Monthly Archives: May 2012

Fear and Loathing by the Balearic Sea

So I figure since my blog’s name is From Barcelona to Bali I should probably write something about Spain. Tagged on to a month-long European tour, my rendezvous with this amazing country did not disappoint in the weirdness department. Our agenda consisted of touring the Northern coastline, Barcelona, and then driving up to one of my favourite European cities, the lively and culturally rich San Sebastián, located on the coast of the Bay of Biscay and only 20 kilometres away from the French border.

Heaven… or Hell?
After driving for hours, we decided to stop at a quaint seaside resort just north of Barcelona, where we discovered we could conveniently take the train from there into the city itself. We weren’t especially keen on driving in the big cities (Florence was particularly interesting), so this seemed like the perfect solution. Perched upon a long white-sand beach and boasting an enormous pool, the resort was reminiscent of one of those charmless all-inclusive Mexican deals. But, the setting was pretty, and after being holed-up in tiny little hotel rooms right on busy main streets (with the bathroom down the hall), this was a nice change.

I was charged with securing accommodation for the majority of the trip, calling around for available rooms and switching languages every three days, so I reluctantly prepared to inquire after a room yet again. Since my Spanish was more than a little rusty, I hoped-against-hope that the people at check-in knew another language besides their native one. It was cheating, I know, but I was so damn tired that I just wanted it to be easy. So I greeted them first in Italian (nada), then French (je ne sais pas), and then finally, English (success!). Before I knew it, we were booked for four nights in what we thought was paradise.

Trapped in Cattle Class
The nightmare started the next morning, when we were herded down to the breakfast parlour (which had an early cut-off for breakfast, so naturally you had to fight the crowds to get there first-thing and score a good seat, or any seat for that matter). We joined the masses of families with their screaming children (some things never change, no matter what part of the world you’re in), and basically felt just like cattle feeding at the trough. Service was non-existent, and the food was about as far away from flavour country as possible. Not really the kind of mentality and atmosphere I gravitate towards while on vacation. It was also that kind of place where people got up at the crack of dawn just to reserve a poolside chair with their towel, and then stay there all day. Really, really annoying.

Nude or Prude?
Then there was the beach. For many Europeans, Spain is like our Mexico – people go there on vacation to relax and hang out at the beach. Note that I wrote “hang out”. Needless to say, it was packed from one end to the other with overweight, middle-aged sunburned tourists. And it wasn’t just your everyday sunning-on-the-beach, oh no. Little did we know that this particular stretch of sand was a nude one. And let me tell you, Europeans are not shy – really not shy – about stripping down, no matter their size or level of wrinkly-ness. So instead of a lovely sea view, we got to gaze upon very large, very leathery nude sunbathers. And that’s because we couldn’t get a seat by the pool. Sigh.

Barcelona to the Rescue
By contrast, Barcelona was awesome. We took the train right into the city and proceeded to explore every inch of the place like the good tourists we were. We got on a hop-on/hop-off style tour bus and checked out everything from the Sagrada Familia to Casa Milà, the Arc de Triomf and the Picasso museum. And we couldn’t miss seeing the melting-wax-inspired work of architect Antoni Gaudí, which is visible throughout the city (the Sagrada Familia being his most impressive feat). With its grand harbour, vibrant downtown core and lively port, Barcelona reminded me a lot of Vancouver. Not surprisingly, it’s also a sister city to San Francisco.

Food to Die From
Every so often we resigned ourselves to eating at the resort, where the cuisine would be best described as, well, downright gross. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great place to go if you’ve a hangover and are craving greasy spoon tucker. True to beach-style form, it offered no shortage of full-fat battered fish and salty chunky fries, burgers, ice cream; basically anything fried and super-bad for you. Seriously, you wouldn’t even know you were in Spain… there wasn’t a paella dish in sight. I did luck out one time when I discovered an English pub off the beaten track serving a green curry and rice combo, which when washed down with a nice watery Strongbow cider was borderline decent. Let’s just say we were extremely thankful for that train, where in less than an hour we could dine on authentic Basque cuisine in the heart of Barcelona’s old quarter. It was a bit logistically-challenging to go there for every meal, though.

The Coup de Grâce
What really tipped the experience to a comical degree was when I was on the strip one scorching day shopping for a bathing suit. I was idly browsing when I heard some terrific shouting from along the boardwalk. I looked over to see a very large, very white young man with a blond buzz cut, red baseball cap, massive beer gut and arms the size of tree trunks marching along the street. This guy couldn’t be missed as he waved and raged at random passers-by for no apparent reason. The best part was he was heading straight towards me, a path of terrified people parting in front of him as he walked.

I managed to avoid his fury by ducking behind the racks, and once safely out of view, watched as he cursed at people, even striking out at one or two just for kicks. I mean, the guy was totally out of control. And of course, security was nowhere to be seen. We decided that this would be a good time to hop back on the safety of the train and get the hell out of the Twilight Zone for a bit. It wasn’t until we saw the guy again hours later, walking up and down the boardwalk, doing the same terrorizing, when security and the policía finally wrestled him down to the ground screaming, and escorted him off the premises. It was quite the sight.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I did end up finding a bathing suit. Although, looking back now (viz., Nude or Prude?, above), maybe I should have just gone native.

– S

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Categories: Adventure, Beach, Dining, Europe, Spain, Travel, Unglamorous | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Cozumel Christmas

OK, I know it’s a bit early to be talking about Christmas. But then the other day I was looking through some old photos and was reminded of the Xmas that we decided to get the heck out of Dodge and head to Paradise – AKA the island of Cozumel, off the coast of the Mexican Riviera.

It was a little out of character for us, because we always, always host holiday family dinners. So when we announced one year that we were spending Christmas on a beach far, far away, the family was quite surprised. To give you some context, think of the movie Four Christmases – and so we gave each other the gift of sanity that year.

Anyway, after a 6-hour plane ride, one-and-a-half hours on a bus (stopping at every hotel along the way), arriving in Playa del Carmen, waiting an hour for the ferry, and then enduring a 45-minute less-than-smooth sailing, we finally set foot on the beautiful island of Cozumel. It was definitely worth the trek. And so I’d like to share with you the…

Top 10 Things I Loved About Spending Christmas in Mexico

1. Seeing crazy, over-the-top decorations.
Cozumel’s main square devoted itself to gigantic decorated trees, neon signs, nativity scenes, and (naturally) a scary larger-than-life Santa climbing up a ladder to God knows where. Look out below, kiddies.

2. Avoiding the really awful weather back home.
While everyone else was freezing their behinds off, we were sipping a margarita on a lonely stretch of beautiful white sand. ‘Nuff said.

3. Singing Christmas carols in Spanish 
One night, close to the big day, we were eating chile rellenos at an open-air neighbourhood restaurant when we heard some commotion near the street. When we went to check it out, to our delight we discovered a half-dozen local children clustered around a nativity scene at the front of the restaurant, singing carols in Spanish. Recognizing one of the songs as “Silent Night”, we enthusiastically joined them at top volume. The kids, concentrating on their music books and mesmerized by the decorations festooning the place, took no notice of us silly tourists blundering along with them.

4. Zooming around in Purple Pepe 
Access to the beach was a bit of a hike for those of us staying in town, making for expensive cab rides. So we decided to rent a car – more specifically, a convertible. The only one the rental agency had at the time was a 1970s purple Volkswagen bug that we affectionately named “Pepe”. It was an adventure to drive; complete with a stick shift reminiscent of an old school bus. Despite her being old and decrepit, Pepe got us from Point A to Point B just fine, and we were able to get off the beaten touristy track and check out some lovely spots on the less-traveled leeward side of the island. Who cares if it didn’t have a fancy airbag? Or working seat belts, for that matter. The improvised paint job was pretty sweet, though.

5. Going on a snorkelling tour on a rough day
This had to be one of the best, and most challenging, snorkelling experiences I’ve ever had. We connected with a local woman named Rosy Flury, and although the water was quite choppy that day, she determined our experience level to be good enough to go anyway. There was only us and a family of three (from Calgary, no less), which made for a really personal experience. We went to several different reefs, some shallow and some deep, where we were witness to all sorts of slimy and fascinating underwater things during this two-hour adventure. The best part was on the way back, sailing against the freezing wind for 45 minutes. Nothing like protecting yourself from smacking sea spray with just a wet towel and sunglasses.

6. Decorating a palm tree instead of a Douglas Fir
Although it doesn’t have the same effect as its bushier relative, I really liked the look of those purple and green banana pepper lights against the thin palm stalks. Very exotic. I still put them up in our window back home where they blink merrily.

7. Going to Midnight Mass – in another country
Going to Mass on Christmas Eve is crazy popular in Mexico, for obvious Catholic-centered reasons. We visited this particularly ornate church just up the street from our villa one night, and then again on the Eve. For a bit of perspective, check out before and after shots:

Pre-Christmas Eve:

Christmas Eve:

Unlike the previous night, there was pretty much zero chance of getting a seat. So we listened to the sermon from the steps, with about 200 other people. We didn’t understand a word the priest was saying, but since it was Christmas Eve, we had an inkling of the overall message.

8. Diving right off the beach on Christmas day
We spent the day at an intimate beach club, our only other companions a Santa hat-mimosa-drinking tour group. When we felt like cooling off, we just strapped on our masks and fins, waded into the turquoise-blue water, and transported ourselves to another world.

9. Waking up and feeling warm
Yep, you can’t beat waking up late on Christmas day, having a cup of coffee with Bailey’s, taking a swim to clear out the cobwebs, and letting the sun dry you on your patio chair. The hardest part is trying not to gloat while the family back home tells you they just finished shoveling a foot of snow off their driveway.

10. A Christmas sunset on the pier
Better than a pile of discarded wrapping paper and stomach cramps from eating too much.

– S

PS. The family fared just fine without us. Which means we might do it again… soon.

Categories: Adventure, Beach, Mexico, Sunset, Travel | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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