SW19

The following morning my stomach was feeling better, but my voice was getting hoarser as a consequence of me literally coughing all night long.  So as one ailment ends another one starts.  Why can’t I catch a break?  At least I’m able to start eating real food again which was a big relief.  Then again, we are in England, so perhaps it doesn’t really matter food-wise…

The initial plan was to wake up super early and somehow find my way down to Wimbledon to stand in the queue, but instead I enjoyed a couple more hours of desperately needed sleep.  I was a little bummed that I couldn’t try to go for a Centre Court or any other show court ticket, but I figured even visiting the grounds and watching the matches from Henman Hill (now christened Murray Mound) would be a great experience.  So after finishing off the dinner rolls I had bought, it was off to the first stop of the day – The Shard.

Europe's tallest building - for the moment.

Europe’s tallest building – for the moment.

The Shard is a skyscraper by Renzo Piano on London’s South Bank near the London Bridge station.  Because of London’s relatively low skyline, this building stands out even from afar, accentuated by the fact that there are no tall buildings on the south bank of the Thames.  I suppose The Shard earned its name from its distinctive shape and all-glass cladding.  Having been working in the tall building industry for over two years now, it always fascinates me to determine how other companies design tall buildings.  A building with a shape like The Shard makes me wonder: do the exterior columns slope or do they transfer?  Those are the only two options to accommodate a tapering shape, and sloping columns have always caused us headaches in our designs.  I guess only Arup (you’ll be hearing that name a lot) knows…

A little over 1000 feet tall.

A little over 1000 feet tall.

Architecturally, I do like the design in that it isn’t simply a glass box (even though glass boxes can be beautiful – SOM basically invented the glass box).  There is enough variety in its massing and facade detailing but it still sports clean lines.  There is an observation deck at the top, but the entrance fee is 25 pounds.  Yes, you heard me right – equivalent to 40 USD.  That is way too expensive!  Sears is about $25 to go up to an observation deck nearly 400 feet higher than The Shard.  Granted, Empire State Building commands $40, but that is for both of its observation decks, also at higher elevations than The Shard, and at least it has the historical grandeur to justify that price.  Needless-to-say, I didn’t go up.

Such skinny columns at the base.

Such skinny columns at the base.

Someone did tell me that the bar in The Shard on the 31st floor is quite decent and still provides a decent view of the city.  Perhaps next time…

Staring up to the heavens.

Staring up to the heavens.

A short walk across London Bridge (no, not the original – that resides at Lake Havasu in Arizona) and I enter the area known as The City.  While Canary Wharf (SOM masterplan) is the new financial center of London (and arguably the world), The City came before it, and even today it is still humming with activity from busy financiers dressed in their pin-striped suits.  Like New York City’s Midtown and Lower Manhattan, London has enough economic clout to warrant two financial districts.

The monument to the Great Fire of London.

The monument to the Great Fire of London.

On my way to the Monument tube stop, I had to stop by to see what this tall building was about because it just looked…bizarre.  Almost like a walkie-talkie.  Later this summer, the building became notorious for essentially melting a car parked at its base.  This was because the glass panels on its concave face were reflecting the sunlight for about two hours and basically turned into a giant laser beam.  Funnily enough, the architect is Rafael Viñoly who also designed the Aria Center in Las Vegas which – surprise! – also suffered from a death ray mishap.  These silly architects…

A bizarre-looking tower nearing completion.  Eventually it caused this phenomenon.

Aka the Walkie-Talkie Tower, the Walkie-Scorchie Tower, or the Fryscraper.

Now why was I in The City when I’m not even in the financial services industry?  Well, some people in the office suggested that I stop by our London office to check it out and say hi to the people there, so I arranged a time to meet with the head guy there to see what it’s like.  Getting there, though, was really confusing.  Coming out of the Old Street Tube stop, I faced not one but EIGHT exits because lo-and-behold, the Tube stop was underneath a roundabout.  And to further exacerbate things, none of the streets in London are on a grid.  At least in Chicago, most streets are linear and orthogonal (ahem, Lincoln, Clybourn, and Milwaukee, why you have to mess up the grid system?) so you can find your bearings pretty quickly.  In London, streets have been growing more organically over the past couple hundred years a la Boston, so unless there’s a known landmark or the weather decides to not be cloudy and you can locate the sun, you’re stuck in a maze.  But I digress…

The entrance courtyard to the soon-to-be old SOM office.

The entrance courtyard to the soon-to-be old SOM office.

Our London office isn’t as gargantuan as Chicago or even San Francisco, but they still have about 100 employees.  The structures group is only three people (two engineers, one drafter), so they do rely on help from Chicago when things get very busy.  Even though we are one company, we operate rather independently of each other, and it was neat to see what projects the London office tends to feature vs. Chicago and San Francisco.  After chatting for a bit, I let them get back to work (hey, I’m on vacation – don’t put me to work) and we agreed to meet up the following night when several current and former SOM structural engineers meet up once a month.  It also coincided with July 4th, so perfect opportunity to flaunt my American patriotism against their Royalist tyranny.

The City is full of modern architecture, and two of SOM’s most important buildings are located just a stone’s throw away from the office.  The first one that I always hear mentioned around the Chicago office is Broadgate Tower.

The exterior of Broadgate was actually featured in Skyfall as part of the Shanghai fight scene.

The exterior of Broadgate was actually featured in Skyfall as part of the Shanghai fight scene.

The courtyard between the podium and the tower is punctuated by these braces that seem to form in arc in placement.  I later found out it was because there is a set of train tracks running underneath the site that curves, hence the placement.

Brace yourselves!

Brace yourselves!

SOM London will actually be moving into Broadgate sometime next year.  Pretty awesome to have an office in a building you actually designed!

SOM London will actually be moving into Broadgate sometime next year. Pretty awesome to have an office in a building you actually designed!

The brace connections look so clean and uncluttered.

The brace connections look so clean and uncluttered.

Now that is one giant base plate.

Now that is one giant base plate.

Directly across the street from Broadgate is Exchange House, probably Bill Baker’s favorite SOM building after Burj.  Why?  Well, the building spans across the tracks leading to Liverpool Station further south, so the building is essentially a giant bridge.  Arch bridge, to be exact.

Exchange House across the street from Broadgate.

Exchange House across the street from Broadgate.

One of the primary arches landing on its footing.

One of the primary arches landing on its footing.

Bill is obsessed with optimization, and Exchange House is an example of how the material needed in the compression arch is equivalent to the material needed in the tension ties supporting the floors.  It’s really beyond my comprehension, so let’s just say they saved a bunch of material…or so they claim.

It's hard to imagine that such a relatively small arch can support that many floors across that great of a span.

It’s hard to imagine that such a relatively small arch can support that many floors across that great of a span.

With the SOM buildings out of the way, it was time to explore the other famous structures in The City.  First up: Lloyds of London.

Apparently also called the Inside-Out Building.

Apparently also called the Inside-Out Building.

Richard Rodgers designed this as the concrete equivalent to the Centre Pompidou in Paris where he brought all of the building’s services to the outside.  To be honest, I didn’t really like the building because the windows aren’t very big.  Perhaps there’s a central atrium that I can’t see, but imagine working in a building where all your views are obstructed by pipes and stairs and etc.

The windows are too small for modern offices, in my opinion.

The windows are too small for modern offices, in my opinion.

Across the street is another Richard Rodgers oeuvre, Leadenhall.

The base of this "leaning" tower.

The base of this “leaning” tower.

It’s hard to tell from these pictures, but Leadenhall is basically a glass wedge, meaning its north face is vertical while it’s south face is sloping.  Since Londoners love giving their buildings nicknames, this one has been christened the Cheesegrater.  SOM Chicago actually did a peer review of the engineering work Arup did for this building, and from what I could remember there were some major points of contention with regards to Arup’s design.

Two-for-one Richard Rodgers.

Two-for-one Richard Rodgers.

This building caught my eye because of all the shear tabs sticking out of the concrete core, meaning they are for the connections of the gravity infill beams to the wall.  But it didn’t look like there was a lot of construction going on.  Later on I found out that this was The Pinnacle, a tower that was bankrolled by some Saudi investment groups and has been put on hold.

Stopped mid-air.

Stopped mid-air.

Somewhere along the way, I had to snicker at this sight:

Just imagine George Takei's voice: Oh my...

Just imagine George Takei’s voice: Oh my…

The last building I wanted to see was 30 St. Mary Axe, more appropriately called The Gherkin.

Diagrids galore!

Diagrids galore!

A Norman Foster product, this building is unique in that it utilizes a diagrid structure on the perimeter.  Diagrids are basically giant braces that run across a building’s facade with no vertical columns.  Together they form a sort of tube that is very stiff against lateral loads.  Excellent in high-wind areas, but a disaster to design for in high-seismic zones.

That band of dark glass actually corresponds with an internal atrium that runs the height of the building.

That band of dark glass actually corresponds with an internal atrium that runs the height of the building.

While every floor plate is circular, there is a notch every 60 degrees that forms an atrium, and with each floor plate rotated to be offset from each other, these spaces form atria that spiral along the height of the building, adding to the natural ventilation of the building.  Pretty innovative design, if you ask me.

A rare sight of greenery amongst the steel and glass forest of The City.

A rare sight of greenery amongst the steel and glass forest of The City.

With my skyscraper hunger sated, I crossed Tower Bridge and walked along the South Bank back to the London Bridge station.

I didn't realize that the "cables" are painted blue.

I didn’t realize that the “cables” are painted blue.

Looking towards the Shard...

Looking towards the Shard…

...and back towards the City.

…and back towards the City.

A sign on a construction site.  I don't think that's the same Berkeley I'm thinking about, but the font is incredibly similar!

A sign on a construction site. I don’t think that’s the same Berkeley I’m thinking about, but the font is incredibly similar!

Along the way, I made a brief stop at the London City Hall, yet another Foster product.

The unique ellipsoid massing of City Hall.

The unique ellipsoid massing of City Hall.

One unique aspect of City Hall is these ramps that spiral up around the chamber so when meetings are in session, the public can watch and listen from these walkways.

One unique aspect of City Hall is these ramps that spiral up around the chamber so when meetings are in session, the public can watch and listen from these walkways.

First Dirty Dick's, and now The Horniman?  The Brits must have an excellent sense of humour.

First Dirty Dick’s, and now The Horniman? The Brits must have an excellent sense of humour.

A rather impressive colonnade leading to a shopping center, I believe.

A rather impressive colonnade leading to a shopping center, I believe.

Right around the corner from the London Bridge station is Borough Market, recommended by my friends and co-workers as a must-see destination.  Well, they weren’t wrong.  The stalls at Borough Market carried some of the most scrumptious looking food I had seen so far.  Notice I said “looking” because even though I really wanted to sample a lot of things I still didn’t want to risk upsetting my stomach.  Alas, for my next London excursion…

The entrance to Borough Market which is actually located under some train tracks.

The entrance to Borough Market which is actually located under some train tracks.

At another random entrance to the market.

At another random entrance to the market.

Hmm, I don't think we're talking about the same restaurant here...

Hmm, I don’t think we’re talking about the same restaurant here…

This was on a Wednesday, and there were still plenty of stalls beckoning me with their aromatic wares.

This was on a Wednesday, and there were still plenty of stalls beckoning me with their aromatic wares.  The lady closest to me on the right was selling duck confit sandwiches!

I suddenly noticed a long line of people in front of this shop called “Monmouth”.  Well well well, looks like I’ve stumbled upon a gourmet coffee shop!  Being that I was already here, I joined the masses in line and got an iced coffee.  Here’s the barista performing his art:

More artisanal than Starbucks for sure!

More artisanal than Starbucks for sure!

I thought it was equivalent to Blue Bottle Coffee back here in the States, and as I’m not a huge coffee connoisseur, it tasted fine to me.  Also slaked my thirst as it was starting to get a little muggy…

At this point, I figured it was time to head to Wimbledon and see what pans out at SW19.  I went back to my hotel to rest a bit, then headed straight back out to the Westminster Tube stop to catch the Wimbledon line.

Classic London shot.

Classic London shot.

The ride itself took about 40 minutes, and as we got closer to Wimbledon (or rather Southfields station), more and more people got on the train.  What really impressed me was that several school boys had just gotten out of classes, and instead of going home and duking it out on the Xbox or PlayStation, they elected to head to Wimbledon to try to catch some tennis matches.  And they knew what they were talking about too, analyzing Federer and Murray’s techniques.  On my last visit to Flushing Meadows, the people on the 7 train were primarily preppy 30-year-olds who probably worked in finance, real estate, or marketing/advertising – and had absolutely no clue what they were talking about with regards to tennis.  They were just going because hey, it’s in New York and we should go.  In general, I found the British public to be much more knowledgeable in their tennis than us Americans.  We’re waaaay too focused on football – sorry, I mean “American football”…

After a short shuttle bus ride, I got off when the driver told us non-ticket holders to get off.  I had thought that to get a grounds pass in the late afternoon when most of the matches had ended would be simple and fast, but instead I was confronted by this:

The Queue.

The Queue.

Ah yes, the infamous Queue.  Even at 4 pm, there was a huge line that snaked across the grassy parking lot leading up to the main gate.  I was incredulous when I asked them if I had to queue for just a grounds pass and they responded, “Yeah, should take about an hour to two hours.”  Then I remembered something: Murray was still in the tournament!  I had come during the men’s quarterfinals and Murray was last on court, so of course everybody was going to try to come and see him play.  So I obediently got in line and picked up my queue card.

My Queue card that I stupidly turned in when I got my ticket.  Should have kept it as proof I queued at Wimbly!

My Queue card that I stupidly turned in when I got my ticket. Should have kept it as proof I queued at Wimbly!

While I was waiting, the people around me started to strike up some conversations.  A grandmother with her grandson were behind me and they were nervously checking the scores of the Murray match.  In front of me were some Australians talking to some Polish guy who claims he’s been to every single session of play at Wimbledon this year.  The Pole then sees that I have a cell phone and starts talking to me and the grandma behind me, saying that he volunteered during the Olympics and met many famous athletes.  He then insisted on using my phone so that he could show us the photos on his Facebook account.  Now, I’m fine with making friends with the people in the queue, but when you’re eating into my expensive data plan by showing photos and forcing me to friend you on Facebook, you’ve sort of crossed the line.  But being passive-aggressive, I didn’t tell him that and just waited for him to finish up as I feigned interest.  It sounded like he has never really had a permanent occupation, just working in restaurants and etc. to fund his “expensive” hobby.  He then mentioned that after 5 pm, the grounds pass prices actually drop by about 5 pounds or so.  Another reason why this line was so long…

The line started moving after about an hour, and once I whizzed through the security check, I crossed over to the main entrance and got my grounds pass for 12 pounds.  Yes, I was finally here at historic Wimbledon.

I can't believe I'm actually here!

I can’t believe I’m actually here!

The world's longest match between Isner and Mahut was played here.

The world’s longest match between Isner and Mahut was played here.

By the time I got past the main entrance, Murray was actually down two sets to love.  That might suck for Murray fans, but I was secretly praying for this result – not because I think he looks like a gargoyle (what is with the horrible British teeth) but because I wanted to prolong the chances of me seeing him in action!  As you can see, Henman Hill (which has now been christened Murray Mound) was absolutely packed with spectators watching the Centre Court match on the Jumbotron.  The police wouldn’t even let me walk around the back as they were enforcing crowd control.  It was absolutely bonkers!

Not a square centimeter of grass to sit on.

Not a square centimeter of grass to sit on.

Looking towards the jumbo screen in front of Court No. 1

Looking towards the jumbo screen in front of Court No. 1

Even the concrete ledges were used as seating.

Even the concrete ledges were used as seating.

I eventually made my way to the top of Murray Mound where the ticket resale booths are located.  Wimbledon has this policy where if actual ticket holders leave early, they can drop their tickets off at the ticket booth and the box office will resell them for 10 pounds and donate the proceeds to charity.  So that increases the number of people who get a chance to see a main court match and also benefits charities – a win-win situation!  I hurriedly got in line for the Centre Court line with not much hope because it wasn’t moving at all.  Murray was slowly clawing his way back into the match, and ever so slowly he won the third set.  The crowd went crazy when he finished that set, and I slowly inched forward in line.

Even Wimbledon is not immune to salmon shorts...

Even Wimbledon is not immune to salmon shorts…

Centre Court resell ticket line.

Centre Court resell ticket queue.

People were everywhere supporting their native son.

People were everywhere supporting their native son.

Everybody in line was beseeching the gods for Murray to take it to a fifth set, and deep down I had a feeling that he would.  As he took the fourth set, you could feel the excitement in the air as everybody jumped up with joy.  And by the beginning of the fifth set…

HELLZ YEAH!

HELLZ YEAH!

I got a ticket for Centre Court!!!!  Without having to wait overnight in the Queue!!!!  I immediately raced towards Centre Court and waited for the third game of the fifth set to finish up before we were let into the stadium.

Centre Court, such hallowed grounds.

Centre Court, such hallowed grounds.

The first thing I noticed about Centre Court was just how small it was compared to Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows.  It’s a more intimate setting, and even in the row furthest up, you are still quite close to the court.  Not like in Arthur Ashe where you could be way up in the rafters and need binocs to see the match aside from the Jumbotron.  But the crowd was just electric.  Every time Murray won a point (against Feliciano Lopez, so not an easy opponent), everyone cheered and waived the Union Jack (and some Saint Andrew’s Crosses).  And in the end, Murray came through, sending the crowd into a frenzy.  It was truly a sight to behold.

Afterwards, I made my way out of Centre Court and got my strawberries and cream.

The ivy climbing up the walls add such history to Wimbledon, unlike Flushing Meadows.

The ivy climbing up the walls add such history to Wimbledon, unlike Flushing Meadows.

The requisite strawberries and cream.

The requisite strawberries and cream.

I also stormed into the shop and splurged on some Wimbledon paraphernalia, like the coveted Wimbledon towel and a T-shirt.  And with my purchases in hand, it was a short walk back to Southfields station to head for my comfy bed…

…but not before some dinner!  By the time I got out of Wimbledon, it was already past 8 pm.  There was a fish and chips place near Waterloo station that I wanted to try, and thankfully they were open till 10.  I arrived back at Waterloo at 9 and set off to find this restaurant.

Super Fish!

Super Fish!

Yes, this place is called Masters Super Fish.  Plenty of locals frequenting this establishment, and nothing high brow about it.  I got the cod special to take back to the hotel and yes, it was indeed super.

This was heavenly.  Especially after all the adventures of the day.

This was heavenly. Especially after all the adventures of the day.

Never in my mind did I think that I would actually get to sit in Centre Court at Wimbledon and watch the eventual winner play a match.  This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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Not So Jolly London

By the 4th time I got up from bed to visit the bathroom, it was pretty clear that Mother Nature had decided to bestow TD upon me.  If there was anything positive I could say about the experience, it was that my stomach settled down as soon as I left for the airport.  At that point, I decided to not eat anything and drink only water for fear of upsetting my delicate situation.  Which was quite disappointing as I wanted to squeeze in one last desayunos, but alas, it was not meant to be.

I had originally planned to book British Airways for the Barcelona-London leg, but by the time I got around to actually purchasing the ticket, the prices had risen considerably, so I had to turn to other options.  Everybody recommended Ryanair because they are dirt cheap, but I’d read horror stories about their service.  Easyjet wasn’t that much cheaper than BA, so in the end I went with a random airline called Monarch Airlines.  They sounded ok – as long as things ran smoothly, so I hoped that there wouldn’t be any hiccups on my flight.

After checking out and taking a 30-minute ride on the Aerobus, I arrived at Terminal 2 of Barcelona Airport, where most of the low-cost carriers are located.  The check-in line for Monarch was quite long, and very quickly it became very evident what type of people flew Monarch – primarily young college students done partying it up in Barcelona and heading back home to the UK.  I saw my fair share of skanky tanned and probably hung-over girls with their “chavvy” male companions.  This was going to be an interesting ride to say the least.

Upon passing security (I swear, the more I fly, the more I think everybody else doesn’t know how to travel anymore – it’s like they leave their brains at home), I only got a bottle of water as I didn’t want to upset my stomach any further.  Boarding was sort of a mess as everybody crowded in front of the gate (aka “gate lice”) and some people tried to board before their group was called only to be turned around tersely by the gate agent.  And if you thought legroom in economy on US carriers was bad, wait till you ride an European LCC.  I have never felt more squeezed for space than on this Monarch plane.  Even United economy felt roomy compared to this.  But I didn’t care as I had planned on sleeping the whole way.

And so two hours after take-off, I finally arrived at Gatwick Airport.  As usual, the English sky was overcast and it looked like it could potentially rain.  We did pass by the famous bridge connecting two concourses that a 747 could pass under:

Unique feature of Gatwick - a huge pedestrian bridge linking two concourses that planes can travel under!

Unique feature of Gatwick – a huge pedestrian bridge linking two concourses that planes can travel under!

Now I must say that even though most domestic terminals in US airports are not quite up to international terminal standards, Gatwick just seemed like a dump.  Well, perhaps I’m exaggerating, but it definitely could use a face-lift.  Not a ton of windows, and hallways snaking here and there with no clear direction.  Clearly most of the efforts are directed towards Heathrow, but it would be nice to spruce up Gatwick.

The whole arch structure made me think of Bill Baker.

The whole arch structure made me think of Bill Baker.

After a lengthy wait at immigration and picking up my bag, it was off to the train station to get my ticket for the Gatwick Express to Victoria station.  While waiting onboard, I spotted this wanna-be Elle Woods…

While waiting for the Gatwick Express to leave for Victoria Station, I spotted this interesting wardrobe.

Hmm…that choice of wardrobe doesn’t particularly suit you.

The sheer number of people passing through Victoria Station was perhaps the first sign that you have arrived in arguably the most influential city in the world.  And with Oyster Card in hand, it was off on the Tube for Waterloo Station.

Having benches that you can park your ass on while you're waiting for the next train is just brilliant!  We need to get these added here in the States!

Having benches that you can park your ass on while you’re waiting for the next train is just brilliant! We need to get these added here in the States!

The iconic London Underground signs.

The iconic London Underground signs.

My hotel was located in the middle of a round-about, so getting across was a bit of a challenge, especially because I walked out of Waterloo with no sense of which direction the hotel was in.  Eventually, I got there and was about ready to pass out on my bed(s).

My room.  Unfortunately it faced an internal courtyard, so no view.

My room. Unfortunately it faced an internal courtyard, so no view.

But they did send up a plate of macarons for me to enjoy!

But they did send up a plate of macarons for me to enjoy!

After settling in, I trudged off to find some sort of supermarket to stock up on white bread and Gatorade.  Thank god train stations in Europe and Asia are also huge commercial centers.  I found a Marks & Spencers grocery at Waterloo and picked up my bread, but curiously enough they don’t carry sports drinks like Gatorade in British stores.  Everything was carbonated, so I ended up having to get one of these fizzy drinks.  Then, a long hot bath ensued, ate some bread, and napped for about, oh, 4 hours…

So much for going out and seeing stuff on my first day in London.  I told my cousin to forget about getting Wimbledon tickets and I basically gave up hope of going to queue early the next morning because I decided I would rather try to get well sooner than try to do what I had planned and prolong my misery.  I accepted the fact that I probably wouldn’t get a seat at any court in Wimbledon and settled on just going into the grounds and having some strawberries and cream.  That would still make a nice experience, right?

Well, 4 hours later, when I woke up, I could tell that it was still light out, and as I was feeling much better, decided that I should at least go see the London Eye which was right across the street from me.

The London Eye towering over us humans.

The London Eye towering over us humans.

That's one colossal pin connection.

That’s one colossal pin connection.

Intricate lamppost base.

Intricate lamppost base.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to actually go up the London Eye as I had read that it basically is an overpriced carnival ride that only went around once, but I figured since I was already here I should just go.  One advantage of going later during the day or early evening is that the wait isn’t very long.  You board these glass capsules that actually rotate as the wheel turns so that you stay upright throughout the ride.  I also found it ironic that this modern London landmark is owned by Électricité de France (hence EDF).  Of course, it’s owned by the British subsidiary of EDF, but nonetheless, ultimately it’s still owned by the French state. I’m not sure how that went down when EDF took over the sponsorship from British Airways…

The capsule as it approaches the boarding platform.

The capsule as it approaches the boarding platform.

Looking towards east London with The City and Canary Wharf in the distance.

Looking towards east London with The City and Canary Wharf in the distance.

The Shard towering above all.

The Shard towering above all.

Westminster where Parliament convenes.

Westminster where Parliament convenes.

Up the Thames.

Up the Thames.

The view from up high was spectacular indeed, and it was interesting to see all these tall buildings going up in London.  I typically don’t associate London with skyscrapers, but clearly Arup is having a big hand in changing that perception.

After getting off, I strolled across Westminster Bridge and then walked eastward along the river before looping back to the hotel.

Westminster Bridge with Big Ben standing guard.

Westminster Bridge with Big Ben standing guard.

A war memorial.

A war memorial.

At least this bridge doesn't wobble like the Millennium Bridge did!

At least this bridge doesn’t wobble like the Millennium Bridge did!

These kids were partying it up on the boat.

These kids were partying it up on the boat.

And so my first day on British soil ended.  It certainly didn’t go the way I had intended to, but hey, when life gives you lemons, you make…limoncello, right?

Bent Sitges

For my last full day in Barcelona, I decided to make a trek out to Sitges, a beach town about 40 minutes southwest of the city.  Before that, though, I was determined to seek out the Mercat Santa Caterina which apparently is less touristy and more bountiful market than La Boqueria.  So I took the Metro to El Born neighborhood and sauntered through the narrow alleys into this little café:

A small café frequented by locals.

A small café frequented by locals.

There wasn’t much room there – just enough space for about 5 small tables.  And the two girls behind the counter didn’t speak much English, so there was a lot of me repeating “café” and “bocadillo” probably to the amusement of the other patrons.  Anyways, they got the gist of what I wanted and I had a small cup of coffee and a mini porchetta bocadillo.  Nothing fancy, but still delicious.

The market was right across from the café, and I guess I was expecting tons of food stands with mouth-watering food given what was described in my Rick Steves book.  But honestly I was rather underwhelmed by it all.  There weren’t as many vendors as in La Boqueria and nothing food-wise really appealed to me.  It might have been because it was Monday that it seemed so dead (a lot of places in Barcelona and I assume Spain shut down on Mondays).  Nonetheless, there were still some delicious displays.

I’m sure the average American tourist would recoil in horror at the sight of these pig ears and snouts, but hey, we Chinese eat all of that with no qualms!

I’m sure the average American tourist would recoil in horror at the sight of these pig ears and snouts, but hey, we Chinese eat all of that with no qualms!

Inside the Mercat Santa Caterina.

Inside the Mercat Santa Caterina.

The market itself was overhauled at some point recently, so it actually has a sort of avant-garde architecture that tries to mimic the natural curves of Gaudi.  It makes for a great juxtaposition between the modern market and the old-school buildings surrounding it.

The somewhat triangular apartment building next to the market.

The somewhat triangular apartment building next to the market.

Look at the truss supports there!

Look at the truss supports there!

Modern vs. old.

Modern vs. old.

I spent less time than I intended to at the market, so I just started wandering through the small alleys that seem to characterize this part of Barcelona.  I didn’t really have a set plan, so I just made random turns down whichever alley struck my fancy.

In a way, these alleys remind me so much of Tainan…except these alleys are much cleaner.

In a way, these alleys remind me so much of Tainan…except these alleys are much cleaner.

There are even bridges spanning these alleys.

There are even bridges spanning these alleys.

I turned a corner and – voila! – there was a cathedral.  Totally was not expecting something so large to exist in this cluster of twisting alleys.

I turned a corner and – voila! – there was a cathedral. Totally was not expecting something so large to exist in this cluster of twisting alleys.

A memorial to the Catalan patriots slaughtered by Bourbon King Philip V on September 11th, 1714.

A memorial to the Catalan patriots slaughtered by Bourbon King Philip V on September 11th, 1714.

An uber-famous coffee shop that had a line out the door!

An uber-famous coffee shop that had a line out the door!

It soon got to be around 11 and I figured I should get something to eat before
catching a Rodalies train out to Sitges, so I headed back to Las Ramblas in
search of a quick to-go spot.

On the way, I passed by the Barcelona City Hall…

On the way, I passed by the Barcelona City Hall…

…and the Generalitat of Catalunya, sort of equivalent to their regional parliament.

…and the Generalitat of Catalunya, sort of equivalent to their regional parliament.

Just past these archways, you find yourself facing…

Just past these archways, you find yourself facing…

…a very regal-looking plaza.  Indeed, it is called the Plaҫa Reial.

…a very regal-looking plaza. Indeed, it is called the Plaҫa Reial.

No matter where I looked, I just didn’t seem to find any of the food choices that inspiring.  I was also trying to stake out a place where I could get steady cell-phone reception.  Why?  Well, I was actually trying to get Wimbledon tickets for that Wednesday.  Now most of the tickets are sold out way in advance, usually by December through a public lottery.  If you didn’t get tickets then, you had three other options.  At 11 am two days before the start of play, some tickets will be made available online, more tickets are made available 24 hours before start of play, and of course there is always the option to queue – overnight, if necessary.  So I thought I would try my luck to get the tickets released two days before play.

Eventually, I made my way to the El Corte Ingles department store which is the equivalent of Macy’s (although I felt it was closer to Shinkong Mitsukoshi or similar department stores in Taiwan).  I ended up hanging out at the food court with my credit card out and my phone on the Ticketmaster website ready to click the “buy” button.  Well, 12 pm came and I tried to click, but they were sold out already!  How can that be possible???  Anyways, I knew my chances were already quite slim, and short of queuing overnight my next best chance was to try for the 24-hour tickets.  Except there was a small problem – I would be on a plane leaving Barcelona when the clock hit T-minus 24.  So I had to enlist the help of my cousin back in San Francisco to stay up a little later than usual and to try to get tickets for me.  Yes, that is a very circuitous way of trying to buy tickets, but when it’s Wimbledon tickets at stake, you must do everything you can to obtain them, right?

After my failed attempt to get tickets, I started heading towards the Passeig de Gracia station and got an Iberico ham sandwich.  There was quite a bit of construction going on at the station necessitating some detours and etc, so I got pretty confused really quickly.  I eventually figured out where was the actual entrance and triple checked the schedule for fear of getting on the wrong train and ending up in some remote wasteland.  Two other guys were also heading to Sitges and asked me which train to take.  Clearly I was of no help to them, but after some waiting the train arrived and off we went.

Taking the Rodalies out of the city offers you an interesting perspective of how the area changes the further out you travel.  Coming out of the tunnels underneath the city you are still in a pretty dense urban environment, but gradually it gives way to a suburban landscape – not unlike those in California – surrounded by brown hills/mountains covered in dried grass.  Eventually you enter farmlands and ultimately you start hugging the coast, travelling along the blue waters of the Mediterranean.  In fact, a lot of the landscapes remind me of California which should be fitting given that they are both classified as Mediterranean climates, right?

Forty minutes later, I arrived in Sitges, and from the get-go you can tell this is a beach town.  And not just any beach town, but a gay party haven.  Most of the clubs were closed at 3 in the afternoon, but you can probably imagine that once 11 pm hits a lot of bumping and grinding starts happening.  Hehe…

Car-free alleys criss-cross Sitges.

Car-free alleys criss-cross Sitges.

Very small central square of Sitges.

Very small central square of Sitges.

Plenty of cute restaurants and tourist shops line the alleyways.

Plenty of cute restaurants and tourist shops line the alleyways.

All the streets naturally wind towards the beaches which are divided into several stretches.  The ones closest to the train station are the most crowded so I started walking towards the ones further away.  One section was flanked by two rainbow flags, so not surprisingly all the tanned, uber-fit, and speedo-clad boys congregated here.  I ended up stopping at the seventh stretch which didn’t look too crowded and spread out my beach towel, eager to get my tan on.

Hmm...is Dorothy around?

Hmm…is Dorothy around?

I sent this photo to my co-workers taunting them.

I sent this photo to my co-workers taunting them.

Actually, I already had a pronounced farmer’s tan from biking to/from work, so the goal was to lessen that shirt sleeve tan line on my arm.  I slapped on some sunscreen, laid down, and started reading a book.  In theory, this sounded fantastic, but I neglected to get sunblock on certain parts of my back, so when I got back to the hotel and looked in the mirror, I was dismayed to find these giant red blotches across my back.  So much for trying to get a tan.

I finished my book (Cruising Attitude by Heather Poole, an interesting and fun read on the life of a flight attendant) and decided I had had enough of the sun/beach, so I started heading back to the train station.  I got a lime granissat on the way there (those things are soooo refreshing on hot summer days) and boarded the train back to Barcelona.

Castilian and Catalonian.

Castilian and Catalonian.

I suppose most train stations look alike, but this just reminds me so much of the little train stops in Taiwan...

I suppose most train stations look alike, but this just reminds me so much of the little train stops in Taiwan…

After getting off at Sants Estacio and navigating through the masses of people that pass through such grand train stations (sadly a very uncommon sight in the US) to get to the Metro line, I ended back at my hotel at 9 pm completely drained.  I had been hoping to go to a really popular tapas place that supposedly served amazing patatas bravas, but I was just too tired to make the effort.  So just went to this restaurant across from the hotel and called it a day.  The tapas weren’t mind-blowing and they ran out of one tapas that I wanted (the tortilla española), but the tapas I got were passable.

In lieu of the tortilla española  that I wanted, they suggested this other egg dish which was basically scrambled eggs.

In lieu of the tortilla española that I wanted, they suggested this other egg dish which was basically scrambled eggs.

Grilled squid and some roasted asparagus.

Grilled squid and some roasted asparagus.

Sautéed mushrooms and sausage.

Sautéed mushrooms and sausage.

Again, not the most amazing meal to end my time in Barcelona, but at least I wasn’t hungry.  After paying (geez, food in Europe is pricey!), I went back to my room and started packing for the next leg to London.  As much as I enjoyed my time in Barcelona, I was eager for a change in locale and I went to bed looking forward to visiting the British capital.

Then disaster struck.

A Very Gaudi Day: Sagrada Style

After wincing at my bill (almost 17 euros!), I headed off to the Sagrada Familia.  Now, I had heard about the Sagrada and how it has been under construction since the late 1800s, but I had always dismissed it as a feeble attempt by a declining city to claim the “tallest” of something, in this case the tallest church spires or what not.  Clearly, my preconceived notions of Barcelona in general were completely out of whack.  In reality, while the Sagrada should be respected as a place of worship, it is also a monument to the genius of Gaudi and to the beauty of mathematically-derived design.  Even walking out of the Metro station you are greeted immediately by the enormisity of the cathedral.

People still enjoying desayunos on the terrace at 1 pm...

People still enjoying desayunos on the terrace at 1 pm…

A thinking bull...

A thinking bull…

And the Sagrada greeting you as you step out of the Metro stop.

And the Sagrada greeting you as you step out of the Metro stop.

I was also a bit puzzled at why people were lining up to buy tickets.  The line was around the block!  Why didn’t they think of pre-booking their tickets comme moi?  Clueless travelers =D

The Passion Facade of the Sagrada completed in 1987.

The Passion Facade of the Sagrada completed in 1987.

Gaudi only provided guidelines as to what the Passion Facade should look like, so it was interpreted in a modern fashion by Josep Maria Subirachs.

Gaudi only provided guidelines as to what the Passion Facade should look like, so it was interpreted in a modern fashion by Josep Maria Subirachs.

This facade is much more austere and angular than the Nativity Facade.

This facade is much more austere and angular than the Nativity Facade.

The Nativity Facade which was actually completed when Gaudi was still alive.

The Nativity Facade which was actually completed when Gaudi was still alive.

The organic and natural style that more closely hews to Gaudi's design esthetic.

The organic and natural style that more closely hews to Gaudi’s design esthetic.

A giant turtle supporting the "columns".

A giant turtle supporting the “columns”.

A model of the completed Sagrada Familia as it will look like in 2030.  Note that the current towers are just side entrances!

A model of the completed Sagrada Familia as it will look like in 2030. Note that the current towers are just side entrances!

The obligatory Asian tour group shot.

The obligatory Asian tour group shot.

I went up the towers on the Nativity Facade which involved a ride in a rather clausterphobic elevator.  But the views from the top were fantastic.

Crossing the bridge that spans between the towers of the Nativity Facade.

Crossing the bridge that spans between the towers of the Nativity Facade.

Looking towards the northeast.  That tall phallus in the background is the Torre Agbar by Jean Nouvel.

Looking towards the northeast. That tall phallus in the background is the Torre Agbar by Jean Nouvel.

Barcelona cityscape.

Barcelona cityscape.

The cathedral is still under construction (and will be until 2030), so plenty of scaffolding around the building.

The cathedral is still under construction (and will be until 2030), so plenty of scaffolding around the building.

A rare photo of myself taken by the mom of a French family that went up with me.  I impressed them with my rudimentary French skills!

A rare photo of myself taken by the mom of a French family that went up with me. I impressed them with my rudimentary French skills!

IMG_1192

The dizzying spiral staircase on the way down.  There is no internal railing, so that hole in the center plunges to the very bottom, but because the stairs are coiled so tightly there is no danger of falling through!

The dizzying spiral staircase on the way down. There is no internal railing, so that hole in the center plunges to the very bottom, but because the stairs are coiled so tightly there is no danger of falling through!

I see other tourists are keeping up the penny tossing tradition!

I see other tourists are keeping up the penny tossing tradition!

After returning to earth, it was time to explore the cavernous interior of the cathedral.  It truly is an awe-inspiring sight, and even though I am not Christian, I can see how the Sagrada can literally lift one’s spirit closer to the heavens.

The central nave of the cathedral.

The central nave of the cathedral.

Looking towards the altar.

Looking towards the Glory Facade.

Looking towards the altar.

Looking towards the altar.

Down the side corridor.

Down the side corridor.

All the visitors seem so puny compared to the structure.

All the visitors seem so puny compared to the structure.

This metal sculpture is at the Glory Facade which will be the main entrance of the cathedral.  It says "Give us this day our daily bread" in various languages.

This metal sculpture is at the Glory Facade which will be the main entrance of the cathedral. It says “Give us this day our daily bread” in various languages.

Can you spot the Chinese?

Can you spot the Chinese?

My co-worker told me that I had to go visit the museum in the basement which chronicles the design thought and process behind the catheral, so after spending enough time gawking at the impressive interior, I went downstairs.

A conceptual mock-up of the Passion Façade.

A conceptual mock-up of the Passion Façade.

The museum had a ton of original sketches and models made by Gaudi, but perhaps what was extraordinary was that Gaudi knew his beloved cathedral wouldn’t be finished in his lifetime, so even though he carried out his design for the Nativity Façade, he made conceptual sketches of what the Passion and Glory Facades would look like and leave it up to later artists to interpret them.  So in a sense, while the Sagrada Familia as a whole sprung from Gaudi’s genius, large parts of it are actually contributions from the community through different epochs.  Quite poetic, really.

The roofs are formed by the intersection of numerous hyperboloids.  Remember, this was done before the advent of the computer, so it's simply stunning that such shapes could be accomplished with the technology back then.

The roofs are formed by the intersection of numerous hyperboloids. Remember, this was done before the advent of the computer, so it’s simply stunning that such shapes could be accomplished with the technology back then.

A more detailed sketch by Gaudi of the Passion Façade.

A more detailed sketch by Gaudi of the Passion Façade.

And what sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs' interpretation of the Passion Façade ended up like.

And what sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs’ interpretation of the Passion Façade ended up like.

A model shop dedicated to building miniatures of Gaudi's works.

A model shop dedicated to building miniatures of Gaudi’s works.

Mock-up of the

Mock-up of the Glory Façade.

What the Glory Façade conceptually will look like when finished.

What the Glory Façade conceptually will look like when finished.

Gaudi's beloved catenaries make their return.  The cathedral was essentially designed using this suspended method.

Gaudi’s beloved catenaries make their return. The cathedral was essentially designed using this suspended method.

A close-up of how the warped shapes are constructed through layers of brick and other materials.

A close-up of how the warped shapes are constructed through layers of brick and other materials.

Merging columns that constantly change shape!

Merging columns that constantly change shape!

The Sagrada Familia hung upside-down.  So Gaudi-an...

The Sagrada Familia hung upside-down. So Gaudi-an…

The first version of the Sagrada by Gaudi which was a very traditional design.

The first version of the Sagrada by Gaudi which was a very traditional design.

The second iteration begins to exhibit the organic shapes that so fascinated Gaudi.

The second iteration begins to exhibit the organic shapes that so fascinated Gaudi.

The third and final version that is being built today.

The third and final version that is being built today.

After an obligatory visit to the gift shop, it was time to head to the third Gaudi opus of the day, Park Guell.  Following the suggestion of Rick Steves, I leisurely strolled down the appropriately named Avinguda de Gaudi from the Sagrada to the bus stop that would take me to the park.

The cathedral seems like it's perpetually under construction.

The cathedral seems like it’s perpetually under construction.

I wonder if they just own the scaffolding rather than renting it.

I wonder if they just own the scaffolding rather than renting it.

The Sagrada simply dominates the skies of the neighborhood.

The Sagrada simply dominates the skies of the neighborhood.

Another Modernista work, the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau designed by Montaner.

Another Modernista work, the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau designed by Montaner.

The park is perched on the hills overlooking Barcelona, so it’s not terribly easy to get to.  Nonetheless, the place was packed with visitors even during the hottest hours of the afternoon.

Twisting causeways and bridges greet visitors who enter from the side gate.

Twisting causeways and bridges greet visitors who enter from the side gate.

The signature curving benches with the mosaic tiles.

The signature curving benches with the mosaic tiles.

More Gaudi buildings flanking the main entrance.  Looks like a gingerbread house to me!

More Gaudi buildings flanking the main entrance. Looks like a gingerbread house to me!

The views of Barcelona are awesome from the terrace.

The views of Barcelona are awesome from the terrace.

Another rare photo of myself courtesy of some Chinese tourists that I had overheard speaking Mandarin.

Another rare photo of myself courtesy of some Chinese tourists that I had overheard speaking Mandarin.

A grand colonnade.  I think the finale of an America's Next Top Model was shot here (isn't it sad that I would know this?)

A grand colonnade. I think the finale of an America’s Next Top Model was shot here (isn’t it sad that I would know this?)

Giant Doric columns supporting the main terrace.

Giant Doric columns supporting the main terrace.

The space underneath the terrace was supposed to house a market, but it has never fulfilled that purpose.

The space underneath the terrace was supposed to house a market, but it has never fulfilled that purpose.

The dragon that is the symbol of Barcelona.

The dragon that is the symbol of Barcelona.

The main entrance to the park.

The main entrance to the park.

Park signage.

Park signage.

There was a Gaudi theater as I walked towards the Metro stop and I went inside to see what was going on.  There were a few small exhibits, one of which was this model of Gaudi's proposal for a 1300-ft tall hotel in NYC.  Thank god it never got built.

There was a Gaudi theater as I walked towards the Metro stop and I went inside to see what was going on. There were a few small exhibits, one of which was this model of Gaudi’s proposal for a 1300-ft tall hotel in NYC. Thank god it never got built.

With my Gaudi thirst sated, I had to figure out what to do for the rest of the day before dinner.  I decided to check-out Barceloneta and moseyed my way down to the waterfront.

The long stretches of sandy beaches still heavily occupied at 6 pm.

The long stretches of sandy beaches still heavily occupied at 6 pm.

I noticed a large crowd gathering on one side of the sidewalk and as I got closer, I discovered that it was a Japanese street festival!

Wha??  A Japanese festival in Barcelona?

Wha?? A Japanese festival in Barcelona?

Various stalls were selling Japanese food such as curry rice and sushi while other stalls offered games as well as a kimono photo-shoot opportunity, but I made a beeline for the hiyashi chuka.  What could possibly be better on a warm summer day?

Even the lifeguard towers have to be architecturally interesting.

Even the lifeguard towers have to be architecturally interesting.

Another lifeguard tower.

Another lifeguard tower.

Looking towards the northeast.

Looking towards the northeast.

Enough of the beaches, time to head into the city!  Barceloneta is full of alleys that immediately remind me of Tainan.

Narrow alleys where it's not uncommon to see clothes being hang-dried in windows.

Narrow alleys where it’s not uncommon to see clothes being hang-dried in windows.

A market in Barceloneta.

A market in Barceloneta.

But my stomach beckoned, and off I went in search of a place recommended on Yelp.  After walking in circles for a bit, I finally came across my intended destination, the Cerveceria el Vaso de oro.

Dinner!

Dinner!

The restaurant isn’t very spacious as it probably has more counter space than actual sit-down tables.

Cozy interiors.

Cozy interiors.

My server was quite the boisterous man, bellowing out my order for “una flauta!” across the room.  Thankfully, the menu was also in English, but the croquettes sitting in the display case in front of me were staring at me, so I had to order them.  I also decided on some steak with grilled peppers.

My beer flute and the croquettes.

My beer flute and the croquettes.

Mmm...steak.

Mmm…steak.

The croquettes were not as delicate as the Japanese kinds and were actually stuffed with some kind of shredded meat.  As for the steak – juicy, tender, and flavorful.  No fancy cooking here, just meat that was expertly grilled.  I was a little weary of the peppers as I thought they might be of the spicy variety, but they ended up not being spicy at all.  At least I got my vegetable quota of the day.

It was still light out when I finished dinner at 9 pm, so I decided to head to the boba shop I had discovered the previous day.  They were about to close shop but they let me order anyways.  The people behind the counter seemed to be authentic Taiwanese, so I started ordering in Chinese which sort of took them by surprise.  They had run out of boba, so they suggested I order the jelly-filled boba which, honestly, I have never had.  So in the end, I settled on milk tea with passion fruit jelly-filled boba.  The verdict?  It was pretty damn close to what I would get in the Bay Area, LA, or Flushing.  Whodathunk Barcelona would have better boba than Chicago?

It's already 9 pm and it's still light outside!

It’s already 9 pm and it’s still light outside!

My boba in hand.

My boba in hand.

Another boba shop I found as I walked through the Raval, a neighborhood that apparently has a seedy reputation.

Another boba shop I found as I walked through the Raval, a neighborhood that apparently has a seedy reputation.

By this point, I was incredibly tired after an entire day of walking throughout the city.  My feet were killing me, and blisters had started to form on my toes and heels (I had just bought new shoes before leaving for Europe so I hadn’t broken them in yet).  With the must-see sights of Barcelona out of my way, I was looking forward to spending some down-time at the beaches of Sitges tomorrow!

A Very Gaudi Day: The Beginnings

When architects hear “Barcelona,” 99% of them immediately think of the great architect/designer Antoni Gaudi, the central figure of the Modernisme movement in Spain (sort of equivalent to the Art Nouveau movement sweeping across Europe and eventually around the world).  It just so happens that Barcelona has the highest concentration of Modernista buildings, including the seminal works by Gaudi, so perhaps it was fate that guided me to choose Barcelona over Madrid when I started planning my trip.  I decided to devote one entire day to explore Gaudi’s creations, starting with his Casa Milà, then on to the Sagrada Familia, and ending at Park Güell.  It might be exhausting, but at least I’ll get my fill of hyperboloid geometries and catenary form-finding!

Hmm...Hawaiian cuisine in Espanya?  Seems a little out of place.

Hmm…Hawaiian cuisine in Espanya? Seems a little out of place.

I set out on Sunday morning relishing the fact that no one was out on the streets yet.  I suppose 10 am is considered very early for the Spanish, especially on a Sunday.  Plus factor in church and you get some relatively empty streets to navigate.  I took a bus down Avinguda Diagonal to the Diagonal Metro stop and walked to this lovely little café I found on Yelp called Hansel.

A sparsely occupied café - all the more room and pastries for me!

A sparsely occupied café – all the more room and pastries for me!

This would be my first morning here in Spain, so I was curious about what Barcelonans ate for breakfast.  The great thing is that the cafés tend to offer a sort of breakfast set called desayunos which includes a cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice, a cup of coffee, and either a pastry or small bocadillo (sandwich).  All for around 5 euros which I thought was an absolute steal.  Needless-to-say, I went with the pastry option.

Juice, coffee, and a pain au chocolat - what a great way to start the day!

Juice, coffee, and a pain au chocolat – what a great way to start the day!

Afterwards, it was off to see the first Gaudi masterpiece of the day, his Casa Milà (a.k.a. La Pedrera).  Even just walking up to it leaves you awe-struck by the undulations in the walls.

Approaching La Pedrera.

Approaching La Pedrera.

Only with concrete can you achieve such organic shapes.

Only with concrete can you achieve such organic shapes.

I had pre-booked my ticket for an 11 am entrance and went straight up to the roof where all the unique chimneys and exhaust shafts are located.

Looking through an archway.

Looking through an archway.

This chimney almost looks like a person.

This chimney almost looks like a person.

These are more like sculptures than utilitarian chimneys and pipes.

These are more like sculptures than utilitarian chimneys and pipes.

Gaudi never created a straight line - because he believed straight lines don't exist in nature.

Gaudi never created a straight line – because he believed straight lines don’t exist in nature.

The views of Barcelona from the top are rather nice, giving you a glimpse of what living in the neighborhood is like.

This almost reminds me of Taipei or even Tainan.

This almost reminds me of Taipei or even Tainan.

After roaming around the roof, I went down to the attic where there are several exhibits on both the creation/design of La Pedrera as well as other Gaudi works.  Ironically, I think the attic is where Gaudi’s genius shines through the most.  The entire attic is ringed by these parabolic arches which by themselves are impressive enough.  But if you link the apexes of all the parabolic arches together, you form another curve that mimics a catenary.  When I realized this, my mind was blown away.

Models!  I love models!

Models! I love models!

And sections!

And sections!

And plans!  Note that nothing is rectilinear in this building.  Must have been a pain-in -the-ass to construct before the age of computers!

And plans! Note that nothing is rectilinear in this building. Must have been a pain-in -the-ass to construct before the age of computers!  It’s also interesting to note the vertical-load bearing members, i.e. walls and amorphous clumps of concrete that act as columns.

The arches of the attic supporting the roof as well.

The arches of the attic supporting the roof as well.

Notice the catenary?

Notice the catenary?

The exhibit had some other models and explanations of Gaudi’s other works, including the Sagrada Familia and the Casa Batlló.

Gaudi was famous for designing many of his buildings by suspending cables and then inverting them to get the dome shape.  Because these catenaries are naturally formed by gravity alone, they form a very efficient dome when inverted.

Gaudi was famous for designing many of his buildings by suspending cables and then inverting them to get the dome shape. Because these catenaries are naturally formed by gravity alone, they form a very efficient dome when inverted.

A model of the Sagrada Familia showing the tree-like structure supporting the roof.

A model of the Sagrada Familia showing the tree-like structure supporting the roof.

Column details.  Note how the column changes cross sections along its length.  Such a thing is already very difficult to achieve in modern construction practices, so for him to do this back in the 1800s is just mind-boggling.

Column details. Note how the column changes cross sections along its length. Such a thing is already very difficult to achieve in modern construction practices, so for him to do this back in the 1800s is just mind-boggling.

Plan of the Casa Batlló.

Plan of the Casa Batlló.

The Casa Batlló was actually an existing building.  Gaudi renovated the entire building and added the distinctive roof.

The Casa Batlló was actually an existing building. Gaudi renovated the entire building and added the distinctive roof.

Looking into the kitchen.

Looking into the kitchen.

A view of the city from a bedroom.

A view of the city from a bedroom.

This bed design reminds me a lot of Guimard.

This bed design reminds me a lot of Guimard.

Corridors and hallways line around the internal courtyard.

Corridors and hallways line around the internal courtyard.

A very unique dual-ass chair.

A very unique dual-ass chair.

Looking up the internal courtyard.

Looking up the internal courtyard.

The ornate metal gate of the main entrance.

The ornate metal gate of the main entrance.

Even Barcelona can get a Muji.  Why can't Chicago???

Even Barcelona can get a Muji. Why can’t Chicago???

Passeig de Gracia, one of the main thoroughfares in Barcelona.

Passeig de Gracia, one of the main thoroughfares in Barcelona.

The first house on the Block called Casa Lleó Morera.

The first house on the Block called Casa Lleó Morera.

Another house, this one called Casa Amatller.

Another house, this one called Casa Amatller.

And finally Gaudi's Casa Batlló.

And finally Gaudi’s Casa Batlló.

All the houses in a row, taking up a whole city block.

All the houses in a row, taking up a whole city block.

As you can see, there was quite a line to enter the Casa Batlló, and I didn’t buy the tickets beforehand, so I decided to skip it (hey, you can only handle so much Gaudi in one day) and kill some time before lunch by wandering around the Eixample neighborhood. Unfortunately, a lot of things were closed it being a Sunday, but it was still a nice walk through the neighborhood.

Such a nice building for a music conservatory!

Such a nice building for a music conservatory!

I ended up walking into the Water Tower Garden which originally was a courtyard that was shared by the buildings around it.  It’s now a public space and during the summer is converted into a sort of water park for kids.  They must have thought it was bizarre for an Asian to be sitting amongst the locals with their kids, but it was actually really nice to escape touristy Barcelona and see how the locals spend their Sunday late mornings.  It was also here that I took a breather and ate a pastry I had bought from Hansel earlier.  I still don’t know what exactly the pastry was (lots of flaky layers with some sugar sprinkled throughout), but it was delicious.

The entrance to the Water Tower Garden.  At the end of the tunnel there is an attendant that collects an entrance fee, but upon seeing me he just waived me through, probably because he knew I was a tourist and not a child wanting to plunk through the pools.

The entrance to the Water Tower Garden. At the end of the tunnel there is an attendant that collects an entrance fee, but upon seeing me he just waived me through, probably because he knew I was a tourist and not a child wanting to plunk through the pools.

After more aimless walking through the Eixample, I decided it was about time for lunch.  Granted, at 12:30 pm it’s still considered early for lunch by Barcelona standards, but I wanted to get to the Sagrada Familia earlier to give me enough time.  As I searched for a restaurant called Ciudad Condal, I noticed that a lot of people were sitting out on the terraces (i.e. outdoor seating areas) eating a pastry with a cup of coffee and OJ.  Wait, they are just having desayunos???  Man, even that is too late for me.  I’d rather just go straight for lunch!

Lunch usually does not involve tapas and instead the Spaniards eat sandwiches, but hey, I’m a tourist and I don’t think a sandwich is worth my precious hard-earned dollars (or euros in this case), so I ordered a couple tapas without any idea what they were because, well, that portion of the menu had no English translations.  And even my French skills were of no help here.  So I eagerly awaited the results of my potentially life-altering decisions.

The first plate was actually fried calamari rings, so that was a safe bet.  The second plate to arrive was actually a skewer of monkfish and shrimp with a clam on the side and drizzled in some sort of sauce.

The aforementioned skewer.  It was supposed to be eaten on the piece of bread, like an hors d'oeuvre, I guess.

The aforementioned skewer. It was supposed to be eaten on the piece of bread, like an hors d’oeuvre, I guess.

I really liked this because the seafood was prepared simply and wasn’t too heavy as tapas tend to be.  The next dish however…

Well well well, what do we have here?

Well well well, what do we have here?

…was the House Cannelloni.  I didn’t know Barcelonans ate cannelloni!  Or maybe it’s just an accommodation for the tourist, but there were many other cannelloni options.  It was some sort of meat concoction (again, don’t really know what type of meat) stuff in the pasta roll and smothered in béchamel sauce and sprinkled with cheese.  Very hearty, and very filling.

Hola Barcelona!

The flight to Barcelona via Dusseldorf was uneventful. While boarding at O’Hare I was behind this super tall girl who turns out is on the basketball team at DePaul. Some people recognized her and all of sudden people were trying to get photos with her. Didn’t know we had a semi-celebrity on board (doesn’t beat the time my dad sat behind Chris Webber on a flight many years ago when the Kings were still relevant). This was my first time on a non-Asian foreign airline, so I was curious about the service standards and etc. In the end, it was very efficient and somewhat impersonal as the Germans are prone to be I suppose. I also have this fascination with airplane food, so here is a photo of dinner: some sort of chicken with rice and spinach combination, salad, and chocolate mousse.

Dinner is served…at 35000 feet in the air.

Dinner is served…at 35000 feet in the air.

Decent, but breakfast was pathetic – one teeny muffin, a cup of fruit, and a Lorna Doodle bar.  How does this constitute breakfast when Asian carriers give you TWO substantial options for breakfast?  Clearly Cathay Pacific (and to a lesser extent the Taiwanese carriers) has spoiled me…

Central Dusseldorf.

Central Dusseldorf.

Barcelona El Prat Airport.  Large and spacious, sort of like HKG.

Barcelona El Prat Airport. Large and spacious, sort of like HKG.

After waiting for an eternity for my bag to come out on the luggage carrousel and then searching for an ATM machine, I was on a bus heading to central Barcelona (the Barcelona Metro will eventually be extended to El Prat airport, but for now busses will have to suffice).  I got off at Plaça d’Espanya to transfer to the Metro and met my first mishap of the day.  The credit card I had brought doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee and even has a chip in it as is common in European cards.  But when I was trying to buy my Metro pass, the machine kept asking for a PIN number.  Um, when did credit cards start having PIN numbers?  I tried multiple times, but gave up and used cash which I had been hoping to save.

The Barcelona Metro is surprisingly very well developed.  I say “surprisingly” because I had no idea it was this extensive, but I suppose hosting an Olympics does wonders for public transit.  There are lines across the entire city, so you are never too far from a Metro stop.  The cars are also air-conditioned, which is a blessing (London and Paris, I’m looking at you guys).  One curious thing I noticed is that the car doors have this button you press to open the doors.  I think the doors are pneumatic doors, so pressing the button releases the pressure and opens the doors.  Therefore, instead of waiting for the doors to open (it can sometimes take a long time on CTA cars), you can just open them yourself.  This is ingenious!  Why can’t we implement this in the good ole US of A?

I got off at the Maria Cristina stop, and on my way to the hotel some guy tripped over my rollaboard.  Clearly this was not my fault as he was talking on his cellphone and was not paying attention to where he was going, but nonetheless he turned around and yelled “Stupido!” at me repeatedly.  Do you think I’m an idiot?  I know you’re calling me stupid, but do you think because I’m Asian that I don’t understand what you’re saying?  Besides, you’re the one at fault here.  He stormed off and I was thinking, “You are not giving me a good first impression of Barcelonans…”

After checking in and taking a shower to refresh myself, I headed back out and took the Metro down to Plaça de Catalunya.  It was already 3 pm and I hadn’t eaten lunch so I was starving, but I figured I could find something to eat along Barcelona’s most famous thoroughfare, Las Ramblas.

This monument at the corner of the square is supposedly representative of the shape of Catalunya.

This monument at the corner of the square is supposedly representative of the shape of Catalunya.

The start of Las Ramblas.

The start of Las Ramblas.

Las Ramblas is people-watching paradise.  Everybody comes here, and since most of it is for pedestrians only, it makes for a nice leisurely stroll.  That also means you’re most susceptible to pickpockets.  Everything I read about Barcelona said that this is one of the worst places to get pickpocketed because there are just so many of them.  I kept a vigilant eye on my backpack and avoided shady-looking people, but in the end I didn’t suffer being pickpocketed here or in London and Paris.  I don’t know if the pickpocketing situation has been blown out of proportion, but you just need to keep an eye on your belongings.

First stop of the day is the Mercat de La Boqueria, a bustling market selling some of the freshest products I’ve ever seen – outside of Asia, that is.

Amusingly, DD excludes the “Donut” component in its European franchises.  Instead it’s Dunkin’ Coffee!

Amusingly, DD excludes the “Donut” component in its European franchises. Instead it’s Dunkin’ Coffee!

Entrance to the Mercat de La Boqueria.

Entrance to the Mercat de La Boqueria.

Sure, you have to fight through the crowds of tourists, but the colors are so vibrant!

Sure, you have to fight through the crowds of tourists, but the colors are so vibrant!

Look at all this fresh seafood!

Look at all this fresh seafood!

Even the butcher has some tantalizing products.

Even the butcher has some tantalizing products.

I eventually sat down at this seafood restaurant called Kiosk, which was also my introduction to Spanish dining habits.  Basically, if a spot opens up at the bar, go ahead and take it, then let the server know.  This proactive practice is very alien to me, so it took some courage to actually do it, but in the end I got used to it.  There were plates of fresh seafood that you pick from and then they cook it for you.  They also have daily specials, but they ran out of the small octopi that I wanted to try, so I went with sea bass.

The restaurant.

The restaurant.

Displays of the available fresh seafood cooked to order.

Displays of the available fresh seafood cooked to order.

Specials of the day, plus some other menu items.

Specials of the day, plus some other menu items.

My sea bass with some fries, bread, and a glass of white wine.

My sea bass with some fries, bread, and a glass of white wine.

The sea bass was pan-fried very well and there was some sort of green sauce that they splashed over the fish, but in retrospect I should have gotten something more exotic, like the scallops or large prawns.  Don’t get me wrong, the sea bass was very delicious, but I thought it was something that my mom or grandmother could easily do.  Heck, even I could probably make it!  But it was also one of the cheapest options as I soon discovered just how frickin’ expensive meals are in Europe.  With the wine thrown in there, it was 17€ – that’s over $22 for a lunch!  I don’t know how the Europeans do it…

Afterwards, I meandered down Las Ramblas, passing by some interesting sights.

Oh la la, an Erotic Museum?

Oh la la, an Erotic Museum?

A random alley/passage branching off from Las Ramblas.

A random alley/passage branching off from Las Ramblas.

Why is there a Chinese dragon in Barcelona?

Why is there a Chinese dragon in Barcelona?

Teatre del Liceu.

Teatre del Liceu.

At the end of Las Ramblas is a monument to Christopher Columbus who stopped in Barcelona on his way back from The New World in 1493.

Apparently there is an elevator squeezed into the monument that you can ride up.

Apparently there is an elevator squeezed into the monument that you can ride up.

Lions guarding the base of the monument.

Lions guarding the base of the monument.

And past the monument is the waterfront.  Barcelona used to be called the “Manchester of Spain” because it was a former manufacturing city whose fortunes had fallen.  Its harbor was in disrepair and no one wanted to go anywhere near the waterfront.  But then the 1992 Olympics rolled into town, so the city decided to revitalize the waterfront to be more people friendly, and I must say they were incredibly successful.  Throngs of people were out and about, and public art lined the entire way.

That’s one happy lobster.

That’s one happy lobster.

The “face” of Barcelona.

The “face” of Barcelona.

An office building for some energy company.  That is one huge cantilever…

An office building for some energy company. That is one huge cantilever…

I just realized that this part of the building is supposed to mirror the monument from before – the shape of Catalunya!

I just realized that this part of the building is supposed to mirror the monument from before – the shape of Catalunya!

It being summer, the beaches were full of people.  There’s even a nude beach further down, but given the lax European attitude towards swim attire (men in speedos, women sunbathing topless, and children running around naked), these “clothed” beaches were probably not that far removed from the nude beach.

Les platges.

Les platges.

I was so mesmerized by these guys playing volleyball with their entire bodies EXCEPT their hands that I walked into a stone bench.  Ouch.

I was so mesmerized by these guys playing volleyball with their entire bodies EXCEPT their hands that I walked into a stone bench. Ouch.

There is an SOM connection to Barcelona.  That copper awning structure is actually a work by Frank Gehry called “The Fish” and who did he call to come in and do the structural work?  Yep, that’s right – SOM Chicago.  The building behind The Fish is also an SOM project now called Hotel Arts.

Quite literally a gold fish.

Quite literally a gold fish.

A different interpretation of the John Hancock Building.

A different interpretation of the John Hancock Building.

Those connections must have been a pain to detail

Those connections must have been a pain to detail

While the Hotel des Arts is visually very striking, it doesn’t have the same impact as the John Hancock does.  Someone in the office said that he thought it didn’t age well, and I realized that he was right.  Maybe painting the steel white made it more prone to becoming discolored?

Done with my obligatory visit to these two SOM projects, I headed back to the
Cathedral and stumbled upon people doing the sardana dances!  Essentially people form a ring, raise their arms in the air, and dance along with the music by a small orchestra (yes, it literally had a couple violins, some woodwinds, and some brass).  Not crazy club dancing, but slow foot movements.

Most of the participants were of the older generation.

Most of the participants were of the older generation.

These dances are an integral part of Barcelona culture which is oftentimes at odds with the rest of Spain.  Case in point – street signs:

No Español here.

Catalunya has always tried to maintain a somewhat separate identity from the Spain as defined by Madrid.  Catalan is more widely spoken than Spanish and they even have their own parliament.  Catalunya suffered under Franco but has since witnessed a rebirth after the end of his reign, culminating in the 1992 Olympics.

The Cathedral.

The Cathedral.

The Palau de la Música Catalana.  I don't think a translation is necessary.

The Palau de la Música Catalana. I don’t think a translation is necessary.

A whimsical building with floating eyes.

A whimsical building with floating eyes.

Um, how does Japanese and Argentinian even work?

Um, how does Japanese and Argentinian even work?

Knowing that the Spaniards eat quite late, I figured I had enough time to go see some of the new buildings in Barcelona, primarily the Torre Agbar.

The tallest skyscraper in Barcelona, by French starchitect Jean Nouvel.

The tallest skyscraper in Barcelona, by French starchitect Jean Nouvel.

London has The Gherkin, Barcelona has a giant rainbow dildo.

London has The Gherkin, Barcelona has a giant rainbow dildo.

After a quick bathroom stop at a local mall (another European gripe – lack of public toilets), I head back to the Avinguda del Portal de l’Angel for a walk through the Barri Gòtic.  But first, a granissat, or slushy, at this place:

One of the oldest operating businesses along the Avinguda del Portal de l'Angel.

One of the oldest operating businesses along the Avinguda del Portal de l’Angel.

Instead of following a set course, I just started to make turns at random streets. I just so happened to walk down a street and saw this:

Els Quatre Gats, Picasso's place to hang-out before moving shop to Paris.

Els Quatre Gats, Picasso’s place to hang-out before moving shop to Paris.

I came across a small courtyard where children were playing and the locals were hanging out at the neighborhood café. No one would have known this little area existed in such a heavily touristy area.  And then I turned the corner…

Wait, is this a vision from heaven?

Wait, is this a vision from heaven?

Yes, my friends.  This is a boba shop in the middle of the Barri Gòtic in Barcelona.  And quite a few Asian people inside too, so it looked legitimate.  I never thought that such a place could exist in Spain.  In the bigger cosmopolitan cities like London and Paris, I would expect so, but Spain?  Barcelona?  My mind is blown.

Typical alley in the Barri Gòtic.

Typical alley in the Barri Gòtic.

After recovering from my shock, my stomach reminded me that it was hungry, so I headed back up the Passeig de Gracia and decided to have dinner at Tapas 24.  Much like at lunch, I spotted an opening at the bar and slid in, letting the server know.  And then I was confronted with the menu:

Um, translation please?

Um, translation please?

It was rather intimidating trying to decipher the menu, but luckily the restaurant is very English friendly and the server explained the entire menu to me.  I settled on the following dishes.

A croquette.  Anything fried is delicious in my book.

A croquette. Anything fried is delicious in my book.

Fried fish balls.  They weren't solid like Chinese fish balls but were quite flaky, almost like fish paste.  With a squirt of lemon juice on top, fantastic.

Fried fish balls. They weren’t solid like Chinese fish balls but were quite flaky, almost like fish paste. With a squirt of lemon juice on top, fantastic.

Beef stewed with mushrooms.  Mmm...

Beef stewed with mushrooms. Mmm…

And for dessert, how about some chocolate drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with a bit of salt?  Yes, please!

And for dessert, how about some chocolate drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with a bit of salt? Yes, please!

While ordering, I struck up a conversation with the guy next to me who was also eating solo.  It turns out that he was studying at some university in northern Spain for the summer and had come down to Barcelona with his friends for the weekend.  He plays football while studying CS at UPenn, and – get this – is originally from Naperville!  Such a small world that two Chicagoans (well, sort of) would end sitting next to each other at a tapas bar in Barcelona.

A very solid restaurant that quickly got busy after 8 pm.

A very solid restaurant that quickly got busy after 8 pm.

By the time I was done with dinner, I was incredibly tired.  I had gotten about 5 hours of sleep total on the plane, so exhaustion set in.  But before I returned to my room, I heard firecrackers going off in a street behind the hotel…

I have absolutely no idea what's going on here.

I have absolutely no idea what’s going on here.

Some people were dressed up like devils and playing with fire while others were banging drums loudly.

The police just stood by watching and making sure things didn't get out of hand.

The police just stood by watching and making sure things didn’t get out of hand.

I’m still puzzled by what was going on, but sleep beckoned…

Fly Like a Blackhawk

So this post really isn’t about Barcelona but rather the lead-up to my trip.  As it got closer and closer to my departure date, the busier and busier I got.  Ironically, the week before you leave for vacation is always the busiest as you try to finish things up.  It also didn’t help that I had a deadline ON my day of departure.  And finally there was that tiny insignificant event where the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup.

Madness on Clark St!

Madness on Clark St!

The city basically erupted in joy after the Blackhawks got the Cup.  And of course there was going to be a parade.  On a Friday in June.  When all the kids are out of school.  Considering that upwards of 2 million people showed up at the previous parade in 2010, everybody knew it was going to be a cluster-f*ck that Friday.  Consequently, many people didn’t bother coming to the office and worked from home instead (or played hooky), but not me.  I got up uber-early in the morning and got to work right before 8 am only to be greeted by this sight:

It's only 8 am and there are already this many people!

It’s only 8 am and there are already this many people!

If it weren’t for this damn deadline (the Chinese don’t really care about American festivities, unfortunately), I would have joined the masses, but instead I worked until around 10:30 and took off with some co-workers to the intersection of Wabash and Washington underneath the L tracks.  My thinking was that since the parade went along Washington before turning down Columbus, we could still get a good glance without having to fight the throngs in Grant Park.  Boy was I wrong.  The crowd was already 10 people deep when we got there, but luckily my friends Diann and Kasey had already staked out a plot of asphalt.  And the buses carrying the players with their families and friends just sped past us!  I couldn’t even tell who was on each bus!

SLOW DOWN DAMMIT!!!  I CAN'T SEE YOU GUYS!!!

SLOW DOWN DAMMIT!!! I CAN’T SEE YOU GUYS!!!

In retrospect, we should have gone to the northern end of Columbus because there weren’t that many people there and the buses took their sweet time going down Columbus.  But regardless, the atmosphere was absolutely electric.  Everybody was cheering every time a bus came rumbling past.  Office workers in the surrounding buildings were hanging out their windows.  It was an absolute party even at 11 in the morning.

Afterwards, I returned to the office but no sooner had I sat down when I heard that the building was letting occupants up to the mysterious penthouse level to watch the parade from the outdoor patio.  I didn’t even know we had an outdoor patio!  So we raced up to the 17th floor and hiked up a couple stairs to see this:

A sea of red shirts!

A sea of red shirts!

Not a cloud was in sight, and everybody was going nuts over the Blackhawks bringing the Cup back home.

At night all these buildings had Blackhawk signage up.  What a great source of civic pride!

At night all these buildings had Blackhawks signage up. What a great source of civic pride!

It was very hard to concentrate at work after all this.  Some of us had the live stream on one computer screen while working on CAD/Revit on the other screen.  Several co-workers brought in special Blackhawks themed donuts courtesy of Dunkin’ Donuts.  And of course all my Chinese co-workers had no clue as to what was going on.  “My bus was so crowded this morning.  What is going on?” “My train didn’t even stop at my station!” “Why are there so many people here?”  Well, sucks for them…

By 12:30, the speeches were over and people were filing back to the L/Metra stops and basically trashing the city along the way.  I have never seen the streets so filled with junk.  And because the Corner Bakery in my building is one of the few restaurants facing Michigan Avenue, it was swamped with people.  Getting my lunch took way longer than usual, but I’m sure all the businesses in the Loop appreciated the gargantuan increase in sales that day.

It was at this point that I decided to leave a little early for fear that the Blue Line would be overcrowded.  After bidding adieu to the remaining people in the office, I headed out to O’Hare, happy that my vacation was finally starting.