Barcelona, despite being the most touristed city in Europe, is still my favorite place to travel in Europe (other than Amsterdam, which was my home for 11 years). Why? It has good weather (for Europe), very low prices (for Europe), good food, sea, mountains, wonderful neighborhoods and architecture, including plenty of my favorite kind – late 19th century and early 20th century in the very large neighborhood called Eixample (pronounced Uh-SHAHM-pluh in Catalan). In the height of summer however, the amount of tourists is so overwhelming that I would want to avoid the medieval core of the city altogether, so for a first time in Barcelona I think May or September is a better bet.
The main street through the medieval core is called La Rambla and although you may find yourself walking it once, you’ll want to avoid it. Definitely do not eat there as restaurants and cafés are tourist traps. However, one side of La Rambla is the Born neighborhood, which is the upscale part of the medieval core, and well worth exploring at quieter times. Also the Boqueria market is on La Rambla which is a must-see, but again, go at a quiet time. On the other side of La Rambla is the El Raval neighborhood, also medieval, and full of more recent immigrants, particularly from Arab countries, Africa, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
I tend to stay in Eixample within walking distance of the grand Passeig de Gràcia, which is full of the major Spanish and European upscale chain shops for clothing and household items.
I love just walking around the central neighborhoods that are quieter like Sant Antoni and Poble Sec and just enjoying the atmosphere, the trees, the cafés.
In summary, for a short stay, choose from the following short list:
- A stroll along the Passeig de Gràcia (upscale chain stores for shopping, cafés, admire Gaudi’s building “Casa Batlló”
- Wander through the Born neighborhood from the Plaça de Catalunya down to the Plaça Reial and visit the Boqueria market – you will see La Rambla along the way – you must do this at as early in the morning as possible as the crowds are awful in the afternoons
- Visit the individual Gaudi works La Sagrada Familia church (2.5 km from Plaça de Catalunya) and my personal favorite, Parc Güell (a park, 4 km from Plaça de Catalunya) – you will probably want to take the subway, bus or a taxi
- Walk the busy but wide boardwalk along Barceloneta beach which is immediately adjacent to the central area. Stop for a drink at one of the many beachfront cafés or have a meal at Aqua restaurant (be sure to reserve during peak times)
- Enjoy an aimless stroll in a neighborhood such as the Eixample, Sant Antoni, Poble Sec
- Visit the Miró museum (the “other” great surreal artist besides Dalí) on top of Montjuic mountain – you can also admire a castle or two and some of the Olympic venues. There is a fun and slightly scary old teleférico (aerial tramway) that will take you to the old city and Barceloneta beach from here, but the wait can be very long during tourist season.
My restaurant list is not very extensive (just what I know):
- Cerveceria Catalana for good tapas; however you really cannot go at lunchtime (say 1-4) or dinnertime (say 7-11) because the waits are very long. Carrer Mallorca 236 at Rambla de Catalunya
- for Basque tapas, Sagardi’s tapas bar (not its restaurant), Carrer Muntaner 70
- for a casual restaurant meal, Bosque Palermo, Carrer Valencia 163
- Me, for upscale but casual world fusion cuisine, Carrer Paris 162 at Muntaner, catarsiscuisine.com
- Agua, on Barceloneta beach, elegant but casual: Passeig Maritim 30, tel. 932251272
The language you see on most signs is Catalan, which is close to Spanish but many words are more like French or Italian; it is not as some people believe a “mix” of Spanish and French but rather an old language with its own history and culture.
However, in the city, a slight majority actually has Spanish as a native language and is the more common language of communication. I have never had any issue whatsoever speaking Spanish in Barcelona, although I have heard this is completely different outside the city. Of course many or most people in the more touristed areas know English to some extent.
Favorite hotels is the Cram as it’s well priced, in Eixample and near the Passeig de Gracia.
Visting Australia I was struck by the similarities with the United States — only a few hundred years old, a shared language and much shared (British) heritage, prosperous, lands of immigrants – both historically and currently. Plus, the different Australian landscapes remind me so much of the different parts of the Western United States. Of course, there are many differences – my impression is that Australia is more “English” in some ways, and more liberal – they are extremely fortunate to not have to deal with a *large* radical minority of extreme religious fundamentalists trying to turn back the clock to the Middle Ages. It also doesn’t have to deal with the painful after-effects (poverty, broken families, and embedded anger) that we Americans still can feel as the wake of the most inhuman system of all, slavery.
Another notable difference is the downtowns, or as Australians would say their “CBDs” (Central Business Districts). In Australia these are pulsating, dynamic places where people come to work, shop, study, sightsee, visit service providers and government offices, and eat, drink, and go out.
By contrast most American large cities have downtowns that have died, though many are resurrecting to different degrees. With the exception of Manhattan, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston, the story of America’s downtowns mostly goes like this:
The average income for the middle classes allowed many families to afford a car – some already in the 1920s, and many more in the postwar boom of the 1950s. This level of income was much, much higher than Western Europe at the time. If we look at Atlanta, which had 1 million people in the metro area in 1950, we see that by the 1950s most of the middle to upper middle class was living in commuter suburbs about 5 to 8 miles from the city center.
Shopping and services were still in downtown Atlanta – a congested, tiny grid of streets built to serve a town one tenth its size. It didn’t take long before developers figured out that shoppers would gladly come to a suburban shopping mall to do all their shopping. Cinemas followed. Places of employment followed.
This happened in most US cities. In Atlanta it was exacerbated by racial integration. As black Atlantans found ways to move into neighborhoods with better housing; and as parks and restaurants removed barriers to black patrons, some whites reacted by abandoning the city altogether – “white flight”.
On top of this, city streetcar networks were systematically ripped up in a conspiracy by vehicle manufacturers and tire companies, and these were replaced by buses. (In Atlanta, exceptionally, they were first replaced by trolleybuses – electric buses with overhead wires. Only later were these replaced by buses). Over the long term this represented a serious degradation of public transportation. Serious attempts at more efficient public transit made little headway in most cities – for example Atlanta did get a subway in the 1970s; actually the truncated remains of what was supposed to be a fast regional railway system like Paris’s RER.
Only now are American cities starting to revive mostly due to changes in lifestyle. Some Americans are tired of long commutes, driving miles in a car to get to a grocery store, and the lack of diversity and cultural opportunities in the suburbs and exurbs. Some fall in love with the charm of the older houses. And as more middle class people move back into the city, the better the neighborhoods become, and the safer they become.
So why does Australia have – and why did it never lose its dynamic city centers? I am curious.
My theory goes as follows. *I have no idea if these ideas are valid* In any case, the situation in Australia would be due to a combination of factors:
1. Incomes in Australia were not high enough for the majority of the population to own cars until much later than the United States – therefore most people remained dependent on public transit
2. Planning occurs at the level of the entire metropolitan area – unlike the US where zoning and planning power rests at the city level – and the city only controls a small percentage of the total metro area. This allows for regional power for planning in Australia – and if this means an emphasis on public transport, the Australian region can effectively implement it. In the US regional planning is dependent on multiple power centers (counties, etc.)
3. The Australian city governments – by the time most people could afford cars – had learned from the lessons of the US – and emphasized centralization of the city and public transport.
3a. What I am not sure about is if cities zone against large-scale malls and/or big box stores in suburbs. I do know these exist, and perhaps the CBD shopping “holds its own” against suburban shopping due to all the other factors mentioned here, i.e. that people are in the city center anyway for work, services, study, and leisure.
3b. I am also not sure if Australian governments zone against large employers establishing themselves in the suburbs. For example in Atlanta, downtown is for conventions, tourism, lawyers, government, utilities and a couple corporate HQs – Coke, the old BellSouth, and Georgia Pacific. But the large corporate HQs like UPS, NCR, Delta, and Home Depot are all in the ‘burbs. I wonder to what extent this is zones against in Australia.
4. In the case of Melbourne, there was a strong leader of the tram company who saved the tram system, one of the world’s largest. Sydney did however (sadly) go over to buses. But both Sydney and Melbourne have extensive commuter rail networks.
Food for thought. Lucky Melbourne and Sydney that they do not have to rebuild their city centers, and what dynamic, energetic, wonderful places they are. But also, I do enjoy watching the American city centers get better and better with time – intown Atlanta included.
Australia was never high on my list because it’s one of the least different places from the US culturally but wow! Sydney is truly awesome, what a quality of life. Seems to combine the best of San Diego (weather, beaches), Portland (coffee, coffee, and more coffee) and San Francisco (vibrant downtown and cozy late-Victorian neighborhoods) in one, with friendliness, health, social welfare and a great attitude to life. It seems very prosperous here right now. Plus they are getting all the good immigrants due to sensible immigration policies. Only downside so far: strong currency, so very expensive for us.
OK this post is for those interested in languages.
I recently spent a month in India, where Hindi and English “compete” as national languages alongside state and local languages, ten of which have 30 million speakers or more.
Zapping through the tv channels, I joked to myself that there were not really Hindi or English-language channels in India. Rather, there seemed to be 80% Hindi/20% English and 80% English/20% Hindi.
The Hindi channels had so much English that most of the time I could actually tell what they were talking about. And the English channels had not only many Hindi words. Even numbers were expressed not in millions but in “lakh” (100,000) and “crore” (10 million). Also entire constructions of English words, but which were alien to English as used in the US/UK/etc. – a classic example being “kindly do the needful”. All this is of course, completely valid English… Indian English and it’s wonderful. English is the world language partly because it’s flexible and free, not controlled by any academy trying to hold it back.
This reminded me of my time in the Netherlands (1993-2004), when it was sometimes remarkable how much English would pepper the Dutch language. This was particularly the case at my work at a large international bank where the language of emails and documents was English, but my Dutch colleagues and I would usually converse in Dutch. The result was often a nominally Dutch sentence, but with all nouns in English. And sometimes even verbs such as “delete-n”, “outsource-n”, and “change-n”. That may have exceeded the 80/20 of Hindi. But in everyday conversation, it was less than 20%.
I have never known such intense use of English otherwise, though I suspect it may happen in Scandinavia. But it wasn’t the case in France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, or Mexico. In fact in Spanish or French you can’t easily incorporate some English words, such as verbs, for grammar reasons. Unlike Dutch or German where you just add an “n”!
South Africans do something else. Rather than incorporate English into another language, they switch languages mid-sentence – English to Afrikaans and back again. However, Afrikaans has had to fight for its existence and so words are consciously created where they are needed. AS a result they are able to use “proper” Afrikaans words when speaking Afrikaans. And in the press the proper Afrikaans words are used.
I’ve heard New Yorkers switch from English to Spanish to English with lightning speed too. Presumably Puerto Rican or Dominican New Yorkers. In California you never heard the Mexicans or Mexican-Americans doing that. Spanish had a very low prestige there and people would use perfect English if they were able to.
So the award goes to… India!
Here is the Hindi and English text of my favorite Bollywood song. Look at how much English is in the Hindi (I’ve bolded the English in the text). Just about every word that is meant to be emphasized. You can watch the video at the bottom of the post.
|Angdaaiyaan leti hoon main jabb zor-zor se
ufff! angdaaiyan leti hoon main jab zor-zor se
Uhh ahh ki avaaz hai aati har ore se
Main to chaloon is kadar
Ke mach jaae ye gadar
Hosh waale bhi madhosh aayein re nazar
Mere photo ko seene se yaar, chipkale saiyaan Fevicol se
Jhhoom jhhoom jhum barabar.. jhoom jhoom jhoom..
Pyaar karle tu aaj angoor ki daughter se
Aaja mere raaja, tujhe jannat dikhaun main
Log kehte hain mujhe, main to hoon namkeen butter
Public shehar ki kare hai teraa wait re..
Par kahani oh Raani puraani hai teri
My Gypsy with siren taiyaar
|When I stretch mightily
When I stretch mightily
The sounds of ‘uhh’ and ‘ahh’ come from every side
The way I walk
That there is a hell of a noise
Conscious people also seem to be intoxicated
Oh my friend, stick my photo to your chest with Fevicol glue
Swing swing swing continuously.. swing swing swing..
You, love the daughter of the grape
Come my king, let me show you the heaven
All of India…
People tell me that I am salty butter
The public of the city awaits you
But oh my queen, your story is old
My gypsy is ready with siren
Visiting India really makes you think.
The positive things from the visit:
– To see and experience the state of India today for myself – since it is such an important country and culture in the world, and something which I am drawn to a medium degree (fabrics, Bollywood, food, history/castles, Hindu religion, etc.). And Indians are one of the “great” immigrant groups in America today…
– food was very good
– hygiene has been surprisingly good inside the hotels and restaurants with a few exceptions
– colors and fabrics
– the historic forts and palaces
– the wide variety of people and daily life on the street every day
– some friendly people and in many cases “innocent” curiosity and friendliness
Video of our trip highlights:
It would have been nice to be in a situation where we really knew some middle class Indians, who travelled a lot or were interested in the same things, and seen a bit of their everyday life and some socializing, but alas…
I was surprised by the true state of things – the negatives
I have been reading too much about how quickly the Indian economy is progressing and how fast the middle class is being created. Although I have also read plenty about the negatives, I went into India expecting a country that was dynamically improving. My yardsticks to measure India against: Other developing countries such as Mexico, Brazil, China, Turkey, all of which have changed dramatically for the positive in the last 20 years before my eyes.
The reality of today’s India is, well, awful.
Garbage. Garbage is everywhere. In the towns in piles that cows disgustingly graze on; the piles are burned daily, plastic and all, creating noxious fumes. Garbage is strewn along virtually every foot of public road. It’s in every waterway. The exceptions: Udaipur (the city center and the clean lakes), and the upscale area of Bombay. But otherwise, garbage, garbage, garbage. The cows that wander in the towns leave their droppings. Sewers are open and clogged with plastic and other trash. Cities outside the city centers are strips along the road with wide patches of dirt between the road and buildings; these strips of dirt are covered with people, puddles of mud, piles of trash, cow droppings, etc.
“Indians… are oblivious to anything that is not of direct self-interest to them… filth… garbage… flies…the stench of sewage… stray dogs…” (Being Indian by Pavan Varma, p.101)
I find the dirtiness a big turnoff and I tend to immediately judge “the Indian people” for tolerating it. Of course nothing is that simple and one of our guides did discuss with us from his point of view the importance of educating people and the huge challenges in accomplishing that in India given its size and the fact that they don’t have a dictatorship in China which can ram through policies and changes.
- Мajority of the population still lacks electricity or running water
- 626 million Indians do not even have TOILETS and must defecate in the open – 60% of the world’s open defecation is in India (See video below)
- Many children still do not go to school
- Some rural Indians still do not have enough nutritious food
It is noticeable when scanning the tv and from reading that, compared to America, Indians with money devote little attention to these problems. In fact, rich Indians seem quite spoiled with “disposable” servants whom they treat horribly and house in closets. Children and adolescents are especially egregious in their treatment of personnel and staff. This is compounded by the Indian tendency, when they first meet a person, to broadcast one’s position and connections, which comes off as arrogance and self-importance to Westerners.
“in the Indian tradition the powerful are not expected to be reticent or modest in the projection of their power” (Varma, p.18)
But it is easy to demonize. I have to say that I admire the American spirit of compassion more in this regard (and the Western European one even more!) – but, as individuals we all act individually. There are always a few true saints and everyone else just trying to get on with their own life in their own circumstances. Indians with money are no different.
The rich may not be very sympathetic with the plight of the poor, the government has been trying to improve the situation for the poor since independence, with some success. It has also greatly broken down the barriers of the caste system.
– Even in our hotels, the electric went out several times a day until generators came on
– Lack of modern roads
– Polluted air everywhere
– No supermarkets only small stores
– Misogyny embedded in the traditional culture
– Racism i.e. elevation of light skin over dark skin. (There are two original races in India, light and dark and historically the light-skinned were the upper castes)
Dynamics of Indian society
So, compared to its fellow developing countries, what the hell is wrong with India?
Problem 1: Being passive. I have read books by local authors (e.g. Being Indian by Pavan Varma) and both refer to the Indian culture which is quite passive and doesn’t try to change things much. Again:
“Indians… are oblivious to anything that is not of direct self-interest to them” (Varma, p.101)
Bettering society is not really in the culture – they are more oriented to:
a) the thousands-year-old caste system where everyone has their place and
b) if you have a bad life it’s due to karma from a past life.
Problem 2: the government is not only slow but extremely corrupt. And, importantly, there is a sort of acceptance that that is how things are. Corruption is expected and there is not a huge push from the people to stamp it out.
“For all the condemnation that corruption publicly provokes, Indians are ambivalent about the practice… Their understanding of right and wrong is far more related to efficacy than to absolutist notions of morality” (Varma, p.76-7)
Problem 3: India after independence in the 1940s, quite understandably admired the Soviet model, which had created an industrial superpower out of a largely agricultural Russian Empire in a few short decades. India did very well at putting a stranglehold on the capitalist economy. But it did not manage to accomplish any of the good things from the Soviet model, such as building up industry, educating the poor, or bringing them electricity and running water. All the bad without the good. India slid backward from the 1940s all the way through the 1980s.
The shock at the garbage and pollution made me think – boy, it’s hard for even me to see anything positive in this place. It looks apocalyptic, and they’ve let their country go to hell. It was disappointing considering that for the past 10 years we’ve been hearing about all the positive changes – more jobs, more consumer goods, higher quality of life all round for Indians. And indeed, one night our driver was saying many of those positive things. He said 10 years ago, no jobs, nothing here in Rajasthan, wait 20 years for landline phone, wait 20 years for car. He said now life is very good.
So… it’s all relative.
Until the very end of the trip I thought I wouldn’t go back to India. But I think now maybe I would, to see Kashmir or the Himalayas. It is an interesting country and that’s a key criterion for me.
I think India will be food for thought as to how good we have it in the West with our clean sidewalks and functioning government, and lack of cows in the street eating plastic bags from heaps of garbage. It’s also a reminder of the past of our cities – I thought back to that great BBC show about the streets of London in medieval times.
Video of dead bodies in the Ganges (not for the faint-hearted)
The things not to miss are: SF, “Highway 1” SF-LA, Las Vegas, Zion & Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, San Diego.
Yosemite is also spectacular BUT will add 2 full days driving to/from anywhere else, so skip it so you can really enjoy the other places. Also are you going in Winter? Because you cannot cross the eastern border of the park in Winter, too much snow. So then no point *at all* to try to drive from SF to Vegas that way.
I would plan:
4 days SF (America’s best city – enjoy it! – don’t get a car for the city; Get your car on your 3rd or 4th day and do a day trip to Napa Valley wine country and/or see the Redwood Forest)
Drive to Monterey on the fast road (1 hr) – see aquarium, art village Carmel, drive “9 Mile Drive” and spend the night in Monterey
1 day Coast highway #1 Monterey-San Luis Obispo stopping at Hearst Castle (make a tour reservation). Lunch in Lucia.
San Luis Obispo-LA (3 hrs)
4 days LA & San Diego
Fly San Diego to Las Vegas (it’s a 7 hour, boring drive)
2 days Las Vegas – stay somewhere between Venetian and Aria hotels
1 week: from Las Vegas drive a loop: Vegas – Zion – Bryce – Grand Canyon – Vegas. Then fly out from Vegas.
As for LA some people like it, I do, but it’s not a walking city – some small walking areas and a car in between them. It’s so big I think of it as three cities: West, Middle and Downtown. In the west: Santa Monica, Venice (Abbott Kinney Blvd.). In the middle part, West Hollywood (gay-borhood) La Brea/Wilshire area, Hollywood/Vine, Silverlake (alternative gay-borhood) and Los Feliz. Downtown is very disappointing to most Europeans, it was completely run down and is actually a very busy Mexican/Central American downtown. A few “hip” places opened, but really not that many. I like visiting the great old buildings there – very faded glory.
San Diego has a big downtown which is mostly new but very enjoyable – shopping, restaurants, cafes, and a waterfront. San Diego has beautiful beaches and is just a great place to hang out and relax. There is also a great gay-borhood at Hillcrest (near University/Washington Boulevards around 6th Avenue.) Lots of “real people” and very easygoing compared to LA (which is full of “beautiful people”)
Georgia and Armenia are so forgotten really, probably as a result of being part of the Russian Empire and USSR which was so isolated. Certainly I “discovered” or “remembered” them because I’ve spent so much time in Russia. They are in essence as European as Greece, but they are 1000 miles east of Istanbul. Amazing. Georgia was a fascinating place to visit. They seem to have renovated the entire country “yesterday” with many things still being renovated. But the facilities are still very simple and there are no crowds, except for perhaps one UNESCO sign you almost have the feeling you are still “discovering” someplace much as it must have been 100 years ago before mass tourism.
Georgia is so many things at once – a combination of:
- charming architecture (half freshly renovated, half collapsing),
- decrepit (even by Russian standards) Soviet tower blocks,
- a sort of Mediterranean people, yet definitely different, incredible variety in faces and physical features, from the softest Western European to the most swarthy Arabic looking people
- strong Orthodox religion with all these churches from the 11th c. – Georgia’s glory days,
- better-than-Mediterranean food – lots of grilled food, “raviolis”, walnut and pomegranate sauces, some of the best bread in the world
- an impenetrable language with its own ancient alphabet
- Russian signs are hardly to be seen (formerly nearly everything was bilingual) but people 30 and older understand Russian
- Efforts everywhere to promote English
- Nation-building by Saakashvili – e.g. every town has its new police station (representing the visible break from the corrupt police of the past) and its new city hall – in the larger towns these are ALL round-ish geometric shapes (spheres, orbs, ovals, tubes!) with glass set into white metal.
- Soft multi-colored lights adorning buildings, paths, etc. – a bit tacky and Christmas-y but actually an economical way to make the cities and towns less dreary.
Add to this Batumi which has some Las Vegas/Dubai style towers and faux renovations (e.g. an Italian “piazza” which is somewhere between a reconstruction of an actual piazza and the Las Vegas version…). There is a tower dedicated to the Georgian alphabet(!), brand-new dancing fountains, a Leaning Tower of Pisa, Acropolis, and upside-down White House, etc. etc.
And that’s not even starting on the politics. Fascinates me that Saakashvili took this place from total collapse to a functioning country, top 15 places in the world easiest to do business, little crime or petty corruption. And then he blew it all by trying to get South Ossetia “back” and poking the Russian bear. Really stupid. He thought the West and NATO would defend Georgia against Russia! Really really stupid. And Georgia paid.
Click here or on the picture for Georgia photo album or click here for YouTube movie of pictures set to Georgian music