03.01.2009 - 07.01.2009
Day dawned upon Strasbourg and I was there to witness it as I had only a few hours to attempt to the see this pan-European city. I first headed straight to the old town and was soon surrounded by trams. The architecture is classic post card Europe right own to the big Cathedrale in the centre of the main square. There were some remnants of the Christmas markets that were half the time signposted in French and the other half in German. The identity of the place, being in the often disputed (in wars gone by) Alsace region, seems quite strange with many features combining elements of France and Germany. However the language is overwhelmingly French and the people clearly adopt a more French culture. I then, basking in the warming sunlight, made my way down to the small district of Petite France, which ironically featured some fine examples of German style houses. Strolling through here I observed a Perth family on holiday (the Dockers scarf was a giveaway) which was unexpected. I then headed to the nearby Musee d’Art Moderne et Contmeporain. This museum featured classic Modern artists (Ernst, Kandinsky, Picasso etc.) on the ground floor and a temporary exhibition of famous local artist. The top floor contained more contemporary and was more to my liking with some interesting works that where for the most part overlooked by other gallery goers, leaving me alone to explore. I then proceeded back to the square in front of the station, retrieved my luggage from the hotel and proceeded to the Lufthansa airport bus stop just outside the station. The bus arrived and went out about a third full on its way to Frankfurt Flughafen. The route passed through the EU area of town, which was a good, quick way to see these sites. A couple of hours later as the sun went down we were dumped at the T1 arrivals roadway and I made my way to my old friend, the skytrain. I checked in at the much shorter business class line and was given my preferente boarding pass and a lounge pass for the Delta lounge, as there is no Oneworld lounge in T2, except for the Cathay lounge which was closed until closer to the Qantas flight time. Who else could pull off all three alliances in one day! I puzzling observed my bag getting a hand written bag tag, but it still got a priority tag. I went through immigration, ‘leaving’ the EU for a couple of hours (as the flight continues to Santiago, Chile). The lounge was devoid of any kind of character and views, but did have Warsteiner, which I helped myself to generously. I left for the gate and was pleased to finally see some progress (new shops/food places) in the painfully slow upgrade of the terminal which was in a terrible state (construction wise) when I visited a year ago, however it is still far from finished. I boarded the plane to find it very full. We left a bit late but arrived on time after a quick meal and an annoyingly wide selection of entertainment (on a short flight). LAN’s entertainment system is one of the best. I forgot what poor climb performance the A340 has as we took off. We reached the satellite terminal at T4 in Madrid and disembarked, passing through immigration to re-enter the schengen zone. Then it was down towards the people mover underneath the terminal that would take us to the main terminal. This trip was relatively long (in an airport setting) however once reaching baggage claim there was a 20 minute wait to see any bags. I reached the efficient metro station and a stop later I was walking to my hotel.
I woke and headed back to airport via the Madrid metro and arrived to find a mass of people for checkin, which was indiscernible as to any kind of airline/flight separation. This reminded me that this weekend was the peak post-festive travel time and flights were likely to be full or overbooked. This played to my advantage when I reached the front of the less lengthy business class line (including many dogs flying) and found out that I had been upgraded, getting the coveted seat 1A. I went through security and down to the satellite train. At the satellite I passed through immigration to leave the EU for real this time and made my way to the Iberia lounge. The lounge was nice, even featuring in seat Champagne service, but alas no wifi. The location was great overlooking an active runway (one of many) with this being rush hour in the heart of the Spanglosphere. Madrid’s T4 is one of my favourite airports because it is an impressive piece of architecture that functions well as an airport with many shops and food joints and flights to everywhere, except unfortunately Asia, despite being a Oneworld hub; although Iberia is rumoured to commence service to the region by 2010. Boarding was late due to airport wide delays caused by air traffic control issues (same problems we are suffering at home) and was a shemozzle. I luckily didn’t have to walk far and got settled in to my first long haul business class flight. The whole plane was packed so it was nice to be the first to get anything. The pre-departure drinks came with the amenity kit and arrival cards (they had to track down an English I94W) and the menu. Then the wine book came. This was massive and was backed up by a wine cart during dinner so I felt compelled to try some, as it kinda looked like a big deal in Spain, plus the beer was pretty average. My first three course meal of the year was great, with some of the best fish I have ever had. By this time I was already hoeing into the on demand entertainment offerings (there is nothing in economy) in this case I particularly enjoyed Vicky Christina Barcelona, which is being spruiked by Iberia/Spain as an Australia type tourist plug. Soon it was time to get some sleep in my flat bed. Unfortunately despite similarities with the Skybed, this business class seat was not designed with Australians in mind as my feet were just too long for the space given, however I did manage to drift off eventually. I woke too find the sun had finally set (we were in the golden hour for ages) and had a play with the google-esque map which was very interesting before watching a couple of dud movies. We landed shortly after the refreshment service and I had an emotional farewell to my noise-cancelling headphones, however it was very quiet upfront anyway. Immigration was typical US style, one desk for foreigners and 8 for locals, but as usual things we fine once I got served. My prioritado bag was already waiting for me and I got a taxi voucher and arrived at my hotel five minutes later. Some would describe the place as ‘having character’ however I call it a dive. However, this was expected through research and in particular the price. Though the free parking and free wifi were difficult to come by in San Juan. The door was very flimsy, provided no sound insulation and the shower was just a pipe out of the wall; but it was clean. I went to bed in very different surroundings to my last in flight sleep.
I woke and headed across the freeway for a BK brekkie before catching the bus downtown to old San Juan. The bus ride was fun with the driver going at breakneck speed despite t being peak hour. I alighted at the bus station and headed up to the San Cristobal fort, built to protect the city from land attack. I then, with my combo ticket, headed to the end of the peninsular to the other fort, built to protect from sea attack. These defences provided a lot of historical information and evoked many scenes from pirates of the Caribbean. Following this I went for a wander into the heart of the old town and enjoyed the traditional style buildings and streetscapes. I veered past the huge ferry piers (big business here) and hopped back on the bus. On my way back I stopped at a supermarket to get some supplies, as this was the longest I would be staying in one place so I could economise and self cater; plus I would fit in more with my long term resident neighbours. I spent the evening marvelling at the 150 channels (imagine how many the real hotels have) of televised wholesome Americana.
I got up had breakfast like at home (cereal and pre-cut fruit) and then headed for the bus stop. The bus took a lot longer to come today, which I discovered was due to the public holiday, 3 kings day. I got off and made my way, with the help of my phone, to the avis office. I was dismayed to find the office closed, despite me checking online when I booked. After struggling with phone reception, phone numbers and evaporating battery life I finally arranged for them to pick me up. Once at the airport I was well looked after by Maria and was soon on my way in a 4 door Hyundai. I headed off down the highway and was within minutes smacked in the face with a $2 toll, which was a taste of things to come. I was heading to the El Yunque (Caribbean national rainforest), the only tropical rainforest in the US and consulted my little map to try and avoid toll roads. I finally made it the national park, after stopping to lunch at Maccas and began a long windy road upwards. This yielded some amazing vistas of lush greenery and some simple walking trails to pleasant waterfalls. There were many people about so I decided to go back via the coast and on the back streets. This was a great way to see the local people living their lives despite the more demanding driving. The east coast centre of Farjado tempted me with car ferries to two nearby islands, but I declined and continued on the mainland going wherever seemed interesting. I arrived back in San Juan just before the peak of rush hour and went over the freeway for dinner at BK, where I met a girl from Berlin who was there for the free wifi and was visiting PR for kite surfing. What is with all the kite surfing Germans? Back at the ranch I washed and dried my clothes at the coin laundry on site at one tenth of the price in Europe.
Same breakfast routine today before setting off early to the shops to get an earthed adapter plug for my laptop. I made it, only getting lost once, to the biggest mall in the Caribbean, las plaza de Americas. Luckily RadioShack was just near the entrance I used and I was soon on my way to my main destination, Arecibo. The directions I obtained from the observatory website were a bit off which resulted in me having to back track a bit, however once I did make up the narrow road it was worth it, even the three toll booths. Before entering the parking lot you had to switch off your phone, there was no reception anyway. The little visitor centre seemed cute and innocent on the surface, sort of sci tech lite, but soon the exhibit explanations were way beyond my high school science knowledge, particularly on the second floor. Outside was a magnificent view of the dish and it was a little different to how I perceived it from Goldeneye. Another Goldeneye location crossed off, I think a bungy jump setup here would definitely be feasible. After going back down the hill I popped into Wendy’s for lunch in the main town, which was packed with diners and drive-thruers. Some time later I headed off for the southern town of Ponce, the second biggest on the island, and the only other major airport. The route I took went through the centre of the island and was very scenic with verdant green mountains. Mid way through the road detoured onto a local road due to a massive bridge being erected across a valley. This little road was a nice windy drive through tiny communities and beautiful environments and was a nice break from the highway. I arrived in Ponce and was unwittingly caught up in traffic which took me to the main square where I saw the main architectural sights, such as the famous fire station. From there I struggled to find the main highway out of town, exacerbated by my poor Spanish. After some clueless driving I found the road to San Juan and hit the gas. After a few toll booths I decided to go on local roads, plus I needed gas. I found a gas station and it took me a while to figure out it was prepaid only. I gave $20 without thinking and found my car only needing $15 to fill up! Many things are very cheap here, however it can be confusing with the imperial-metric mix, distances in kilometres, speeds in miles/hour, weight in pounds, volume in litres etc. On the way back I hit the rush hour and didn’t make it home till after dark and parked right out the front of my room.