Euro 09

17-27 October 2009

random trip report

[Click images for large version and again for full resolution]

Photos by me, Kevin Reed and Jordi Portell


My yearly European work trip. The main event is a 2-day BOINC workshop in Barcelona, attended by about 40 people, of which I am co-organizer. Before that I visit Basel Switzerland, at the invitation of my colleague Nicolas, to give a talk. After the workshop I go to Geneva to speak at the inaugural meeting of the fledgling Citizen Cyberscience Centre.

Oct 17-18

Depart SFO 1:30 PM; JFK, then LHR. A quarter tab of Xanax takes the edge off my Air Travel Rage nicely, but I am unable to solve the easiest Sudoku. No sleep on the overnight leg, but I rest and feel OK. The final leg is Heathrow - Basel, where I arrive around 5 PM. From the plane, I see many beautiful white cliffs. Nicolas picks me up and takes me to my hotel, which has some academic connection. I wander through the old town and across the Rhine, looking for a restaurant that takes credit cards. I find one, and have a beer and mediocre spaghetti for $20 (welcome to Europe!).

Oct 19

Nicolas picks me up at 9 AM. He knows me well: he has planned an excursion to one of the aforementioned white cliffs, near the town of Gempen.


A short walk and scramble brings us to the base of the cliffs. There are some sport routes. We come to a gully and head up. The gully becomes steeper and narrower; the last 10' are a vertical chimney. But the rock is marvelously featured, and it's not too hard or dangerous (though I have to encourage Nicolas a bit).

Wait... is my butt really that big?

The chimney emerges in a thicket at the top of the cliff, beyond which is a restaurant/cafe (Europeans like to put these on top of things), next to which is a 100' observation tower that we scale via a spiral staircase, a la Vertigo. Great view from the top.

Near Gempen is the world headquarters of the Anthroposophists, a spiritualist/naturalist group believing (among many other things) that right angles in buildings trap souls attempting to ascend to heaven. So their buildings (including the headquarters, the 'Second Goetheanum') are built with no structural right angles (although a few creep in, e.g. window frames). They also have a thing with color - bright pink and green interiors. We tour the Goetheanum, then have lunch at a Non-Rectilinear Cafe. The Anthrosophists, BTW, are into a Weston-Price-like diet and expressive dance.

The 2nd Goetheanum

After spending a couple of hours at the Swiss Tropical Institute (where Nic works) I chat with the chairman of the computer science department at the university of Basel, then give a very well-attended talk from 5 to 6 PM. We have a geek dinner at a nice place on the banks of the Rhine. Nic and I go to his favorite bar (the Cargo Bar), where his S.O. Nina meets us. On the way back to my hotel, we meet and assist a confused female tourist who has only an extremely vague idea of where she's going, but is concerned about her safety (a non-issue in Basel).

Oct 20

I get up pre-dawn and catch the 50 bus to 'EuroPort', an airport near the junction of Germany, France, and Switzerland. I fly EasyJet to Barcelona, arriving 10:30 AM. It feels kind of like coming home; I love Barcelona to an irrational extent. I take the AeroBus (E4.25) to Placa Catalunya, orient myself, and find the Hotel Curious, which is on a sidestreet off Las Ramblas, 5 or 6 blocks down.

The combination of jet lag and energy expenditure catches up with me, and I feel wiped out, with some full-body soreness. I lie down for a few hours, then meet Kevin Reed. It's too early for dinner (~5:30, and the locals eat at 9 or 10) so we walk around for a while. There are a lot of restaurants, but as soon as we decide it's time to eat, the streets become eerily devoid of them. Eventually, after lots more walking, we settle for one of the horrible tourist places along Las Ramblas, which actually hits the spot (Grotesque Gulp - sized glasses of Sangria).

Las Ramblas is the usual motley swarm of humanity. Human Statues have largely given way to mobile fantasy figures of various sorts. Seedy-looking young men stand around making bird noises; we're told later they are drug dealers and/or pimps.

Oct 21

After a night of fairly good sleep on an amazingly hard bed, I meet Kevin at the Starbucks on Las Ramblas at 9 AM, and we have an intense technical discussion that leads to a new credit system design. After that we're brain-dead, so we go shopping at El Corte Ingles (no purchases). We meet Bill and his wife Barbara for lunch.

I meet Jordi Portell (the workshop co-organizer) and we locate the venue, the Institute for Catalan Studies, which is surprisingly hard to find. It's in a fortress built in 1648, and there's no street number. The meeting room is a vaulted, tile-walled, and cavernous. Very nice, though the acoustics are not ideal.

Is Bahman spying on my computer screen?

I meet Kevin again for dinner. We wander but quickly find a fancy place on the terrace of castle-like building. It's fine except that the service is intolerably slow. We have another productive technical discussion, and chat with a lively Dutch woman and her daughter who are seated next to us.

Oct 21

The first day of the workshop goes well. We have lunch at Carmelitas, a restaurant across the street. Good but slow. Daniel presents several of us with 1 Kg (2.2 lb) bars of milk chocolate from his home town of Leon.

A large group of us go in search of dinner. We do some random walking, and find a nice tapas place. The menu has about 100 tapas, and there are 16 of us, so to avoid chaos we just tell the waiter to bring us a bunch of tapas and a lot of Sangria. This works very well; we end up paying E16.50 each.

Oct 22

Second day of the workshop. In the afternoon Jordi and I try to pay the catering service who did the coffee breaks. We have a hard time locating the place. Then my credit cards all get rejected; Jordi pays, and I'm going to have to wire him money later.

After the workshop, we go to the train station and buy tickets for the next day (a Montserrat Combo ticket, that includes all trains and gondolas etc.). Another group tapas dinner, this time at a place that's more expensive (E22.50 - ouch!) and not as good.

Gianni has invited me to his viewing session with his new 8 inch Celestron, but I opt for an early bedtime instead. Later he sends me a photo of Jupiter.

Oct 23

Hike day. A group of ~15 of us meet at Lyceu, take the metro to Placa Espanya, then the FCG train to Monserrat. I sit next to Adam K., who's headed to WPI in January, but dreams of transferring to Berkeley. We talk about tennis, and he teaches me a new way to tie shoes (same knot, different method).

We make our way across the river and through the small town of Monserrat Monistrol, where an appealing street market is in progress. The trail we want (GR96) is part of a national system of long-distance trails, so I figure there will be some signs. But there aren't. We reach an umarked trailhead, from which several trails depart. One of them turns out to be GR96. Our group is highly functional: scouts explore the various options, then report back to the group in a coherent way.

The trail meanders up the mountain, which is scrubby and exposed. Gigantic buttresses and conical rock towers loom ~2,000' over us; very dramatic.

Jordi tells me of a local tradition that if the Virgin Mary grants one of your special appeals, you're supposed to climb Montserrat... on your knees. With these terms, I'm not sure special appeals are such a good idea.

The trail passes through a group of beehives, and several members of our group get stung. It steepens and goes up a shaded gully.

It's sparsely marked with painted stripes on rocks. Finally (after maybe 2 miles and 1,500' vertical) it merges with a paved tourist trail just below the monastery. Another branch goes to the Cave of the Saints. We go up to the monastery, a complex of large buildings built of the same stone as the mountain, but not exactly blending into it.

We have lunch at an excellent and cheap cafeteria. I enjoy a cold Estrella beer. Ben distributes chunks of his giant chocolate bar.

Ben (who needs to catch a plane) and Jordi and the Hungarians head down. The rest of us continue up the Sant Joan Fenicular, which goes up another 600' to the ridge, from which we can see the snow-capped Pyrennes 50 miles to the west, and the Mediterranean 50 miles to the east. We are close to a number of the giant conical towers, many of which have climbers on them.

There are various trails from this point. We decide to try to get as high as possible, and proceed along the Sant Joan trail. After a half mile Derrick spots a steep ravine heading up to the right. This turns out to contain a climber's trail, and we pass by the base of several routes. Eventually we arrive at the top of a tower, which is one of the 3 or 4 highest (we later find it on the map; it's 1,132m).

Stand up straight, fool!

On the way down, I spot a climbable-looking mini-tower, 30' high or so. In spite of the alarmed protests of my group and a few onlooking climbers, I clamber up and down it, which gives me the jolt of adrenaline that I've been craving the whole day. The rock is breccia: a hodge-podge of hard rocks cemented together, with useful projections everywhere.

The climbers clearly think I'm nuts

Descending further, we come to a climbable wall, where I succeed in getting 3 others (Kevin, Derrick, Pedro from Brazil) to try their hand at bouldering. Kevin really likes it (note to self: get him to Ironworks sometime).

Monastery visible at top of gully

We descend via the gondola to the Montserrat Aeri train station. The train is quite late (this is not Switzerland!) but we eventually make it back. Kevin, Jarno, David, and I eat at FresCo, a chain restaurant in the Fresh Choice class, but not nearly as good.

25 Oct

I come down with a cold in the middle of the night and feel like absolute crap in the morning. I get up at 6:30 am and reach the airport in plenty of time for my 8:30 flight. But wait! I've misread my schedule, and the flight is actually at 1:15 PM. So I hang out at the snack bar and blow E7.50 on 1 hour of Internet access. I run into Derrick, Annie, and Bahman near the gate, and give them my enormous chocolate bar.

I arrive in Geneva (N.B.: you can get a free transit ticket in the baggage claim area.) The buses run infrequently on Sunday, and I wait for 30 min to get the 28 bus, changing to the 56 to CERN. At the CERN hotel I kill some time waiting for Francois to approve my WiFi access. I run into Paco downstairs. I decide to skip the speakers' dinner, and instead eat in the CERN cafeteria and work on my slides.

26 Oct

The combination of congestion (half a nostril working) and an oddly uncomfortable bed results in a near-sleepless night. I straggle out of bed and meet Francois, Tom Smith, Nicolas and Paco for breakfast at 8. We go to the meeting venue in the IT building. The meeting, which starts at 10 AM, is well attended but it's not clear that the target audience (foundations and high net worth individuals) is well represented. The talks are mixed, and the discussion afterward seems to miss the point of the CCC.

At lunch I chat with the founder of Innocentive, a nice and extremely smart guy who lives near Mt. Shasta.

After lunch we move to the CERN auditorium and hear talks by Mo Ibrahim (extremely inspirational: the dude is like Mother Teresa with an MBA, and has done more to help Africa than the next thousand people combined) and Mr. Innocentive (also excellent).

We go to the ATLAS visitor center for a 'tour' which unfortunately involves a lecture and a 3D movie, but not a visit to the detector itself: it's close to operational, so strict security measures are in place.

After this it's 5 PM and I'm extremely tired: lack of sleep plus having to be 'on' the whole day has taken a harsh toll. So I skip the CCC dinner, dine at the CERN cafeteria (fish sticks and a Napoleon), do a little Facebook, and retire early.

27 Oct

Time to go home! Another near-sleepless night, perhaps due to too much caffiene and adrenaline. 4:45 wakeup call. An Indian guy downstairs is waiting for a taxi to the aiport, which I consider sharing, but apparently he's been waiting for a half hour already, and I get a bad feeling about it and stick with Plan A, which is to take the 56 bus to Blandonnet, transfering to the 23 bus to the airport. However, Baldonnet is not a single point, and it's not clear how to get from 56 to 23. Turns out you have to go right, down a ramp, go under the overpass and up the hill a bit. I discover all this rather frantically, with several wrong turns. Of course there are absolutely no signs.

I burn CHF6.70 on coffee and pastry. The flight to Brussels is fine except the beverage service skips my row, which angers me mightily even though I don't really want another coffee or orange juice.

On the Brussels - O'Hare leg I sit next to a guy from Liberia and chat with him about Mo Ibrahim and the future of Africa.

The last leg of the flight is pure torture; I just can't get comfortable. Rich K. is supposed to pick me up at SFO, but there's been a disaster on the Bay Bridge (snapped cable) and he's stuck in traffic for many hours. So I get home by BART and taxi instead.