“We're the Catalonia of the US”

We woke up around 6, to our alarms.  We hadn’t gotten enough sleep, but that was only because we’d had such a great day the day before.  [As an aside, we tried to “rank” our favorite travel days ever, and yesterday was right up there with the Xigera-Mombo day back in 2007.  There were plenty of other days that had great events or experiences, but as far as all day, not too many days stood out.]  After getting ready, we walked over to Palau de Musica Catalunya, which was a short walk from our hotel, and we found it with no trouble.  At this time of morning, finding anyone was likely to be the right spot, as Barcelona does not seem to be a “morning” city.  We checked in for our tour – the “Three Countries in One Day” tour to France and Andorra – and waited to head out.  There were two small buses, and ours was supposed to be 18 people, but a group of 6 was late (we heard one side of the call to the office where the office stated they couldn’t wait any longer), so there was just 12 people on our bus.  Whilst waiting we used the time to purchase tickets to La Sagrada Familia for Saturday, and many time slots were already full.  We got one around mid-afternoon so that it (hopefully) wouldn’t interfere with any lunch, happy hour, or dinner plans we came up with.

On the way out of Barcelona we went northeast and went past Montserrat (where we were scheduled to go tomorrow), and our guide Xavier recommended people see it whilst in Barcelona.  From where we were, we could see some buildings on the side of a steep mountain, but that was about it.  Xavier told us a bit about how during Roman times the conscripted soldiers were given “Sallent,” a prescribed amount of salt, as opposed to money.  Apparently this is where the word “salary” comes from.  The Romans came through the Barcelona area to set up the city of Cadiz, then went after the Carthaginians from there.  It’s always interesting when the various stops on a trip all fit together, and this trip has had a lot of them.

Xavier told us that “Catalonia” (or Catalunya, as we often saw) means “land of castles.”  As we continued on our way, Xavier told us about the Pre-Pyrenees, which apparently are the shorter mountains before getting to the “real” Pyrenees.  We went through a long tunnel traversing the Pre-Pyrenees, and after going through that the real Pyrenees were ahead of us in our view.  This would have been much easier to make out but for the fact that we were having a lot of dark cloudy weather this morning.  Our bus stopped in Baga (still in Spain) for a morning break.  First we got some croissants/donuts (Justin’s chocolate croissant had essentially a chocolate bar inside a pastry), and then we got soda and coffee at a nearby shop.  We had a decent amount of time in Baga, but it was cold, windy, and rainy, so people weren’t exploring much. 

At the meeting spot we overheard Xavier telling another couple that he used to live in San Diego and loved it.  Xavier walked us around town and showed us the Baron, who was largely responsible for founding/maintaining the city.  At the same time he explained to us all of the yellow ribbons around – this was for the release/freedom of the Catalan politicians who had been imprisoned for hosting an election regarding independence.  He told us that one of the main reasons for seeking independence was Catalonia contributed some large percentage (we don’t remember exactly what) to the Spanish economy, but we received back only a fraction of that for public works and whatnot.  After having been to the Canaries, we figured a lot of them (e.g., El Hierro) received far more than they put in.  Xavier also tried to show us the St Stephen’s church, joking when one of the tourists couldn’t open the door, only to find out he couldn’t open it himself because it was latched shut for some odd reason today.  We thought about giving him some good-natured grief, but didn’t feel like getting left in the middle of nowhere.

Somewhere along the line it stopped raining, and we had a bit of blue skies.  We went through a 5km tunnel and we came out even sunnier.  Xavier mentioned that people from Barcelona had second homes in this area – because of the skiing in the area – but that several folks had their second home on the French side of the border instead of the Spanish side because of cheaper prices.  We drove through Puigcerda and its non-border (at least after the EU formation).  Once in France, Xavier stated that “the people here are...nice” in France (as compared with people from Paris).  He also mentioned that this part of France used to be part of Catalonia, until the late 1600s.

We stopped in a small village called Mont Louis.  Normally we would’ve stopped in some other French village, but because of a rockslide blocking the road we were going to Mont Louis instead.  This village was quite small, but with walls surrounding the whole place.  Walking the whole village took only 10-15 minutes.  There were only a couple items of interest.  First, there appeared to be a “guard cat” that was keeping the horses and donkeys in place.  We’d never seen this before, but the cat was on a long leash, and the horses were visibly terrified of the cat, so this is what we think was going on.  Second, there was a very nice church in the middle of town, with stained glass windows on the sides and a chapel having an altar to Joan of Arc.  On the way back to the bus we chatted with Xavier about “three countries in one day.”  He’d asked earlier if anyone had ever done that before, and we didn’t say yes or no, as we couldn’t recall.  But we thereafter remembered we’d had a day where we woke up in Zambia, saw Victoria Falls from that side, then went into Zimbabwe, saw a bit of the falls and surrounding area there, and then flew to Johannesburg where we had dinner (before flying to Rwanda just after midnight).  Xavier was surprised to hear this, and also mentioned he used to be a guide in that part of the world.

Back on the bus, several of the people were cold, including a group of Swedish people behind us, which seemed ironic given that it wasn’t that cold, certainly relative to Sweden.  Xavier told us that they speak Catalan in Andorra, making it the only country (for now) with Catalan as its official language.  But they also speak French, Spanish, and English there.  Andorra managed to stay an independent all of these years because it had a government where one French and one Spanish person were the main politicians, effectively making Andorra a “shared” place that neither Spain nor France had any interest in conquering because of the issues that would arise with its neighbor.  Nowadays Andorra is a tax haven, giving benefits not possible in member countries of the EU.  So Andorra uses the Euro, but is not part of the EU.  Also, it has 80k people, but over 100 banks.  Since it is tax free, it can’t be part of the EU – the same as Switzerland. Xavier also asked if people knew the various microstates of Europe, and their size from smallest to largest. Justin, avid geography buff and Sporcle player, got them all - Vatican City, Monaco, San Marino, Liechtenstein, Malta, Andorra, Luxembourg. Xavier asked if Justin was a teacher, which got a good laugh from us.

Xavier told us an interesting story about a Russian guy in the 1930s who became King in exchange for bringing investors to Andorra and thus helping the economy.  Andorra was fine with this, but the Roman Bishop was pissed, tattled on the Russian guy, and thus the Russian guy lost hist title after 13 days.  [Apparently, one cannot “buy” royalty in Europe.]  The sun was out when we arrived in Andorra.  Xavier told us about a couple prominent tourist sites in Andorra, including a Dali “melting” clock and a nearby bridge, which were the first places we went after exiting the vehicle.  We would’ve gotten better pictures of the Dali clock except for the fact a woman was having her own private photoshoot that lasted about 2-3 minutes whilst a bunch of us waited.  Xavier also mentioned there was a Starbucks, which we went to, but surprisingly it had no mugs – we would’ve figured that would’ve been a collector’s item.

We went to “120” for lunch – Xavier had recommended this for grilled meats.  We shared a bottle of wine, and got pizza (Crystal) and lamb (Justin).  Our lunch ate up (no pun intended) a lot of our time in Andorra, but given the weather we weren’t sure what else we were supposed to see.  As we left, it was pouring rain, harder than anything we’d seen on the trip so far.  We went into a couple of perfumeries, then into a grocery store near where we were supposed to meet our vehicle.  The booze prices were exceptional, which we could tell based on stuff we purchase often such as tequila and rum.  We bought a bottle of Anniversario rum (as our Tenerife driver would’ve said, “the good stuff”) for 22 Euros, about 2/3 of the normal price.  We took it back on the vehicle and someone asked if we needed/wanted any mixers, and we said “we don’t need coke for that.”

As we were waiting for the last person to get on the bus, we overheard some people chatting about California and its taxes and what those taxes (supposedly) did to harm business.  Justin said fairly loudly (but not overly loudly) “God forbid we run a surplus” – we aren’t sure if they heard him or not.  Crystal told Justin “we’re the Catalonia of the US” (referring to California).  Once the last person made her way back on the bus, Xavier was happy – we got the impression this doesn’t happen all the time.  Once out of Andorra and back in Spain we started sipping Anniversario on the bus.  Between that and the giant lunch, Justin fell asleep.  Crystal was still amped up about the comments from the others, and spent the time looking up statistics about California’s money in versus money returned, just so she’d be loaded for bear in case we got in a spat with our colleagues on the bus.

About halfway back to Barcelona we got drinks at some hole in the wall (Restaurant Can Valls in Villanova de l’Aguda), which Xavier had promised us if we constantly made our way back to the bus on time, which we had.  We arrived back in Barcelona at 7pm, dropping us off at Plaza Catalonia.  This was, as far as we could tell, the epicenter of tourists in Barcelona, with people everywhere.  We walked down (south) on La Rambla, the main tourist drag in the city.  The fancy stores on either side didn’t garner much interest from us, but we did go see a bit of the local market, albeit with a lot of the shops closed.  We saw a Starbucks, and Crystal picked up a Barcelona mug.  From there we walked generally northeast towards the hotel, passing by the Cathedral of Barcelona (a big 13th Century Cathedral with lots of people out front), and arriving at the hotel a bit after 8pm.

Once there, we went up on the roof terrace for some meat and wine.  We chatted extensively with our server, who had moved from Boston some time earlier.  She told us that she’d had on her bucket list to live in Europe, and this checked that off the list.  From our vantage point we had a good view over the Arc de Triomf.  We decided to go out for dinner, but the place next door – run by some former employees of El Buli – was completely full.  So we walked around until we came across Casa Lola, which we’d seen this morning going to the meeting spot for our tour.  Justin got some paella (more like a Jambalaya), and Crystal got potatoes and peppers.  The food wasn’t great, but it hit the spot.  We (mainly Justin) watched Arsenal play Valencia in a Europa League semifinal, and thankfully Arsenal won.  Somehow along the way we looked down and it was already 11pm.  We walked back, past some sort of commotion with the police (not sure what it was), and then went to sleep around 11:30.

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