning is that at no point during the entire day was I out of earshot of an Australian accent, and that one slightly strange fellow spent the entire time I was there getting other people to take dozens of photos of him in front of Alhambra with his camera.

I walked back into town, and checked out an ex-caravanserai dating from 1400 or so, some traditional markets, and found a place worthy of dinner.

I ordered fried aubergine with molasses, and pasta alla Napolitano with black olives, both of which were terrific. I took a compass bearing to the station and wandered at random, this time finding it accidentally within minutes.

I had booked the overnight 'soft seat' to Barcelona. Only 12 hours, half of it going backwards, with the usual variety of peculiar co-travelers. By the time the lights went out only two babies were crying. Then a new passenger got on with a loud Bollywood ringtone, and proceeded to make calls. Someone snored. Then the father of the nearest baby decided to exploit the fresh silence by dropping his suitcase on my feet, then giving his baby some ear drops at 1am. This operation was complicated by baby's unwillingness to lie sideways, father's cross-eyed-ness, and about 60 freshly awoken people grumbling enough to suck all the oxygen from the car. Finally, silence. Someone tried to take photos of the moon out the window with the flash on, until their head imploded by the sheer weight of their stupidity. Lots of points for me, and peace at last.

In this way, sleep interruptions were compensated by at least 10 hours in which to try, and I arrived in Barcelona only mildly grumpy.

I walked from Barcelona-Sants station into town. After I found 6 hostels were fully booked, I worked out that I'd accidentally caught the Barcelona festival. Free music and shows, and pickpockets preoccupied with alcoholic backpackers! I did a preliminary 10km lap of the old city to narrow down my options, and followed up after siesta with a visit to the Palau Guell. On the way I visited most of the large churches in Barcelona, all of which lean to some extent. Palau Guell of Gaudi's earliest works, it prefigures a lot of his later stuff. His use of natural materials with interesting textures, ingenious approaches to light and space, and a decent quantity of sheer awesome. By the time I'd climbed from the stable through a series of halls, living spaces, servants' quarters and the roof, I felt I had earned a kebab. So I bought one next door.

Later that night another dude from the hostel joined me for a walk down to the beach and to the Fastnet Irish Bar, where we exchanged Spanish and English with a few other CSers. All too soon it was time to turn in for the night. The person on the bunk below me snored, so I was on 'earthquake duty', where I shook the bed in a vain but oddly satisfying attempt to stir them just enough to breathe better, but not enough to kill me.

Next morning, I realized it was my last day in Europe and I was still lugging around the 3 ounces of flab I'd gained in Austria. Casting a cursory glance over the map I set off!

First stop was the Picasso Museum, itself housed in a rather spectacular, though overlooked, building. Focusing mainly on his early works, the collection also included a number of things by his contemporaries, of which my favourites were a van Gogh painting of a glass of Absinthe (, and a Toulouse-Lautrec portrait entitled 'Red-haired girl in a white blouse' (

In contrast to these, Picasso's works seem to show us not what is, but what we see. His later works, including the series on pigeons, I saw as skeletal and technically unsophisticated. The whole point is (I think) that the human brain fills in the missing detail, in much the same way as XKCD. ( I found as I walked away that the impressionists were on my mind, but that people resembled the Picasso sketches I'd just been looking at.

I continued up from the port, taking in a few more of Gaudi's buildings and some Chinese noodles on the way. The monument to Casanova revealed the existence of more than one new cottage lying about, as this fellow was neither THE Casanova nor a descendant.

Next on the route was the Sagrada Familia. Everyone has heard of this building, but I'm prepared to admit that I knew nothing about it except that it was unfinished and it had four tall towers. It turns out that work is continuing, and the interior was finished only last year, about 130 years after the first stone was placed. Cathedral construction, old school style. The interior is quite extraordinary, with branching, treelike columns joining in hyperbolic domes, with all sorts of decoration. The exterior remains unfinished, though the (recent) sculptures on the resurrection portal reminded me of the 'mask of sorrow' in Magadan.

In the crypt was a fascinating exhibition on the ongoing efforts to finish the cathedral, complicated by the untimely death of Gaudi in 1926 and the burning/destruction of the workshop and models during the Spanish civil war. For me the highlight was an 'inverted model'. By hanging small weights proportional to structural mass from strings of the same (scaled) dimension as structural members, gravity automatically finds the optimal solution, which is a generalized catenary. Here's the kicker: the inverted string model has only tension. When righted, the corresponding bits will have only compression, permitting the construction of cheap masonry structures in weird shapes, rather than resorting to prestressed reinforced concrete or similar.

All too soon it was time to press on. I enjoyed my walk between octagonal city blocks joined by octagonal intersections, and shaded streets running NE-SW and vice versa, meanwhile hearing only dozens of foreign languages, not Australians!

After a while I came to the Park Guell, a never-completed neighbourhood that is now a public space. The landscape design was also done by Gaudi, and resonates with his ideas on a grand scale. From the summit there was a great view over Barcelona. At this point I realized how ambitious my plans for the day's walk were, since I was only a quarter of the way through.

Without further ado I continued, back toward Barcelona-Sants railway station (via a motor scooter crash) and then onward to the Catalonian National Art Museum (MNAC), an impressive domed structure set high on a hill, not unlike the Imperial Palace Museum in Taipei. I gained entry and managed to see everything before it closed at 7pm, with about a minute to spare.

MNAC is unique for the large quantity of Romanesque art. Created c.1200 and displaying a mix of Italian and national influences, the works were preemptively removed from old church walls in a documented fashion to prevent loss into private hands. As a result, this section of the museum is a whole bunch of church 'set interiors' filling a series of large halls. To my untrained eyes, it was reminiscent of the stone paintings M and I saw in Capadocia in 2008.

My favourite this time was hidden behind a corner in a hallway, and probably missed by most visitors. A
Antoni Caba work from 1882 titled 'Dia sobre la Nit precedit de l'Aurora'. (

Also, in the modernist section, Ramon Carga's 'Ramon Carga, pere Romeu en un automobil' ( was a lot of fun!

I walked through the port and Rambla de Mar to the beach and the Olympics Harbour, arriving just in time for a most serendipitous fireworks display. On the way back I had some excellent home-made Italian pasta, then returned to the hostel to pick up my bag after only 14 hours of walking.

I walked back through town one last time, during the quiet hours around 1am. Except that there were at least a million revellers filling the streets, multiple parades, drummers, street sellers, and happy people. Across the plaza del Catalunya to the N17 night bus to begin my 24 hour trip back to LA. The driver took advantage of empty parking lots at the airport to execute a few two-wheeled corners, efficiently dispelling any notions I may have had for sleep. Better to cope with jetlag by mixing in sleep deprivation anyway.

Two thirds of the early morning flights were to Russia: St Petersburg, Minsk, Miberalnye, etc. I haven't seen so many Russians in one place for quite some time! And none of them knew I understood everything they say... Muhahaha!

Eventually we boarded the plane, but not before chatting with an Argentinian dude until I realized I was interrupting his reading of a rather explicit magazine. Of course, boarding the plane was very slow, compounded by my falling asleep until the final call! Then we sat on the tarmac for 90 minutes as the plane had a broken windscreen wiper. Fortunately I had booked my flights with a long transit time, so was able to relax as we descended over Dusseldorf. I imagined I was Biggles, and squinted into the bright sun over medieval buildings with my comrade and best mate Algy, gingerly fingering my bomb toggle as my mustache whipped in the crisp 1917 air...

On the next plane I found myself seated to a rather broad-shouldered man with extremely bushy eyebrows who, it came out in conversation, was an increasingly devout catholic. When I expresses reservations about the current pope, Cardinal Ratzinger, due to his dubious/criminal actions whilst the leader of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, he explained the official position of the church on priests accused of paedophilia (or other criminal acts), which I found rather interesting.

Child rape is, no doubt, a terrible thing, BUT (there is always a but), given that Jesus Christ is the son of god, he explicitly vested the church run by man his power of forgiveness. Therefore the church has power and priority over national legal authorities with respect to its own, privately run, judicial system. Under this system, paedophile priests or other church members guilty of criminal acts can be forgiven and get another chance, or excommunicated if deemed beyond salvation. When I brought up Charles Manson he conceded that a deathbed repentance would mean that god would forgive him his criminal acts, so I find it hard to imagine what would warrant excommunication! I asked at what point does the church call the police, but apparently that never happens. Unless, of course, the church is a victim of criminal acts, such as vandalism.

Regular readers will be in no doubt as to my attitude to this idea. In my opinion, there is no god, no sin, and no eternal life, but there is an organization intent on covering its own arse whilst permitting the continuing violation of everyone else's. More seriously, however, if Cardinal Ratzinger covered up, and allowed to continue, the rape and torture of children, then he is effectively perpetrating that crime himself, and, at the very least, must be held accountable.

What could have been a very lively discussion petered out due to a lack of a fluent common language. But I'm always surprised when I meet otherwise normal, rational people who can, with a straight face, tell you they are absolutely certain that a special class of people are exempt from justice, or above the law. It is, in my opinion, delusion and mental illness.

Above the great lakes our aging A330 got caught in the braids of the jet stream, which made for lots of awesome bumps. Soon enough we were cruising high above the stark and beautiful deserts of the western USA, with mountains, faults, gorges, volcanoes, and many shades of red. The captain pointed Las Vegas out the right window, so I got an excellent look at Lake Powell on the left; impossibly austere, rugged terrain we visited on the Ge136 field trip earlier this year.

With a bounce and a bump we hit the tarmac in LA, and the hostess with the Portal voice wished us good day. From here it is only a few hours of sitting in traffic and I'm home.

Pointless statistics:
12 countries, 26 border posts (and not one strip search!), 38 days, 60 towns. One pair of sandals, one pair of pants, 3 shirts, one cooking pot, only 18L of luggage.

Overall it was a very interesting trip, filled with wonders and surprises. Travelling with J for 3 weeks was a lot of fun, plus all the other old and new friends along the way. Travelling with only a tiny bag and writing all my blog posts on my broken iPhone was also a new approach and one I liked a lot. Being able to walk around with your bag all day is a terrific asset!

Photos will go up in the next few days, with retrofitted hyperlinks and captions and LOTS of panoramas. UPDATE: Photos.

Here endeth the travels of Al Dente and Gazpacho.

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