Archive for August, 2017

Barcelona

August 16th, 2017

In the very first post in this blog, I justified its creation by stating that I had some things to talk about, or “In other words, no vacation slides” as I said at the time. Realistically I wanted to start a blog to talk about my fascination with a local immersive art installation known as The Jejune Institute rather than an aversion to vacation photos.

Look no further back than my 2012 visit to Copenhagen to see an example of a violation of the principles outlined in that first blog post. Yeah, I lied… though somehow I never got around to writing about my 2013 trip to Shanghai on this blog for whatever that’s worth. So forget the no vacation photos thing and let’s move on.

As I wrote in my first post about my vacation to Europe this summer, I started and ended the trip in Barcelona because I booked cheap flights. This meant I stayed at two different hotels a few days in June and again a few days in July.
 

My trip’s first hotel was Hotel Via Augusta in the L’Eixample District, near the Gracia neighborhood. L’Eixample means “expansion,” and it’s literally an expansion of the original part of Barcelona. The original city is now known as the Gothic Quarter and was once surrounded by a wall. After the city wall was demolished the city built outward, mostly in large, dense blocks that had tapered edges to accommodate streetcars. That last factoid plays a pivotal moment in Barcelona’s history, so read on.

Gracia is an older neighborhood that wasn’t originally part of Barcelona. Even though most of the buildings look new, the streets are very narrow with a layout that’s slightly more contemporary (less chaotic) than the Gothic Quarter. It’s a lively, family friendly neighborhood that doesn’t attract as many tourists as other parts of town. That said, it’s walkable from a number of Metro stops and not far from Sagrada Familia. Gracia grew on me quickly with one exception — it’s completely dead on Sundays. Depending on your schedule this can add a significant challenge when you need food. For my part on Sunday I found a “takeaway” lunch at a sushi restaurant (they have Philly rolls in Spain!) and a gazpacho dinner from a convenience store.

Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona
 

It’s fashionable everywhere to gouge and generally hate on tourists; Gracia was no different. But I couldn’t help laughing at this anti-tourist sticker with a skull and selfie stick “crossbones”:

Barcelona
 

Further out in the L’Eixample District, the architecture takes on a life of its own. Local architect Antoni Gaudí and his contemporaries built — or in many cases renovated — buildings with their own modernist styles. Not all of them survived Spain’s civil war intact.

Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona
 

The most astonishing architecture near my first stop is also the most famous: Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, an enormous church that’s been under construction since 1882. Gaudi knew he wouldn’t live to see the end of the construction, and as fate would have it he was killed by a collision with a streetcar in 1926. His original plans for the structure were also destroyed in Spain’s civil war.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
 

With the interior largely complete, the exterior still has one facade and several more towers to go. Will it be complete by the deadline of 2026? I doubt it, even though they’ve switched from stone to modern reinforced concrete for the main facade — which has barely begun construction. Still this is an amazing building to visit and its unfinished, changing nature is a part of its allure.

For better or worse, I booked tickets for the tower on the Passion facade. The ticket included an elevator ride up, but (unbeknownst to me) not back down. The views from there were spectacular, but the path down involves narrow stone staircases. The last part of the climb down has a handrail on one side, and a steep drop on the other. This is an alarming descent, especially when the temperature is 95 degrees and your hands are a little too sweaty to firmly grip the handrail.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
 

Fast forward to the end of my trip, and I stayed in at Hotel Cortes in the Gothic Quarter, the old and original part of Barcelona. Like many folks in Barcelona, the guy running the front desk when I arrived barely spoke any English. Fortunately others in the hotel spoke English fluently, and my limited (Castilian) Spanish was enough to get by.

Everyone will tell you the Gothic Quarter is the most touristy part of Barcelona, but it’s also historically significant, and even today is quite lively. That said, if you want to check out the architecture, wake up early on a Sunday when everything’s closed and stroll the narrow streets for a few hours. It’s a gorgeous part of town when it’s empty, and the clash of styles between the old buildings and the modern street art really shines.

Even during the day, the restaurants, bars, and cafes a little ways off the beaten path are worth checking out. In particular I found a bar with excellent gazpacho, a taqueria (yes, really) with killer margaritas, and vegan British pub with not only good beer, but surprisingly good food.

Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Taco Alto, Barcelona Gazpacho, Barcelona
 

Though the Gothic Quarter can be touristy, one part in particular stands out as a serious tourist trap: La Rambla, a wide street going down the middle of the neighborhood towards the sea. Despite a few useful shops, for the most part the place is crowded with tourists and poorly rated restaurants, including (of course) Barcelona’s Hard Rock Cafe.

As a general tip for traveling, remember this helpful rhyme: “Hard Rock Cafe, Stay Far Away.” I’ll get into that more when I discus my trip to Florence.

Barcelona
 

From the Gothic Quarter I wandered up to Montjuic, a scenic viewpoint on a tall hill. An aerial tramway connects the hill with a (man made) beach. It’s fun to find your way up the hill, especially because not all the pathways are marked. On the way there I happened to walk past “El Gato de Botero,” a large metal sculpture of an overweight house cat. Silly, but worth checking out. The top of Montjuic sports a hotel, a couple restaurants, and an immaculate garden.

Although it’s not included in the panorama below, from several vantage points on top of Montjuic you can easily spot Sagrada Familia. The numerous cranes are a dead giveaway.

El Gato de Botero, Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona
 

On the opposite side of the city from Montjuic (yeah, I got around) there’s another high vantage point: Park Guell. Built into the side of a hill, Park Guell is filled with lush gardens, meandering pathways, playgrounds, and a number of homes designed by Gaudi. Commissioned by a man named Guell, the place was intended as a small village for a handful of rich families with sweeping views of the city. Ultimately it was a failure, and the place was eventually handed over to the city to be used as a park.

The most built out and decorated part of this development is near the bottom, with a number of buildings, man made cave-like structures, fountains, and mosaics. This part currently costs extra to enter most of the time, although it’s arguably no more or less interesting than the rest of the park.

Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona
 

The street art scene in Barcelona is pretty wild, especially in the Gothic Quarter. I took dozens of photos — too many for an already long blog post — but here are a few works I found interesting and representative.

Barcelona Barcelona Post No Bills, Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona
 

While I explored Barcelona mostly on my own, here are all the tours I went on:

  • Sagrada Familia top views. For 29 euros you get to go up one of two towers and get an audio guide. You have to book this one at least a day or two in advance. Third party operators also provide tours, but I suspect you’re better off sticking with the official tour.
  • Free walking tour of the Gothic Quarter. This is a very well put together tour available in three languages (each with a different guide.) Even though it’s free, they do encourage tips at the end of the tour so it’s more of a pay what you want kind of thing. You don’t have to book in advance, but if there’s no space available you may not get in if you show up at the last minute.
  • Craft Tours: Barcelona Beer Tour. Who knew Barcelona has a beer scene? This is the same company as the free tour, but it costs money upfront — and includes tapas and a lot of beer. This one has to be booked in advance.
  • Craft Tours: Discover Gaudi & Modernisme. Another tour from Craft Tours that also requires booking online, this one goes into detail about the modernist architecture in Barcelona in the L’Eixample District, mostly around the time of Gaudi and his contemporaries. The tour ends after a brief Metro ride at Sagrada Familia.
  • Park Guell Monumental Zone. While Park Guell itself is completely free, the core “Monumental Zone” costs seven euros to enter, and you generally have to book in advance — though if you arrive very early in the morning it’s free. It did seem a bit overpriced, though maybe the guided tour option would be more interesting.

For more photos, see my Flickr albums for part one and part two of my Barcelona trip.

A robot barista charged me for health care

August 9th, 2017

Robot health insurance
Screenshot of the receipt
 

Robots are handling food everywhere these days. Whether delivering falafel or attempting to scoop ice cream, there’s no escape from food robots in the Bay Area. All of which is fine with me: I, for one, welcome our new robot food service overlords.

What I’m not fine with, however, are spurious surcharges. So imagine my surprise when I paid a visit to Cafe X, the robot coffee machine at the Metreon, and found a small surcharge on my bill for health care.

While it’s not uncommon for San Francisco restaurants to add a surcharge for Healthy SF, a local subsidized medical care program for those without health insurance, this is the first time a machine has charged me such a fee.

Yes, I realize human employees maintain this robot. But if you think about it, Cafe X is nothing more than a fanciful vending machine. You put money in, make a selection, and a product comes out — that’s it. All vending machines require humans to restock it, clean it, etc. but when was the last time you went to buy a Coca-Cola from one only to find that your 99 cent beverage actually cost $1.10 because of a surcharge? Never, that’s when.

It also makes me wonder if the economics of this robot food service industry are really working out. The “robot” part of Cafe X is an off-the-shelf robot arm custom programmed to move cups around, the coffee beverages themselves are prepared by off-the-shelf automatic espresso machines. If Cafe X has to nickle and dime customers to the point where the prices are in line with Blue Bottle, why wouldn’t I go to Blue Bottle instead? It’s barely a block away, and to be honest their humans not only make better coffee, but they don’t charge an extra fee for health care.

Eurotrip 2017: Itinerary and transportation costs

August 2nd, 2017

In a previous post about my trip to the Mediterranean earlier this summer, I broke down how I decided to take a month long vacation on a whim after finding out about a cheap flight directly from Oakland to Barcelona. Here, I’m going to explain where I went and how much the transportation cost at and between each location.

I’m won’t go into what I spent at each location on food, hotels, tours, etc. since unlike transportation costs that’s going to vary wildly from one person’s budget to the next. Some people can afford luxury hotels and fancy restaurants, others couch surf and make their own food — but the costs are more or less fixed when we’re talking about getting from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time. And yes, you can pay more for “first class” airfare, but why? Let’s get real, flying still sucks no matter how much money you squander on it, so don’t be an idiot.
 

Barcelona

The trip began and ended in Barcelona. I landed on June 17th, took the Aerobus to the central Plaça de Catalunya, and walked to my hotel from there. The Aerobus is very convenient, and a reasonable deal at 10.20 euros for a round trip or 5.90 one way. You can buy tickets online or at either terminal stop. I also bought a T-10 pass on the Metro for up to 10 trips for just under 10 euros. Individual rides cost about two euros, so I got an okay rate despite only using it six times total.

Fair warning that in Barcelona, the two main languages are Catalan Spanish and Castilian Spanish. Many locals don’t speak anything else, so be aware that you may have to get by with pointing at things and using basic Castilian (or English) phrases in some situations. But for buying passes on the Aerobus and the metro, English is fine.

Transportation cost: 10.20 euros ($12.08) + 10 euros ($11.84) = $23.92
 

Venice

On the 20th I left Barcelona for Venice. I took a Vueling flight for just under $71. If you’ve never flown Vueling before, it’s an absolutely no-frills discount airline based in Spain that flies throughout Europe. There’s no in-flight entertainment whatsoever on Vueling, so bring a book, magazine, movie, etc. to keep yourself entertained.

I should point out that the Venice airport isn’t on the main island (which is technically a chain of islands, but who’s counting.) From the Marco Polo airport, I took a water bus — or “vaporetto” — to the stop closest to my Airbnb. I used Alilaguna’s blue line vaporetto, which cost 15 euros for a one way trip. Tickets are sold at the airport, and you can pay by cash or credit card.

For a large group of people it may be more economical to take a water taxi, but as an individual that would have been a little pricey. Once you’re on the main island it’s very walkable, though you have the option of getting around via vaporetto or water taxi — or take a gondola ride, but that’s silly and overpriced.

Transportation cost: $71 + 15 euros ($17.71) = $88.71
 

Florence

Originally I wasn’t planning on staying in Florence, but after looking at the layout of Italy’s rail system it seemed reasonable to stop in Florence for a couple nights on my way to Rome. So I stayed at a hotel from the 23rd to the 25th right in the heart of Florence, steps away from the famous Il Duomo cathedral. The only transportation cost within the city was the wear and tear on my shoes.

How much did the rail trip cost? Well, hold on a sec. After Florence, I got on the train again to visit…
 

Rome

I bought my rail tickets all at once so I don’t have a cost breakdown, but from Venice to Florence, and then from Florence to Rome I spent $71. That’s it — all the train stations were easily walkable from where I was staying, so no additional bus, subway, taxi, etc. charges were needed. If you can, high speed rail is by far the best way to travel.

I stayed in Rome from the 25th to July 5th. Within Rome I mostly walked, although I bought a seven day bus/metro pass for 24 euros and used it when needed. Which if I’m going to be totally honest, was not very much; Rome is a very walkable city, I barely used the pass at all.

On my way to the airport, I took the not terribly fast “express” airport train for 14 euros from the main train station.

Rome/Florence transportation cost: $71 + 24 euros ($28.34) + 14 euros ($16.53) = $115.87
 

Athens and Greek islands

From Rome I took a flight to Athens on Aegean for $115 USD on July 5th. Despite what you may think, the Greek economic problems doesn’t mean everything there is cheap. That said Greece doesn’t attract as many tourists these days — most of the tours I booked wound up as personalized tours because nobody else showed up!

My Greek friend, his girlfriend, and I spent a long weekend on the island of Spetses. I also ventured out on a One Day Cruise which went from Hydra to Poros to Aegina. Combined, both the day cruise and the hydrofoil tickets to and from Spetses cost just slightly over $200 USD.

I also took a handful of trips on the Greek metro, but since I paid in cash there’s no paper trail on how much I spent. It’s only 1.40 euros per trip, I probably spent less than $15 total. Greek taxis are also fairly cheap, so maybe that’s $25 on local transit if you include the two times I took a taxi — a very liberal estimate.

Transportation cost: $115 + $200 + $25 = $340
 

Barcelona, part 2

From Athens back to Barcelona was not cheap, I wound up paying $175 for a Vueling flight. That said, flying to or from Athens isn’t cheap on any airline, and it was still cheaper to fly back to Barcelona then back to the Bay Area than to fly back from Athens directly. Besides, I very much enjoyed spending more time in Barcelona. I arrived on the 13th, heading home on the 16th.

While I had to buy another round trip on the Aerobus for another 10.20 euros, I also continued using my ten ride Barcelona metro pass. I didn’t spend anything else on transit in Barcelona.

Transportation cost: $175 + 10.20 euros ($12.04) = $186.98
 

Conclusion

Let’s add this all up:

Barcelona part 1: $23.92
Venice: $88.71
Florence and Rome: $115.87
Athens and four Greek islands: $340
Barcelona part 2: $186.98

Total European transportation expenses: $755.48

So traveling around Europe doesn’t have to be all that expensive these days. Something to think about if you’ve got a lot of vacation days saved up, or a job where you can work remotely. Wrapping it all up, here’s my takeaways about getting around in Europe on the cheap:

  • When possible, travel by high speed rail. When you have to fly, research how you’ll get to and from the airport in advance.
  • For the best deals on airfare, book as far in advance as you can; for rail you can book at the last minute and it won’t matter.
  • Compact, walkable cities are great to visit since you won’t need to spend much (if anything!) on getting around.
  • Riding public transit is usually a bargain, but don’t do what I did and pay for more than you need.
  • Google Maps is your friend! But make sure to keep your phone charged, and add labels at places your staying or traveling to so you don’t get lost.