Your First Trip to Paris June 6 -13, 2016

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Part 3: Adventures in Barcelona, Provence and Carcassonne - Summer 2014

Back in the mid-nineties I was on a Mediterranean cruise, and Montserrat and her Black Madonna was one of the tour offerings.  My friends opted for La Rambla and shopping, but I always knew someday I'd visit her.  She is known as La Moreneta (Little Dark Skinned One) and is the patroness of Catalonia.  These days she is encased in glass high over the altar and there is mass at 11 every day.

I climbed into the funicular with my group of people.  I'm sure we were all saying a quick prayer to the Virgin, but it was truly glorious because we ascended up and over the hills, the church bells rang , calling us to church just like it had for hundreds of years.  They were loud and clear, and echoed through the hills, and was really quite moving.  Plus you're slowly floating across on a cable.  There are two cable cars, and it's relatively quite quick, and the air was cool and clean,  not at all like the overwhelming humidity of Barcelona. 

I was always under the assumption that you could only up to the monastery or take the cable car, so was kind of shocked to see a large group of cyclists, and although you come in through this 'tourist area', it's not really quite a monastery like I had imagined.  You're let off at street level and there is only one street with a lovely view of the valley, a café, on the opposite side the church, monastery and museum . 

The courtyard of the church is rather small, and there was a line queued up at one side, I believe to see the Black Madonna herself.  Since I could, and had heard the church bells, I knew mass had started, I went into the church.  It was a lot larger and filled to the back where I stood.  It was solemn and lovely, complete a large group of clergy and their own boys choir.  Everything reverberated and the Black Madonna watched from high above the altar encased in glass. 

Outside the church there is a small room where you can purchase a few things like notecards and holy cards, run on the honor system of you leaving the money as there is no attendant.  Camera, though.

There is also an art museum with a Picasso and a lovely gift shop, but mainly the gift shop is for the museum.  (You'll find a few Gaudi items in there as well, but the nicest selection of Gaudi is outside the Sagrada Familia.)

Other than that, it's pretty sparse with a few vendors on the street,  near the entrance to get back on the funicular. If you walk to where the street meets the mountains, there are some lovely statues and I saw folks with hiking gear, heading into the hills from there.

I also noticed the road going down, and later learned it's where the village is, so it's not quite as isolated as I thought, and also makes sense that there would be a village outside of the monastery's walls.  Even though there was a road, I did not see any cars. 

After my brief visit, the sky started getting dark, and I was determined to get back down as soon as possible.  We were about halfway across the valley when it started raining, light at first, but by the time I got to the rural train stop (outside with a small covered area) it was pouring. 

I have no idea how long I waited but it was a good while before the train going the right direction showed up, and I somehow had a great idea to get off to change trains to skip going into town before going to the airport.  That was a really dumb idea, and it was weirdly surreal, as I got off at the stop, took the elevator up which landed me smack in the middle of a cement square in the between apartment buildings in a rough part of town.  I could not see anything train related.  So I went back down into the subway.  Of course, I didn't have the right amount of change, and since this was a stop, there were no attendants, just a guy sweeping.  I don't speak Spanish, but they really don't speak Spanish either but Catalan, so I just said 'aeropuerto' which, in some language, means airport.  He pointed back to the elevator and then motioned in a direction across the cement courtyard.  Anyway, as I was walking that way, a train went by across street, and I followed the fence until I got in, only the get on the wrong train...which completely skipped the airport exit, and I had to do the lost tourist maneuver of getting off at the next stop, crossing over, waiting for the next train, that actually said airport on its front window.  Mind you, this was a train

That worked, and then I was let off into a giant terminal, El Prat de Llobregat, of course, one that you had to use your ticket to get out of.  Remember that!  You never know when you're going to need that ticket, but it seems like it's more of a train thing, than a metro one.  Although I have seen the metro police quizzing people about tickets.  I did find out that you can buy one metro ticket that is good for 10 trips, and that is a real time saver to get to town, and I even helped a kid out whose friends had gotten in, but his ticket wouldn't work.  When I left, I still had trips on it, and handed it to someone in the train/metro station on my last trip. 

So, I finally got back to the airport, and back to my hotel.  There was a convenience store/gas station around the corner from my hotel where I picked up some bottles of water. 

Part 2: Adventures in Barcelona, Provence and Carcassonne - Summer 2014

So, you do have options, depending on how brave or comfortable you are, because it is very different than where I come from in Fresno, California.  We don't have a metro, although I'm quite comfortable with the underground after years of going to Paris, and we don't pay tolls on the highways or utilize roundabouts.  But, we'll talk more about that and the price of gas a little later, but first,  this section will be about getting back and forth from Montserrat, home of the Black Madonna. 

It was my one free day, and on my bucket list was a trip to Montserrat.  If you want to go there or anywhere, do your research, but often it is hard to come by or timely, as I found out.  I was on a website that hadn't been updated in about a year, and thought that would be current enough information, but it wasn't. 

I bought my overpriced ticket to Passeig de Gracia and was blessed with a beautiful early morning sunny view of Casa Battlo.  Absolutely breathtaking.  Speaking of breathtaking, just a warning and reminder that the humidity can stifling, especially if you're not used to. 

Anyway, I walked down to the next stop enjoying the view, Plaça Catalunya got there, and nada.  Yes, there is an underground train stop, but no wonderful kiosk of Montserrat information and the direct train to the hamlet of Montserrat up in the mountains.  Finally a ticket booth opened up, and the man directed me to yet another train stop, Plaça Espana .

Of course, when I got off, I'm at a enormous roundabout with a beautiful sculpture , but the area was pretty much devoid of people, and I  pretty much no idea where I was.  Fortunately, this was a lovely area, but my return I found myself in less affluent neighborhoods that were a little rough and worn.  Looking around, I saw a small information booth that was opened and manned, not far from where I had popped out of the underground train stop.  There were a few tour buses about as well, but only one couple at the kiosk ahead of me.  The young man was nice and friendly and  told me 'orange' and pointed across the street when I asked for the train spot.  Seems one entrance was the train spot, and where I got out, maybe, the metro?  Worked for me.  He gave me a Montserrat brochure  and I crossed over a few streets to the orange sign that was the train station departing (I think) only for Montserrat and destinations on that track.

There was a man who could help and direct you, and I'm sure he heard the same  questions over and over, pointing people to the machine where you buy your train ticket, and it seemed to me that it only came back and forth from direction Montserrat.  You also have a choice to include the  air funicular to the town, or something else, walk perhaps?  I can't remember, and even though I was nervous about the funicular, I ended up with that ticket.  And really, I was so glad I did! 

The only downside on the trip up was a cackling ugly American.  Yes, I had to say it.  I think she had with her two or three teen age girls, and trying to be one of them, she'd howl with laughter that resonated through our whole car.  It was awful.  I don't know where they got off, must have been the walk up spot that was the next stop.  Anyway, once you see the funicular, two small yellow cars, going in opposite directions, over a deep valley, you have something else to focus on.  You get dropped off on the side of the tracks, and walk under them to the other side and through the building.  About sixteen people fit in the car, and you take off up the mountainside of Montserrat, that means just that: serrated.

Part 1: Adventures in Barcelona, Provence and Carcassonne - Summer 2014

Another fabulous trip, where I drove us from Barcelona to Provence and back in the course of twelve days.  We visited beaches and lavender fields, lovely historic villages and towns, wonderful antiquities and food, and even some rock and roll.  We had some ups and downs, but mostly a lot of turnarounds and roundabouts. The section tells you about arriving and some transportation options from the airport BCN. The tour started on Wednesday, June 25 and we returned home July 7, Monday.
I arrived in Barcelona on Monday ahead of my guests, flying into London Heathrow, a place I detest and avoid flying through.  I had returned home through there a few years ago, and it seemed to have greatly improved in efficiency, so I took a chance with a stop there as British Air is partnered with Iberian Air, that gets you to Barcelona.  It had been over 10 years when I landed there this time since I had vowed not to, and I wish I could say it was a great experience, it was once again, trying.  The whole screening process from landing to getting to your next plane is literally jammed-packed and the agents delighted in going literally as slow as possible, baiting you, especially if you're in a hurry.  And rude, always so incredibly rude and hateful.  Really, don't say anything, next thing you know you'll be surrounded by guys with guns.  Ha, I digress, but truly, if you're traveling avoid Heathrow, you will be so glad you did. 
On that note, I arrived in Barcelona in little or no time from London.  The airport is called El Prat de Lobregat.  Actually, that is the name of the nearby suburb of Barcelona.  Take note of this if you're planning on using the train/metro system to and from the airport.  I hadn't been to Barcelona since the aforementioned irritating experience, and the airport has grown a giant parking structure, that I don't recall at all.  But, nonetheless, once you realize how simple the airport is to maneuver, you'll be a pro. 
Our hotel was located near the airport and offered free shuttle service to and from the airport, and I chose it for this reason as I had driven in Barcelona before and was going to wait until the last minute to pick up our vehicle as I had previously experienced their big city traffic.  I always use Europcar as it generally gives free mileage, and is reasonably priced. 
There are two terminals at the BCN airport with a huge multilevel parking garage, also bus stops, but I'll get to that in a moment.  Arriving at the airport via plane,  you're on Terminal 1, departing you're on terminal 2.  They're small, kind of non-descript, with a few stores.  On the arrival level, it's kind of the same, but once you go through the gates onto the plane, it turns into a gorgeous indoor mall complete with designer stores.  You can take the free green bus to get you from one to the other and the train stop.
Arriving terminal , if you continue straight (you'll already have picked up your bags), you'll go into a giant covered walkway that walks across the parking lot/parking garage and if you take the elevator down, you'll be at the spot where the shuttles come to pick up guests.  You can go immediately right and go down to get a taxi.  Go a little further ahead of you, and to the right you'll see the car rentals inside booths, and a walkway to go down to the buses at ground level.  IMPORTANT!  The green bus is free and takes you to the next terminal, so if you're at terminal 1 it takes you to terminal 2.
When you arrive, you have about three options, that you should have planned out before you got there. I utilized all three, and felt comfortable with all of them. 
  • Hotel Shuttle:  We stayed at the Tryp Hotel, and it was maybe 2-3 miles from the airport at the most, and included free shuttle service.  This would be handy when I rented my car as well.  To get to the train station, go inside the terminal and take the free green bus to Terminal 2.  To get to the shuttle stop, use the long walkway from Terminal 1, directly ahead of you when you arrive.  Take the elevator down to ground level.  Different shuttles come and go, and ours was pretty efficient.  Check with your hotel for hours and details.  You might have to call your arrival in.
  • Car Rental:  We picked up our 6 speed Renault Scenic, early evening Wednesday, and arrived at our hotel rather smoothly.  The only scary part was the fact it was brand new with only 1000 miles on it, and white.  It was more of an SUV than a van, so no matter who you are, (if you can do it - I never can seem to) pack light, pack small, save room in your suitcase.  This had room for two medium sized suitcases and two small, but it was very nice.  If you're weird about manual transmissions, just note that you will pay more for an automatic.  European cars are primarily manual, it saves gas, and seems to be made for using the roundabouts more efficiently.  We were directed to go one floor down, and across.  The parking lot is divided into half guest parking, half car rental places.  The car rentals are on the far side getting off the elevator, (this is where my Europcar was anyway), and the two lots are divided by barriers, so you do have to walk over to that part of the garage.  No picking up at the elevator.  When returning it, follow the airport signs and drop off was super easy. 
  • Train/Metro:  Ok, this is where you need to be careful moneywise.  There is a tourist scam/misunderstanding.  Yes, this is a train station, but you can also consider it a metro stop as it is on the same line and you can use the same ticket to get there.  One you pay a small amount for the other you pay a larger amount, but they do the same thing.  Here's how I learned it  My first trip I wanted to go back and forth into Barcelona, and bought a train ticket for that for about 5to Passeig de Gracia where Gaudi's  Casa Battlo is, but found out later that I could buy ten tickets for like 11€ that covered the same territory/same train! (This is one ticket, but counts down.  It's fabulous!)  To get there from the airport.  Go to Terminal 2, take the long walkway and you'll end up at the train station.  You can buy tickets in a machine, or ticket window if it's open.  Have change.  Always have change.  Just send it through the ticketholder, it will pop up, and the door will open.  Don't forget to take it with you. Sometimes you do have to use it to get out as well or instead. I did take some unexpected detours, so watch where you're going and stick to your plan.