The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men Often Go Astray

 

Vacation is all about relaxing. But sometimes, just trying to de-stress can be distressing. Why?

One main reason is that traveling involves planning. Unless you’re travel details are being planned by others, or you’re on a cruise.

And, as the saying goes, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” No matter how loose vacation plans are, every day is made up of us moving through a series of objectives—from when and what to eat, to where to go and how to get there.

Sure, part of every plan is to be prepared. And the more we plan and prepare for vacation, the greater the chances of a smoother vacation, more like what we envisioned. Unfortunately, the more plans there are, the more opportunities one might encounter hiccups and stress along your travels.

I don’t think that’s an argument for not planning and preparing. I like a well-organized vacation. But the thing is, even minor bumps in the road that would be easy enough to manage life’s curveballs when you are home. If traffic is bad, you know what side streets are best to get you home. If the Metro is delayed, you know the best place to grab a cab and still get to happy hour.

But, those same little hiccups are much different away from home. When the airline ticketing agent in Peru says a “surprise airline strike” cancelled all flights out of Cusco, which would result in missing a return flight home…well…that can derail the peaceful, easy feeling attained at Machu Picchu. It’s disruptive to a vacation when one of the major highlights of a holiday is visiting India’s Taj Mahal, and while on the way, the driver tells you the highway is closing because of violent deaths and beheadings.  (Yes, both of those personally happened to me, along with a dozen other bumps and barriers.)

My approach to handling those stressful times is simple. I address the stress in five steps. First, I recognize it. This involves the initial bit of internal freaking out, and colorful language. Then, consciously and exercising extreme self-control, I make four things happen.

1) I put the stress into perspective.
2) I roll with it.
3) I figure out options (current and future), and then—most important—
4) I get right with it.

That might sound simplistic, or written off as obvious and easy. But wait until you’re facing stress on vacation, and then move through the above.

Traveling stress free is hard, you’ve put a ton of energy, time and money into details just to get to a particularly country. On our recent trip to Spain, I admit I was initially really disappointed with our hotel arrangements. In fact, I did more prep and planning for Spain, than any other trip.

I did everything experienced travel bloggers recommend: check the hotel website, check the online reviews (especially TripAdvisor—a MUST, in my book), called to confirm specific details like a hotel shuttle to City Center were correct, etc. To this day, there are no words to describe how angry I was when the receptionist informed me that I was, in fact, misinformed about the “free” shuttle timing and cost. She got a got taste of Irish temper on that one. But, I’ll tell you now, that didn’t help the situation. Never lose it. Allow a mistake to be “recovered” and believe in the power of the social network. Again, I flag TripAdvisor.

With that in mind, I do have some additional tips that have worked for me to get me through the little curve balls and bumps in the road that happen on vacation travel.

The fact is, even when a trip is planned “by the book” things can and do go wrong. Here are my personal Six Travel Tips to “keep calm and carry on.” They are obvious, but in the heat of the moment, trust me, they are easily forgotten and can get you through to the sunnier, fun parts of enjoying your vacation.

  • Read. ReRead and Read Again. Read all the details about your travel arrangements be it airline, train or rental car. Know what happens, and more importantly, be ready to accept it if your flight is canceled or if your car gets returned a day late.
  • Be kind. Most of the time, the person you want to scream at is not responsible for the problem at hand. Be compassionate because it’s not their fault and they could be the person to get you out of your current predicament. (Confession, I am guilty of violating this rule more than I want to admit. But, I’m learning and getting better each time I travel)
  • Cash is King. In this current age of debit and credit cards, we rarely carry actual currency. When I travel, I always make sure I, and anyone else with me, carries $50 of local currency. Not every store, or restaurant in developing countries takes plastic. More importantly, sometimes when you’re super lost and the smartest thing to do is get a taxi. Period.
  • Keep in touch with the home front. Being the owner of two dogs, we obviously can’t take them oversees with us. Unfortunately, we don’t have DropCam, but we do make sure our friend and pet sitting hero posts TONS of pictures of the fur babies to Instagram. (Let’s face it if you can’t DropCam, Instagram is the next best thing).
  • Don’t open your wallet in the middle of a street. Seriously, you wouldn’t just whip out your wallet while walking down 5th Avenue so why on earth would you do that in Piccadilly Circus?
  • Mind the carry on. If you are heading to the airport or getting on a train, your carry on bag should always have: money, passport, credit cards, hand sanitizer, a clean t-shirt and underwear, toothbrush and toothpaste, journal, and a good book because you just never know. The rest is up to you.
  • Be a copycat. If you travel alone, make copies of your itinerary and travel documents (passport, visa, etc.) and leave it with a reliable (and accessible) friend, or family member. If you know the phone numbers and email addresses where you are staying, include them in the itinerary. I did this when I went to Nepal and it was a huge help concerning a family emergency. (Of course there is always Facebook and email, but consider it an “added level” of security).

Did you know that April is Stress Free Month? Am I the only one who considers that ironic, since it’s also the month taxes are due. What is your worst travel nightmare? Did you handle it successfully? What was your lesson? Have a tip of your own to share?

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Packing for Spain: Don’t Overthink It

Even the most experienced traveler can get packing anxiety. You know: that moment the night before leaving, when everything is laid out on the bed next to your suitcase, and you realize it can’t possibly ALL fit. Or, even worse, you come this realization when only half of your clothes are laid out with the other half in the laundry.

Before Spain, my last big trip was to Peru and the Inca Trail. Packing for that trip was relatively easy because the trail strictly enforces the amount of weight porters can carry. Sure, it’s still possible to get carried away with gear (or “crap” depending on your point of view) you want to take, but it is kept in check by what you are willing to carry in the pack on your back. Thankfully this wasn’t an issue with our trip to Spain. But in a way, the “sky’s the limit” (along with airline weight limits) actually increased my anxiety.

When it comes to travel, my packing philosophy is simple: take what you truly think you will need, and always leave a little room for what you might pick up along the way. Now, there are a thousand and one blogs about the art, theories and strategies of packing. And it really is an art. Plus, it appeals to the OCD side of me. But I digress. What I’ll share are two over-arching, “umbrella” thoughts that are a good approach.

With that in mind, my first umbrella recommendation is straightforward. Pack minimally and wisely. Instead of packing to fill space, focus on the least possible number of things. If you ask “what can I take away,” then by default you are packing wisely.

In the checked bag: one sweater, one cozy, one cardigan, five t-shirts, two lightweight long-sleeve shirts, two fancy shirts, one pair of cords, one pair of khaki's, one pair of trouser jeans. Not pictured: three pairs of shoes: one pair of ballet flats, one pair of loafers and one pair of wedges.
In the checked bag: one sweater, one cozy, one cardigan, five t-shirts, two lightweight long-sleeve shirts, two fancy shirts, one pair of cords, one pair of khaki’s, one pair of trouser jeans. Not pictured: three pairs of shoes: one pair of ballet flats, one pair of loafers and one pair of wedges.

Wisely, for me, also means think “weather” first. I am always cold when I travel. So I bring scarves and usually a sweater even when the forecasts suggest high 80s, or above.

My second umbrella recommendation is to know what you want. By that, I mean identify those one or two critical, must have, go-to items that you need and use on travel. For me, it’s my bazillion year old Gap trench coat that almost always folds into my suitcase. The (mostly) wrinkle-free coat is a black, classic style that blocks the rain and wind in case temperatures plummet, voila, my dress up/dress down extra layer!

I have read other bloggers interpretations of “minimal” as packing five things, hoping on a plane, and buying whatever else they need in country. That is minimal but it doesn’t appeal to my environmental (why buy more clothes if you have what you need at home?) or financial (hello, it’s expensive to buy new clothes) sensibilities. If it works for you, go with it.

Spain was forecast to be in the high 70s with sun the entire duration of our trip. Unfortunately, that changed when we arrived. I made do with the above but would have preferred more sweaters than t-shirts. But yet again, that Gap trench was a lifesaver when it rained most of the time we were in Barcelona. Rule: Read more than the guidebook’s summation of weather over the past decade. Pull up weather reports online. For that matter, check out the local news. (ah, my travels to India. Sigh. A future blog.)

For overseas travel, I always use this massive L.L.Bean tote bag as my carry-on. It’s got a zipper so items won’t fall out in transit, and you’re not an easy mark for pickpockets. It’s large enough for souvenirs that I pick up along the way. Inside the tote there’s also my camera bag (doubles as a backpack, and my travel around town tourist “bag.” I rarely bother with a handbag when travelling for pleasure), my journal, guide-book, tissue, hand sanitizer and my sleep kit.

The trusty L.L.Bean "carry on" tote. Never leave home without mine!
The trusty L.L.Bean “carry on” tote. I never leave home without mine!
Wondering what a "sleep kit" is? Wonder no more! It's my own blanket, socks, eye mask and tooth brush.
Wondering what a “sleep kit” is? Wonder no more! It’s my own blanket, socks, eye mask and tooth brush.

Been to Spain? How did you pack?

(Editors note: any brand names in this post are my personal favorites—Especially L.L. Bean—and none represent paid endorsement).

 

My all purpose camera/travel bag.
My all purpose camera/travel bag.

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Palau de la Música

If you enjoy wandering around foreign cities without an agenda like we do on holiday, there’s a chance you might overlook Palau de la Música in the Old Town neighborhood of Barcelona. That would be a big mistake.

The red-brick exterior features colorful tile work that can easily be mistaken for Gaudí. But the Music Hall is the work of Lluís Domènech i Montaner.  And the music hall is an acknowledged “architectural jewel of Catalan Art Nouveau.” The title is well earned rather than the usual promotional puffery encountered.

While beautiful, this tile work is something you'll blow by in Barcelona if you don't pay attention.
A street level view of the title work outside Palau de la  Musica. Be sure to look up, some of the most intricate tile work is above street level.

The guided tour is a must so that you understand the full concept—from the exterior tile work to the mosaics and busts of famous composers. But, the real gem—the grand finale (and it is a BIG payoff) is the auditorium. Specifically, it’s the ceiling. A massive inverted dome of stained glass, depicting angelic choristers. Below the stained glass lies the audience and stage, with sculptures of Wagner and Clave framing a massive organ.

A longview of the Palau's auditorium, showing the stained glass dome and stage.
A longview of the Palau’s auditorium, showing the stained glass dome and stage.

The thing is, although it’s visually stunning, everything that was done, every element of the overall design had an eye for the ear. And anyone lucky enough to get a chance to attend a concert (tons of artists play this intimate hall) will attest that there’s not a bad seat in the house. Besides, with views like this, who needs to see the stage?

The charm of the auditorium goes beyond the stained glass dome. The concern hall is the only European hall lit entirely by natural light. That may not jump off the screen as you read this but when you visit, the hall is mesmerizing. You can tell there was considerable thought put into designing the building in a way that would maximize light.

These extra large windows help bring more natural light into the concert hall.
These extra large windows help bring more natural light into the concert hall.

Tours are about an hour and a total delight. When you arrive in the concert hall, you do hear an organ recording to demonstrate the acoustics. While this is a bit cheeky compared to a true performance, don’t knock it. Gimmicky, yes? But travelers with open minds will walk away with a deep appreciation for the acoustics and awesome genius behind the design.

More than anything, I would recommend trying to see a performance at the Palau de la Música. It will give you the opportunity to see the concert hall in all its glory. You can check out the performance schedule on their website. Tickets for general tours can be purchased online.

While Palau de la Música has a café and restaurant, I wouldn’t recommend this as a stop for food or drink. It’s overpriced and the service was uninspired. Instead, just a few short blocks away you can visit a little hole in the wall named La Casa del Vermut.

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Sagrada Familia Gallery

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Although still under construction, Sagrada Familia is a UNESCO world heritage site and rightly so. Here is a small sampling of images from this fabulous Cathedral in Barcelona. If you have been, please leave a comment with a link to your own photos and stories.

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Inside Sagrada Familia

I have a confession. Before going to Spain, I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce Gaudí. A friend who had just returned from Barcelona riffed off an email with places to eat, a fabulous shop for local shoes and then said, ‘you’ll probably only have time for one Gaudí so make it Sagrada Família.’ Hmm, certainly sounded scrumptious. Yes, I would seek out this restaurant, run by the Sagradas, and be sure to order a Gaudí.

Turns out, Gaudí is not a food. It’s a person and he was one of Spain’s most famous figures of the 1800s. An artist, and Catalan architect (and interior designer), Gaudí is the “figurehead of Catalan Modernism.” He has a very distinct, organic style, by which I mean his work was heavily rooted in nature. As far as architects go, his work is a feast for the eyes.

His creations are widely thought to play off of his passions: architecture, nature and religion. It’s like, turn a corner on a regular street and suddenly…is that building melting? And, Gaudí’s architecture isn’t just steel or stone, because he combines ceramics, stained glass, wrought ironwork forging and carpentry, and meshes these into shapes inspired by the natural world. The effect is simultaneously jarring and soothing.

Sagrada Familia. Stunning.
Sagrada Familia. Stunning.

Much of Gaudi’s architecture is concentrated in Barcelona, which brings a certain element of otherworldly magic to the city that is hard to describe but wonderful to experience. From what I understand, people either love Gaudí, or don’t.

If that is true, then Sagrada Família is the best demonstration of his vision, talent and where you would fall in love with him. If there’s one signature work to visit of his while you’re in Barcelona this is it. Be warned, it’s still being built.

Borrowed from various sources, Sagrada Família is considered an architectural evolution. While I know about as much about architecture as I do art, I wholeheartedly agree. Think nature meets neo-gothic…like a church growing out of the ground.

Gaudí began working on the Cathedral in 1915, and spent the rest of his life (he died June 7, 1926) devoted to it. The Sagrada Família has a cruciform plan, with a five-aisled nave, a transept of three aisles, and an apse with seven chapels. It has three facades dedicated to the birth, passion and glory of Jesus, and when completed (note: that’s a key point) it will have eighteen towers: four at each side making a total of twelve for the apostles, four on the transept invoking the evangelists and one on the apse dedicated to the Virgin, plus the central tower in honor of Jesus, which will reach 170 meters (560 ft) in height.

Stamps on my Passport
A great demonstration of Gaudi’s style.

Travel Tips: While the Cathedral is jammed packed, this is truly the “don’t miss/must see” attraction in Barcelona. And I say that for the spiritual and non-spiritual alike. A few mandatories:

  • Purchase a ticket ahead of time online. The lines are HUGE, wrapping around the cathedral, for those who did not get tickets in advance.
  • Make sure your ticket includes the Basilica and and Tower. There are a two towers, each has perceived pros and cons. I won’t bias you.
  • Be on time; the admissions folks are ultra strict about prompt entrance and you don’t want to miss your window of opportunity, especially if you are visiting one of the Towers. BTW, this also means don’t show up too early. We arrived 15 minutes ahead of time and were told to exit the line and enter then.
  • Plan to spend a few hours, either exploring, taking photographs, participating in a tour or simply just sitting quietly.

When Barcelona’s residents complained that construction was taking too long, Gaudí is said to have quipped: “My client is not in a hurry.” He had a reputation for not suffering fools. When he died in 1926, the basilica was only about 20 percent complete. After Gaudí’s death, work continued until interrupted by the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Parts of the unfinished basilica and Gaudí’s models and workshop were destroyed and the present design a reconstructed version of his vision.

Construction is now funded by visitors and the final Cathedral is projected to be complete around 2026, the centennial of Gaudí’s death. However, we noticed that other information states 2028. For anyone who has personally experienced the charms of Spain, the humor is not lost. But, I’m guessing that if it’s not complete, they’ll make it look finished in 2026.

Inside the Sagrada Family. A feast for your eyes.
Inside the Sagrada Family. A feast for your eyes.

While writing this, I saw Paul Steel’s post and thought he had some really beautiful photos. Interestingly, i struggled with the same question (to comment or not on the ongoing construction of Sagrada Família and Spain’s overall work ethic.) Ultimately, I think we both agreed, like any country, the stereotype is personified. The people we met in Spain were friendly, hard working. I wouldn’t want to come off as disrespectful. And I am careful not to diminish new friendships by holding on to an old stereotype. I mean, I would hate for people to judge me based on what they read about Washington DC.

 

 

Museu Picasso

The Picasso Museum in Barcelona has got to be one of the most heavily trafficked attractions in Catalonia. The museum itself is located in the Old Town area, spanning a series of adjoining rooms. These rooms run across several houses described as “medieval palaces.” They didn’t strike me as palaces, but I supposed by European standards at the time these were quite large. I’d say they were mansions. But it’s what these mansions contain that makes the place a constant thrum.

When you visit this museum, don’t expect to see many works from Picasso’s blue or rose periods. But I promise, you will not be disappointed. There are only a few of those on display. You also won’t see what many consider his greatest single work, Guernica.

Picasso's Guernica (image compliments of Wikipedia)
Picasso’s Guernica (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Instead, this museum spans his lifetime of work, showing the progression of his artistry. Think of it as a tasting menu that begins in a master chef’s teens, and ends with their signature dish. Pieces were donated by Picasso’s friend, Jaime Sabartes. After Sabartes passed away, Picasso himself donated more paintings including an abundance of his early works. His family has since donated other works.

This is where even the most non-art-inclined person (that would be me) can appreciate his talent. As you walk through the rooms from front to back, you’ll see sketches and paintings beginning in his teenage years and progressing to another of his greatest works. But seeing his early work is impactful because by the age of 15 his talent is clear.

An early sketch of Picasso's "Science and Charity," before he painted the canvas (image courtesy of http://fr.wahooart.com)
Picasso’s “Science and Charity,” before he completed the the canvas, shows his considerable talent at 15 (image courtesy of http://fr.wahooart.com).

Outside of this collection of paintings, and in many ways most impressive, the museum also includes all 44 pieces of Las Meninas, inspired by the Velázquez masterpiece of the same name. What I loved about these paintings (and they are the most famous on display at the museum) is that it shows all the work, and planning, and consideration that is involved in a painting. What goes where, how each piece is portrayed in position, mood and color is all broken out…it’s like seeing each rewrite of Hamlet’s soliloquy.

Picasso's Las Meninas, a highlight of the museum.
Picasso’s Las Meninas, a highlight of the museum.

As I said, this is the most popular room, and it’s what is basically the end of the exhibit. By then, I was pretty overwhelmed, and the room was crowded. In fact, the rooms that house the study of Las Meninas, and the piece itself, are elbow to elbow with people. For background on Velázquez and his connection to these Picasso works, refer to my previous post on The Prado.

For comparison, Velazquez own Las Meninas.
For comparison, Las Meninas by Velazquez.
 
Travel Tip: If you are planning to visit the Picasso Museum, a few suggestions. Buy tickets ahead of time—as I have mentioned before, many of these museums have tickets online. The line for people without ticket is incredibly long and you will spend a  nice chunk of your morning or afternoon snaking your way to the ticket counter. You can roll the dice and try going at noon for a slightly shorter line, but I don’t recommend it. I do encourage a visit during traditional siesta hours, as it is comparatively less crowded.
 
Photographs are not permitted in the museum, however it is not strictly enforced. What will get you in trouble quicker than a New York minute is using flash. It’s frowned upon by tourist and guide alike, but using a smart phone to click a photo is possible. I suggest respecting the guidelines (which I did) and purchasing postcards in the gift shop.
 
I would also strongly recommend purchasing the audio tour. It’s informative and a great way to occupy time hearing about the works while waiting your turn to get in front of the paintings. In fact, across Spain, when you’re at these museums the audio tour makes your visit a lot more enjoyable. It’s worth it, and we were never disappointed by a single audio tour.

 

Because Picasso left Barcelona for Paris in his early twenties, we non-art enthusiasts may forget his Spanish heritage and think a museum like this is out of place Barcelona. He did in fact return to the city several times. However, after the Civil War his opposition to Franco kept him in France, where he continued to paint and design for the Barcelona College of Architects. Franco was later persuaded to allow the city to open this museum.

Chocolate Lovers Only

When we told friends we were visiting Barcelona, quite a few asked us if we were visiting the Chocolate Museum. In retrospect, this kind of question could be rephrased “are you hitting tourist traps, or looking for more “authentic” things to do?” I’m not judging a traveler’s preference either way, because some tourist traps are still must-see destinations. But every traveler is familiar with the feeling they get, either right away, or in creeping recognition that they have stumbled into a “tourist trap.” This “museum” absolutely falls into the category a.

When you walk in to the Chocolate museum, the “gift area” is actually the front lobby, where you get your ticket (it’s actually a chocolate bar). Visitors exit just on the other side of the square display case that sells all kinds of chocolate. As it turns out, this museum was put together by the chocolate industry, and it does have that “PR feel.” That said, there was no other museum we went to where visitors were that visibly excited. In short, if you’re a chocolate lover, you won’t care that it’s a tourist trap, and this museum will delight you to no end.

A collection of vintage chocolate posters. I love vintage art, so these spoke to me.
A collection of vintage chocolate posters. I love vintage art, so these spoke to me.

Maybe it’s the equivalent of a PR puff pastry, but it is fun, and there are some interesting elements. Chocolate is deeply intertwined with the history of Catalonia, and Barcelona was a major entry point of chocolate into Europe. Catalonians are very proud of this part of their heritage, so it makes sense that this museum is in Barcelona. I wish they’d spent more time on that part of the history.

Some of the historical information about chocolate that you will find throughout the museum.
Some of the historical information about chocolate that you will find throughout the museum.

Having spent some time working on behalf of a major chocolate company, i am pretty well versed in the history of cacao and its benefits. They could do a lot more with the museum, because chocolate and its history is truly fascinating. I’m not a subject expert, but since i knew the majority of what they were talking about this museum couldn’t keep my attention. The most interesting thing for me were the chocolate sculptures that adorn this self-guided museum.

Yeah, all chocolate. One of the chocolate sculptures on display. It's solid chocolate.
Yeah, all chocolate.
One of the chocolate sculptures on display. It’s solid chocolate.

Mr Os was not quite as skeptical about the museum but wholeheartedly agreed it’s on the touristy side. If you are visiting the Picasso museum, this could be a quick before or after stop. It’s roughly a 10 minute walk down the street and there are a lot of interesting shops and tapas restaurants along the way. But rest assured, as with almost everything in Barcelona, Catalonians will charge an entry fee. After a while, it’s almost charming. Which is probably how I’d sum up this museum…unless you’re a chocolate lover.