Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Volvo Ocean Race and the Alicante – Gothenburg Connection

            17 June 2018
Things have been moving rather fast lately; we are in the “if it’s Thursday this must be Stockholm” phase of our travels. Since we left Alicante, Spain on 7 June (10 days!) we’ve been to four cities: Bergen and Oslo, Stockholm and Gothenburg. Today we are taking a little break from non-stop sightseeing and walking all over the place (I mean, really, averaging 10,000 steps per day since we arrived in Madrid? Time to give it a rest!)

While in Alicante we learned that the city is the home to the Volvo Ocean Race and its associated museum. We certainly have in interest in boats, although we don’t follow the racing circuit. But the race is hard to ignore in Alicante, as one of the boats is prominently featured downtown near the marina.

Volvo Ocean Race boat in Alicante
    --- from Google Street View

Visiting the museum in Alicante, we learned that the race is an open-ocean race (covering some nasty oceans!) that’s run every three years, and started in 1973 as the Whitbread Round the World Race. Now it’s owned by Volvo, and is headquartered in Alicante. During our tour of the museum we watched the videos, and were suitably impressed by the demands of the ocean, and the ruggedness of the boats and those who sail them. And, we discovered the race is currently underway: 2018 is one of the 1-in-3 years when the race is held.

The race is divided, like many long-distance races (think: Tour de France) in multiple stages, or legs. And, it just so happens that this year one of the stops is Gothenburg, Sweden, which is, after all, home port for Volvo, the race’s owner and principle sponsor. This encouraged us to check dates and guess what, we found we would be in Gothenburg shortly after the boats arrived.

In fact, it turns out that today, Sunday, our only full day in Gothenburg, is a major day of celebration (or promotion?) for the ocean race, and the day the seven participating boats will have a short, inshore demonstration race.

So we spent the better part of the afternoon at the large, very busy race village, which is packed with display booths and demonstrations, many related to boats and sailing. Well, there’s also some large construction equipment made by Volvo, the latest Volvo automobiles, and an opportunity for interested participants to be driven around a course full of challenging inclines, in the latest Volvo all-wheel drive SUV. And, since the city of Gothenburg prides itself as being “green” and sustainable, a new all-electric city bus is on display, as well as an electrically-driven garbage truck.

In fact, Gothenburg is serious enough about its sustainable future that the entry way to the race village is set up to simulate what the city may well be like in the near future, with a giant display screen showing an image of the city, and real life-walls supporting a food forest (edible plants growing in planters and on the walls themselves). Forward thinking, and inspiring!

Me in front of the display of what Gothenburg may look like in the future
The "living wall," plants growing vertically 
But the real thrill, of course, were the boats, all lined up at the dock. We arrived just as they were leaving, one by one, to head out to the local inshore course for a turn around the buoys. Each of the seven boats was announced, to great fanfare, then left the dock and headed out the channel.
All seven competing boats at the dock

"Turn the Tide on Plastic" (a boat headlining a campaign to reduce plastic use) takes off for the local race

These are enormous sleds, 65 feet long, with very sharp, narrow prows widening out to broad, flat, open sterns, capable of going very fast in atrocious conditions. This little inshore race was just an amusement, and didn’t count for the overall results, but was thrilling for the spectators (i.e., us!).

Once the boats left, we took advantage of the free shuttle ferry to head over to downtown – always looking for an opportunity to get out on the water! After a decent lunch in a nice café we took the shuttle back to find the race was over. Oops, we missed it! (The race itself was held in the coastal waters just outside the city, but many video screens had been set up to show it.) 

Then the rain started. And boy, it fell hard. No complaints, though; we’ve had nothing but fabulous sunny weather since we arrived in Bergen, a town known for its constant rain.

We spent the next 40 minutes in the Turkish Airlines lounge… and why did Turkish Airlines have a lounge at the Volvo Ocean Race? I dunno. But it was quite comfortable, with sofas, and tables and chairs. And there was an enormous spread of delicious-looking food, which we declined to sample after finding that we were expected to pay for it. Still, the rain was pounding down, so we watched the monitors which now showed scenes from earlier legs of the ocean race (each boat has a dedicated videographer on board, as well as extensive satellite communications gear, so race central in Alicante is constantly in touch with every boat).

There were a few scenes of sunset tranquility as a boat idled along in flat seas. But the more impressive footage was that from the Southern Ocean, rounding the Horn with monster seas while crew members, flecked with ice and snow, hang on for dear life as waist-deep water sluices out the open stern. This is where the real race excitement is, when the boats hit 20-plus knots and fly off the tops of waves, on that thin line between maximum performance and total catastrophe. It takes an extraordinary crew to pull it off, and keep up with it for hour after hour, day after day. These crews certainly earn those few hours of tranquil sunsets!

Promotional photos from the Volvo Ocean Race
"Mapfre", the Spanish boat (and our favorite for that) returns to the dock after racing

Back in quiet Gothenburg the rain stopped just before the boats returned and we watched as each backed up to the dock, to great cheers, and prizes were awarded. Then we boarded the electric shuttle bus to return to Gothenburg’s Central Station, a 10-minute walk from our apartment. As we headed back, we seriously discussed how we came to be here, in this town on this particular day. Why did we choose Gothenburg, and not Malmö, another city we considered? And, the date was chosen months ago, long before we left our home in California when we knew nothing of this ocean race. How remarkable – and how perfect – that the one full day we had in Gothenburg should have such a rare and remarkable event happening!

The electric garbage truck. (Bet it's quieter, too!)

Jacking the cab back down on an electric box truck
A wooden bicycle (hey, it's sustainable!)

But our day wasn’t quite over. We'd been resting up for a bit when a tremendous thunderstorm started, the loud booms shaking the apartment buildings around. Then the rain came, horizontal against the windows. And hail! We watched pea-sized hailstones wash down the windows. Suddenly it stopped, and an hour later the sun was out.

Our time in Gothenburg was short, but certainly unforgettable!

In this video of the ocean racing boats leaving the dock for the Gothenburg inshore race, notice how easily they maneuver around the other boats and the mooring buoys. A languid turn of the wheel by the helmsman, and the boat spins on its keel, making the 90 degree turn in its own length. This kind of maneuverability speaks of a sensitivity bordering on instability; these guys are expert sailors (and I'm including the women on board, too!). Upon returning from the race, the boats backed in, first being towed, then motoring under their own power. Sailing boats are notoriously difficult to back well (I know, I've tried!), but these boats are under full control the whole way. Again, a small thing but it speaks volumes for the ability of the crews.

Oh, and if you're not into boats, check out the Volvo SUV test ride! Spectators could ride along with Volvo's drivers over a course showing off the fine handling of these cars. And what does this have to do with the Volvo Ocean Race? Well, there's a reason Volvo pumps so much money into the race, and this is part of their payback!

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Meeting People in Alicante, Part 2

So now, what about those transport cards? Is all lost? Let’s take a look…

Back to the tram station yet again, just to ask.  Hope of ever getting our tram cards in time was fading, but we needed to put in the effort. This time, though, our cards were there! Yah!

And that set what we’d do for the afternoon: ride the tram!

Ultra modern tram station, downtown Alicante

Ultra modern tram

The Cards!
​We’ve been up and down the coast several times now; we’ve been all the way to Benidorm. This is a heavily built-up city. While the whole coast is full of high-rises, Benidorm is a real forest of some very tall structures. Paula read the other day that its 153 skyscrapers are second in number only to New York City. Not really our kind of place! We didn’t stay long, since on this occasion the journey was the destination. Someday we will mount an expedition and explore the city further, and take the next tram line that runs even further north up the coast.
A view of Benidorm from the tram (not its best side)

Another view of Benidorm. 

We have, though, found some other, cuter, towns along the coast. One day we stopped at Villa Joyosa for lunch and a stroll...

Narrow streets and colorful houses in Villajoyosa

But this is what it's really all about along the coast, the beach!
Hummmm..... up near the train tracks, things aren't so colorful

 Meanwhile, we’ve become regulars at the Tuesday afternoon boules* game organized by and for the Brits** in El Campello, another beach community.

* The French game played with heavy steel balls about the size of tennis balls; we’ve played in France, and have spent many hours watching others play.

** Well, most of them are Scots, actually. Does that matter?
The boules pitch. Or court. Or... whatever.

No, I think mine is closer!

We’ve learned that there is a large community of people from the British Isles here. One of the many regrets we have leaving – and there are always many regrets, when leaving – is that we won’t have more time to spend with these potential new friends!

We’ll just have to come back and stay longer…

And after a hard-fought game, nothing like a little cervesa or uno tinto.
I’d like to give a special tip o’ the hat to our boule partner Mike, a Glaswegian (that is, someone from Glasgow). Since we will be traveling in Scotland in a few months, we’ve been bugging him to teach us some Scots slang. He’s been trying, but I feel the fault is with us; you have to be born there! The rest of us just can’t twist up those vowels and consonants in quite the same way.

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And then there is the wine museum. Not far from the boule-playing beach in El Campello is a truly amazing collection of Spanish wine. First Saturday of the month the proprietor puts on a wine tasting. We went, of course. I can’t say I was impressed by many of the wines, but it was surely worthwhile to wander through room after room of floor to ceiling bottles! And we met some of our boule-playing friends there, so the conversation was great, too.

One of many rooms...

How does he keep track of all those bottles???
Things got crowded, fer sure!

Your classic dust-covered bottle (one of many!)
Paula enjoying a glass with one of our new friends from the UK

Another addition to the list of things to do when we’re back in Alicante. And I do expect we’ll be back. However, Wednesday will be our last day in Alicante this time around. Early Thursday morning we will be boarding a flight to Bergen, Norway, famed for its rain (and its cod, I must note). In the three months Paula has been tracking the weather there, it’s been sunny, oh, several times. This week the weather is actually very nice (i.e., warm and dry). We’ll let you know what we find in our next report. 

My my, back in Alicante I see we have some unexplored photos...

Castle of Santa Bárbara rising above the town; how did we get this far without a photo of Alicante's icon?
The jacaranda are in bloom! All over the city...

The palm trees are in bloom! Well, no.  But there are a lot of them.
Paula inspects "our" beach

Roof-top view at night

            The Beach
I have finally discovered the beach here in Alicante. What? Isn’t that why people come to Alicante, for the beach? How come it took four weeks for me to “discover” it? Probably because I come from California. Hey, I grew up on a beach! (Not quite true.) My earliest memory is being tumbled in a wave on a Southern California beach (Very much true!) So, don’t tell me about beaches.

Yeah, I’m a beach snob. Too bad! I missed out on four weeks of beach going! It’s only been a week I’ve been swimming in the ocean, and I like it. It makes my body feel good. My skin has a glow after being in the salt water and lying in the sun. Today I made it out and around the swimming buoy with no trouble (a week ago that seemed a formidable task.) And now we’re leaving. Oh well.

We’ll be back in November. (Will it be beach weather, here in Alicante?) ‘Till then, we’ll say “see you later” with these photos, taken in the evening from the seventh floor of a beach-front high-rise.

Our last day; tomorrow we will be up and out before 04:00 AM to catch our 06:00 flight. We have the usual feelings: regret at leaving, anticipation of arriving moderated by concern with what we'll find, with excitement and anxiety looking very much alike. And then there's that 4AM thing!

In any event, the next blog will come from another country, another latitude. Hasta pronto!.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Meeting People in Alicante, Part 1

Our time in Alicante is nearly up; on Thursday next we will be flying out (at 6AM! Ouch) and moving on to Bergen, Norway. We’re starting to panic: what haven’t we seen yet/ what haven’t we done. And, what will happen next, when we don’t wake up in the same bed and step out onto the same street that has become so familiar?

And, more topically: What’s been going on lately?

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It happened again!

“Paul. Paul!” I thought I heard my name being called. But we were walking on that crazy, geometric walkway along the crowded beach. Must have been just a random noise. I mean, who could be calling me? We only know about, oh, I don’t know, six people in town?

Paula finally turned around ((maybe it was her name I heard) and there were two of our new expat friends, on their way to a xiringuito (beach bar). We accepted their invitation to join them and spent the next two hours (three?) talking and drinking sangria with the blue Mediterranean in the background.

The original Xiringuito Beach Bar
As she always does, Paula had contacted an expat organization here in Alicante to meet people and learn a bit about the area and what long-term foreign residents do here. Now it seems like we’re always running into people we know, even though we know hardly anyone.

The next day we were off on a quest to get our transport card. This card, available only to those 60 years and older, allows unlimited travel on the tram for the low, low price of only 10€ per month. And since the tram runs far up the coast, it's an intriguing way of exploring the many small beach communities. Paula was quick to apply for our cards.

Ok, so there's this funny video about bureaucracy in Spain. A young woman enters a government office to apply for a permit, and ends up engaging in a battle of wills with the clerk. After a series of thrusts and counters, she finally emerges victorious as the once-invincible clerk is left slumped on his desk.

It's quite humorous – until it happens to you! We submitted our forms and showed our passports. Ah but we needed to submit copies of the passports. Ok, so we got copies and resubmitted. It would take seven to 10 days, we were told. That was two weeks ago. Three times we've been back to pick up our cards. Each time the clerk searched through the box of transport cards. Well, not yet. Come back Monday after 2 o'clock.

There are two weeks left before we need to leave Alicante. Will the cards arrive, or still be lost in the bowels of the transport agency? Tune in next month to find out... (Cue organ music.)

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A concert of traditional music, held in the acoustically sharp stone walls of the castle that overlooks Alicante
Concerts. We’ve been going to concerts. Seems there’s one every week, sometimes more. There was the series at the Modern Art museum put on by students from the school. There was the one at the former cigar factory, with various neighborhood groups. And there was the truly extraordinary concert at Casa Mediterranio with the international group NES.

“Three musicians, three instruments, three languages.” Nesrine Belmokh, from Algeria, has a beautiful, compelling voice and covered the three languages in question: Arabic, French, and a very clear American-standard English. Her drummer was, what, French? And the bassest, Spanish.

It was a dramatic setting, a smaller, intimate room in the restored train station that now serves as an event center in Alicante. The music was jazzy, upbeat – not my experience of Arabic music! It was enchanting – the entire audience was spellbound. And while most members appeared to be Spanish, everyone was singing along with the compelling final number, “Ain’t No Sunshine when She’s Gone.” Yeah, we bought a CD (I got it signed, too!) Now we just need to find a CD player.

Nesrine and her band, NES

Also at the concert were Teresa, our apartment manager, and her friend and other client, Elinore, the Cuban lady from Florida staying here for a few weeks. We all headed off to a restaurant where Teresa had invited a few other women. Whew, talk about a lively time! At one point Paula asked these Spanish-speakers a simple question: what’s the difference between “Claro!” and “Vale!” (pronounced balley, sort of). These are both expressions that we hear all the time, sort of like “OK! OK!” I never gave much thought to any actual meaning.

But boy oh boy, what a discussion followed! There was a lot of arm waving, finger pointing, and the occasional raised voice. It went on for quite a while, partially because one woman was from Argentina, and had a different view of the language. Since it was all in Spanish I didn’t really follow it, but now every time we hear the word “clairo!” Paula and I grin and nod to each other.

We manage to make it out of the restaurant...

Dinner finally over, it was time to move on to the next event, an underground bar that Teresa knew about. And by underground I mean below street level. There was this low door, and we descended half a dozen steps into a low-ceilinged cave. Not a large place, and not yet crowded. It was still early, not quite midnight. The place was covered with notes, slips of paper stuck on the walls and ceiling. We each had the bar’s specialty drink, a mojito (Paula and I shared one, as many bottles of wine had been consumed with dinner, and we still had to find our way home). What actually happened there is now a blur, but I found these pictures on my camera, so I know I was there….

Teresa and friends

Paula prepares to add her note, about "claro o vale" 

We're starting to look a little blurry.....

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Well. We did make it home; we did make it to those towns up the coast. More on that in Part 2...