Monday, January 18, 2010

ANDORRABLE

We interrupt our previously scheduled program to bring you a special guest post! The following is an account of a visit to the tiny country of Andorra, written by my travel mentor who also happens to be my mother.

Andorrable

Well…not completely. The Principality of Andorra is the sixth smallest nation in Europe, having an area of 468 km2 (181 sq mi) and an estimated population of 84,484 in 2008. If size qualifies a location as “adorable”, there it is. But wait, there’s more.


Why travel to this tiny sovereign country nestled in the Pyrenees between France and Spain? Because it is there? Ali’s dad thought so, and since he: 1. Drives our rental cars and 2. Does not usually request specific destinations, leaving those decisions to me (to our mutual benefit) it was off to Andorra we went, by way of Montserrat, one of the most fantastic places in the world . Go there when you visit Barcelona and plan to spend the day.

Until 2006 I had no idea that Andorra has a capital city and that the name is Andorra La Vella (Andorra the Old in Catalan, more on that shortly). I learned that fact from my daughter, the owner of this blog, in a trivia game. (Yes I am a librarian.) Andorra La Vella is not an attractive city. Its dual purposes appear to be to hide copious amounts of currency (a la Switzerland) judging from the number of international banks lining the streets and to facilitate large tax free purchases of alcohol and cigarettes for Europeans. We were not in the market for either of those items; still we were stopped by Spanish customs officers upon our exit. Andorra is not a member of the EU and apparently the tax free issues are taken seriously by the border patrol. Once they heard our American accents and my poor attempt at speaking Spanish and non-knowledge of Catalan, they waved us on and we were on our way back to Spain.

Andorra La Vella does have a tiny old town (well the whole place is tiny) that is reachable by hiking up a mountain or taking an elevator. Guess which option was taken by 50somethings in the dusk and drizzle. Old Town does have a certain charm, including the smallest parliament building in Europe which was locked, although the woman in the TI told us it would be open. It was Saturday night, dark by then with a more steady rain, so we purchased a copy of Harry Potter in Catalan for Ali’s cousin who collects Harry Potter in as many languages as possible, found a non-descript cafeteria for a quick bite and headed back to the charmless New Town.

In a departure from my usual, nay obsessive research I chose the first hotel I could find in my online search, the Andorra La Vella Crowne Plaza. Not a good choice, virtually indistinguishable from any other CP in the world, and expensive to boot. It turned out that there are quaint looking small hotels in Old Town. However parking our rental car/lugging our suitcase up the mountain might have been problematic.

By Sunday morning, a difficult time to find things to do in many smaller places in Europe, it was snowing lightly, and despite that the fact that we were heading up a mountain we decided to visit Ordino, a small Pyrenean village which IS charming. Ordino is also distinguished by two tiny museums housed in the same building, right on the main street. At this point the snow was really coming down, but since we are intrepid upstate New Yorkers who know how to deal with snow, we decided to visit one of the two museums, both founded by a Ukrainian named Nicola├» Syadristy who found himself in Andorra. The Museum of Russian Icons looked interesting but we had just been in Russia six months earlier, so we chose the Museum of Micro Miniatures. In reading about this museum in the tourist brochure—my only source of information since this librarian could not locate a travel book dedicated to Andorra—we pictured some of the small portraits in tiny perfect frames that we had seen in other museums. NOT SO. This museum had miniscule objects and scenes in gold leaf—the one that immediately comes to mind is a desert scene complete with camels and pyramids. It fits in the eye of a needle. I later learned that this scene is the favorite among museum visitors. There are powerful monoculars to view these objects. We could not comprehend how they had been created.



We could have spent hours studying these fascinating creations but at this point the snow was really heavy and discretion won out. We headed down the mountain and into Spain where the sun was shining. We had originally intended to exit through France since we like to travel in a circle, but were dissuaded by the snow and by the admonition of the TI lady in Andorra La Vella that it is “really far”. Actually nothing is truly very far in Andorra.

About the Catalan language: it is an amalgamation of all the other Romance languages however it sounds like none of them. In spite of our experiences traveling in Barcelona and the rest of Catalunya, I had no idea that Catalan is the national language of Andorra. And French appears to be #2. To my admittedly non-linguistically trained eye Catalan most resembles Portuguese in its written form. Since I speak decent French and have a basic reading knowledge of Spanish and even a smattering of Portuguese (from one visit) and Italian (from travels, but mainly from opera) I thought I would pick up some Catalan phrases. Here it is: “Si us plau”—that’s “please”. And that’s it.

Even though not a member of the European Union, the unit of currency is the euro since Andorra has no currency of its own. Prior to the advent of the euro Spanish pesetas and French francs were both accepted.

There are also no airports anywhere in the county, nor is there a train station. You must fly to Toulouse, France or Barcelona, Spain . The best way to get around is to rent a car. The roads are good, although frequently snow-covered. We were there at the beginning of November and the snowstorm we encountered did not seem to be a rare occurrence.

Do we expect to visit Andorra again? Nope. There are too many other places on our bucket list. Are we sorry we went? Nope. We’ve visited other places “because they were there”. It makes for interesting party conversation. On to Liechtenstein!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

BSC in the USA (part 1)

I've talked about it long enough. It's time for me to join the world of snark. For your reading pleasure, it's BSC in the USA, the absolutely ridiculous Baby-Sitters Club super special in which the whole club (unless you count Logan and Shannon) and a few family members travel across the country in two RVs. For the BSC uninitiated: http://www.scholastic.com/annmartin/bsc/index.htm, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Baby-sitters_Club


There are many fabulous blogs out there (promotion anyone?) that recap BSC books, snark the ridiculous, and discuss the finer points of the series. My purpose is slightly different. Since this blog is supposed to be about travel, I'll be covering the books that are about, well, travel. And hopefully adding some of my own experiences where they fit. And I figure a good place to start is the horrible wonderful horrible BSC in the USA. One quick note: my current plan is to go chapter by chapter so as not to miss anything. This also might take a few parts to finish... So now, without further ado, let's begin!


BSC in the USA opens with some handwriting from Dawn. At this point in the series, Dawn lives full time (minus vacations and summers) in California. She's currently in Stoneybrook for the summer, but that's about to be cut short as her father has agreed to drive an RV cross country for a friend. Despite Dawn's environmental protests, she agrees to go along, as does Jeff. When Dawn mentions the trip to the rest of the BSC, they're so excited about it they want to join in. Because Watson somehow can't help stealing vacation plans, he decides that a cross-country trip would be just the thing for the Thomas/Brewer clan. Minus Sam and Charlie. And Emily Michelle. And Nannie. What Watson lacks in desire for family togetherness he gains in generosity to Kristy's friends. And thus, the rest of the baby-sitters are invited along.


Not to be outdone, Jack (Dawn's father, remember? No?) insists Dawn invite friends as well. Basically, all the BSCers get to go. Each person gets to choose a destination. Just for the sake of simplicity, the RVs are divided up as follows:


Heading north with the Schafers: Jack (driving, San Francisco), Dawn (a ghost town), Jeff (rock climbing), Mary Anne (Maynard, Iowa, home of her grandmother), Kristy (major league ballparks), Claudia (Art Institute of Chicago), and Stacey (Seattle).


South with the Thomas/Brewers: Watson (driving, Lester, Oklahoma), Elizabeth (someplace scenic), Karen (Four Corners), Andrew (San Diego Zoo), Mallory (Chincoteague), Jessi (Dalton, Mississippi), and Abby (Graceland).


First off, half those places are fictional. Second, you'll notice that quite a few people had trouble with the concept of picking a place to visit. But we'll get to that.


Anyway, there's a lot that's snarkable in the first few chapters (before anything actually happens) but I'm skipping most of that because it's boring. On with the trip!
The first chapter on the road belongs to Jessi on account of the southern RV stopping for a visit with Jessi's relatives in Oakley, NJ. In case you didn't already know Jessi's black, her grandparents have an "African theme" to their house and her grandmother has provided a large meal consisting entirely of soul food. I just find all of that... a bit interesting I guess.

The only thing remotely interesting that happens in this chapter is that Jessi accuses Mallory, her best friend, of racism. Way to go Jessi! I mean, I get that racism is something she's dealt with and that's definitely not cool. But, seriously? Her best friend? Anyway, since I haven't been to the fictional town of Oakley, NJ, it's time to move on.
Sticking with the southerners, their next stop is Chincoteague (or, in Kristy's spelling if I remember correctly, Chinkateeg. Sure it's a hard word, but, you're not Claudia, Kristy.) This is Mallory's destination. Well, to be more precise, Assateague is. For the non-horse book fans (like me, and Mal and Jessi would so not approve) these islands have something to do with books. See Misty of Chincoteague for more info if you actually care. I don't.


While on Chincoteague, they get into an accident. It's not Watson's fault (or so we're led to believe, dun dun dun) but as a result, the group meets the annoying Hoyer family and their brat granddaughter Felicitas (or as she would say, "It's Liz, dammit!"). I wouldn't mention it except it sort of comes up later.


From there, Team South (as I think I'll call them from now on) head over to Assateague, where the wild, make that feral, horses actually are. Even though the island is big and visitors are only allowed on a tiny part of it, they get to see the horses. Of course they do. Mallory cries. (C'mon Mallory, you're not Mary Anne!)

Next stop, Graceland. Now we're getting somewhere. Graceland is one of those places I've actually visited. I therefore know exactly how ridiculous it is that Watson and Elizabeth leave the kids and take some "time off". In Memphis. A big, unfamiliar city. Five kids 13 and under (Abby, the oldest, being the only 13 year old) are left to visit Graceland by themselves. Honestly? If I had seen a group of young kids alone at Graceland, I probably would have... made an idle threat. But seriously, that's kinda cause for concern.

Abby, the supposedly ultimate Elvis fan actually doesn't seem too thrilled with Graceland. It seems like she's more interested in convincing the others that Elvis is still alive. Abby, you're already in a cult. You've sworn allegiance to the BSC, participate in ritual sacrifices "meetings" three times a week, and devote most of your free time to brainwashing America's youth through the power of Kid Kits. You don't have room in your life for this.
On to the house! Graceland is amazing. Amazing in an unbelievably tacky way. Rather than describe it, I'll let the pictures do the talking. Check this out:


The outside, obviously. I couldn't get a good picture thanks to the constant influx of people and tour buses.






The living room, I think. I think the style is called tacky fabulous.


Dining room.



Kitchen, complete with carpet.










And finally:










In particular, Abby comments on the tackiness of the den, noting its "jungle decor". Uh, they call it the jungle room for a reason, Abby. Some Elvis fan you are. That room's famous. I actually plan to talk about the Graceland house in more detail in an upcoming post so enough about that for now.



Moving on, Abby et. al. decide to stalk an Elvis impersonator (who may or may not actually be Elvis) by following him to a motel. I really do hope it's the Heartbreak Hotel. Yes, there is one literally right next door to the whole Graceland complex. I have to say, though, it looked kind of seedy to me. Maybe not the best place for a bunch of kids to be wandering around? Well, no one's offered Watson and Elizabeth any parent of the year awards, at least as far as I can tell.


The kids supposedly meet up with the grown-ups at the mall "across the street from Graceland". Here I have to rant a little bit. Now, I don't know how much Graceland changed in the ten or so years between the publishing of this book and my visit. However, as it is now, the mansion, a museum, some Presley graves (Elvis is buried there) and some other things (property owned by Elvis) are on one side of a street. The information center, some other museums (maybe newer museums?) gift shops, etc. are on the other side. If the layout is the same as it was, saying "across the street" really doesn't make sense. The tickets are bought and the tour starts from that side of the street. (Does that make sense? I'll consider clarifying... eventually.) And I don't know what "mall" they were talking about. Strip mall of Elvis gift shops, maybe. Personally, I think maybe Watson and Elizabeth were just trying to ditch the kids. Considering one of them is Karen, I really wouldn't blame them.


Are you fed up with this yet? I am. For now. Thus ends part one. Part two hopefully coming very soon!

(Sidenote: I'm doing this from memory so please feel free to correct any details!)