Euro-Trippin – Sunny Barcelona!

After basically walking my feet off in Paris, the laid back vibe of Barcelona was just what I needed. It was also the point in our trip where we finally left grey skies behind for good – all sunshine from day 1.

I was particularly looking forward to this leg of the trip, because I needed a break, and also because of all the friends who told me I just had to check it out after visiting Madrid a few months ago. And truth be told, I have to agree with most of them – Barcelona truly was amazing. It was also quite unlike Madrid. Barcelona had a far more eclectic personality – a greater clash of cultures, which was present in the food, the people and the architecture. To a great extent I think this clash is because there is a definite feeling to assert the native Catalan culture, rather than conform to the homogenous ‘Spanish’ culture that prevails in other parts of the country – you see the Catalan, rather than Spanish, flag hanging out every third window. Even the language is a mix of a bit of Spanish and a majority of Catalan. Like all the cities on our trip, Barcelona was small enough to get around mostly on foot – which is really the way you should explore a new city. But for those less inclined, get a T-10 card – this is similar to the Carnet in Paris, but instead of 10 individual tickets you have one pass, which you can re-use (you can only share it so that’s pretty cool).

A bit about our hostel – we were staying at a place called Mediterranean Youth Hostel – I would definitely recommend it to anyone travelling there. It was a really nice place with a friendly vibe, accommodating staff (who happily answered the hundreds of questions my friend had), free wi-fi, comfortable rooms (private or dorms – your call), was handicap friendly and just a 10-15 minute walk from the city center. It totally made the entire experience a whole lot more fun – mostly because of the people we met. One of the best parts of hostel-ing it was the interesting people you meet.  My friend and I had a room next to another pair of friends travelling around Europe who turned out to be a real gas to hang out with – funniest thing was they had actually become friends a few years before when they stayed at the same youth hostel – just goes to show, you never know what good friendships you might make if you just put yourself out there and meet new people. And it wasn’t just them – one of my favourite parts of the hostel was sitting in the common room (adjacent to the fully functioning kitchen – where they even threw some free groceries for common use) and chatting with people who were just coming in or heading off – I’m pretty sure I sold 4 or 5 new travellers into patronizing the Goa Tourism Board : )

Another great thing about our hostel was that it offered a lot of great packages/deals in partnership with this little group called Travel Bound – one of which was a free walking tour through the Gothic quarter in Barcelona. Our guide, Hannah, was a ex-pat who took us through and around the area, all the time sharing some fascinating local history and interesting tales of the old city – it was like a fun history lesson with some light exercise. We saw small local sites like the fountain on Las Ramblas, rumoured to have mystical powers to make you fall in love with Barcelona and the Placa de Sant Felip Neri, a small square with a sad history from the days of the Spanish Civil War – two bombs were dropped in the enclosed area adjacent to a small church that was serving as an orphanage – but which now hosts many games of tag and kick-around by the primary schoolers who run about there during their lunch break. It was an amazing way to see the winding streets and hot-spots and get a real feel for the city. It ended at the Travel Bar – an establishment run by Travel Bound – where you can get yourself some cheap cocktails, the dish of the day for just 1 Euro from 9-10 pm and take many tours of the city or a day trip out to the coast.

While the architecture in the gothic quarter is quite amazing, to really have your mind blown (and put thoroughly at odds with itself) you must check out the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia. This piece architecture is easily one of the most ambitious and unbelievable things I have ever seen with my own eyes (and I also visited Rome on this trip!).  Designed by the architect Antoni Gaudi, this church is breathtaking, confusing, weird and beautiful, all at once. It seems to be such an erratic mix of styles and themes that to imagine one single mind being its creator is baffling – it look like someone designed it while in a fevered dream, while on acid, listening to classical music. The stained glass was particularly amazing – seeing the suns rays (it was a particularly sunny day) stab through the brightly colored glass was just spectacular – the windows seemed almost bursting with life. But what struck me most of all was unlike other churches, especially the ones in Rome, that create a solemn and stoic atmosphere, the Sagrada Familia was bright and white and comfortingly friendly – it could easily be the venue for art shows and exhibitions. And despite its immense size and awe-inspiring stature, it was anything but domineering. All of this and it is not nearly finished. Though the man who envisioned it has passed, construction of this marvel continues and is scheduled to finish only in 2026 – who knows what it will look like then! But that wasn’t the end of our acquaintance (and in the case of my friend – love affair) with Gaudi. We also took a walk around beautiful Park Guell, also designed by him. This massive park is set on a real high point, so you have a wonderful view of the city from a massive square where people gather to sit, maybe exercise/train, take pictures or enjoy a lie in the shade. Here you get a real taste of Gaudi’s love for the themes of nature and life – epitomized by the beautiful mosaic Gaudi Lizard (replicas of which you’ll see at every souvenir shop).

Speaking of parks, you can’t leave Barcelona without heading up to Montjuic – this area, which used to be the Jewish quarter (it literally translates to jew mountain I was told) is full of beautifully manicured parks, great view points and even a Castle which you can reach via cable car (the Funicular). I recommend you spend half a day or so just wandering around or enjoying the sun in one of the parks, or just some lone time with a loved one in the many nooks and crannies ; ), but take some snacks and water along – there are very few places up near the top where you can actually get some grub, and the few that cater are more than happy to take advantage of this fact. The view from the castle is not to be missed (nor is the ride up the Funicular) – you can see the city surrounded by hills on one side and the docks and beach on the other.

If you’re a fan of the beach, and really want to get your tan or swim on, I highly recommend hopping on a train and headed up Costa Brava. The beach in Barcelona is just completely full, so if that’s what you have in mind – all good! But if you want a quieter, cleaner day at the beach, take a train from the Arc de Triomph Metro station (no I didn’t lapse back into my Paris memories) and head up the coast. If you sit on the right side of the train you’ll see the beaches as you pass by, so just pick the one that suits you – nude/clothed, quiet/family – and jump off. We chose a fairly quiet area called Margarat del Mar. The beach was nice and empty, we lay ourselves down on a towel (after a very brief swim in the rather freezing cold water) and simply dozed off – it was the best! After we went into one of the restaurants in town and had a wonderful meal at Celler Sancho-Panzo for a lot less than we would have paid in Barcelona city (bonus!). My next visit to Barcelona I think I’d prefer to spend a few days out there.

But it’s not all about culture and sand – Barcelona is also a great city to go out and have a fun night out. There are dozens of clubs that will fight for your patronage (as long as you follow the standard club rules in re: shoes, shirt, etc.) Now, my friend and I aren’t really the clubbing type, but we decided since it was my birthday that weekend, we’d go out and rage at least once (lord we sound old!). So we went along with some people from our hostel who had signed up for a night-out package – 15 Euros gets you a free drink and entry to a good club, plus some assured company as everyone meets up at a bar for a few cheap rounds before. Turned out to be a lot of fun – and I got a lot more than I bargained for by the end. I may have gotten home at 4:30 am, I may have been hung over the entire next morning, but it was worth it!

Speaking of getting lucky, the weekend that we were in Barcelona also happened to be the weekend that the Merce Festival was on. Four days of art, performances, parades, fireworks and concerts all over the city. There are over 12 venues and something happening pretty much all day. How brilliant is that?! We ended up walking around in the evenings from gig to gig, pausing to listen to some local flavor and imported sounds and on our last day in town we sat at the beach and watched an awesome fireworks show. The streets were full of life and laughter and music and the skies were full of color and light. It truly was an amazing weekend. I was particularly impressed at how everyone was enjoying it so peacefully – thousands of people drinking and eating pretty much all day, crammed together in front of stages and on the sand – I saw far fewer people hunched in corners losing their lunch or wandering around like lost souls than I thought I would. My favourite artist was this African Folk rock singer named Fatoumata Diawara – if you’re into that sort of thing (hell, even if you’re not) I suggest you look her up. The stage for her gig was particularly magnificent, set as it was in front of the Cathedral, with marvelous lights shining across the Cathedral’s façade and the full (ish) moon overhead.

I think all in all, Barcelona was my favourite leg of this trip. While I have many fond words yet to write of Italy, I truly think, even though I didn’t drink from the fountain, I did very much fall in love with the city, and I think I’ll return very soon (provided I can afford it again).

I would however be remiss if I left you without one more tip – try Paella! Even though I’ve been to many Spanish restaurants that offered it, I’ve never tried Paella before because it is primarily a seafood dish. However, in the spirit of “when in Rome” my friend and I decided to try some (with chicken instead of muscles and what not). It was amazing – simply delicious – so if you actually like seafood, it’ll be a major win! For this I would say head over to Barcelonetta – there are dozens of places that serve it and you can pick and choose the one that you feel gives you the best combo/deal. And I’ll pass along the advice that Hannah gave us – sit in one where you don’t see too many pale faces – look for one with “grouchy old locals” (her words not mine!) – that’s where you’ll get the real deal.

Well time to say adieu (pronounced ‘a-dey-o’) dear reader. Next we meet, Rome!


Spanish Escape

I just had the most wonderful long weekend in beautiful Madrid – What a great last hurrah before I fly back home to India in 2 days!

The pretence of the actual trip was to attend a one day conference on Intellectual Property organised by the Universidad Autonoma Madrid and Queen Mary University of London, which was great because it meant most of my fellow IP-ers were there in Madrid with me. We went to represent QM and have discussions around the challenges to Intellectual Property in the European Union – we got 3 days full of good food, wine and beautiful architecture in the bargain.

Despite the fact that it’s not a particularly big city, Madrid really does have a lot to see and do! I dare say that even with 2-3 days full of walking around (and lots of clicking with my D80) I still left with many things I missed out on. Well I suppose one should always leave oneself with an excuse to come back : )

My favourite part, hands down, was the first day when we took a super long walk through and around Parque de el Retiro, particularly because that was the one day where we got uninterrupted sun. The beautiful weather just made walking around the beautiful green surroundings all the more wonderful. By the end of the day, though my feet were worn and my legs heavy, my soul was rejuvenated and my heart light. The pace of life in Madrid seems so much more relaxed and spirited than London. If you visit I recommend you definitely go by the Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace) – the name is a bit deceptive (it’s basically looks a large solarium) – but the surroundings are beautiful. There is large pond out front with a tall fountain, many critters and crawlers to look out for and even a small grotto some of you couples may want to sneak into ; ) and you can end your tour of the park with a visit to the Rose Garden, which has dozens of different species of roses (as well as other flowers I believe) and sit awhile just taking in the exquisite aromas. We also stumbled into the Palacio de Valazquez which is used by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia to host exhibitions. During our visit they were hosting  an exhibition of conceptual art by Cildo Meireles. I must say, I really did not get most of his work. Though some pieces did have intriguing designs and thought-provoking themes, most seemed rather mundane or banal, but therein lies the beauty of art I suppose – let each see in it what he will.

For dinner on the second day we made out way to the Taberna les Lucio in the area known as La Latina. This definitely seems to one of the better areas to come to find a nice place to eat or have a night out. It was unbelievably packed and we had to wait some 35 minutes by the bar before we managed a place, but it was totally worth it. The food was light yet very rich and fulfilling and when we split the bill it wasn’t nearly as dear as I feared. I can see why Sean Connery, Sigourney Weaver and Bruce Springsteen all came to eat here.

Another place you absolutely must see while you’re there is Plaza Mayor. It is a magnificent late square framed internally by cafes where you can sit in the sun and enjoy some refreshing sangria and tapas. I recommend Cafeteria Christina – the staff was super friendly and he sangria was amazing! Or if you prefer you can pop nearby to the Market de San Miguel where there are dozens of food stalls that serve authentic local cuisine as well ones where you can pick up some ham or cheese for the road. It’s quite tight considering how popular it is and there isn’t really space to sit, so I recommend a quick bite and walk through rather than an extended chill session.

Finally, if you’re an art lover you should definitely pop down to the Museu Nacional de Prado. It is located near the Banco de Espana (Bank of Spain) and is one of the largest museums in Europe. And indeed it is massive! We roamed the halls for a full two hours and I we barely covered the rooms dedicated to some 2-3 artists! There are discounted entries for students under the age if 25, but if you feel like you don’t want to spend too much time in there anyway you can go for free from 6-8 pm. Like I mentioned, I am not super into art, and I am definitely not educated in the field, so I let my friends lead the way throughout. The artists they seemed to be particularly drawn to, and who the Museum seemed to have dedicated several rooms to was Francisco Goya. He definitely was quite diverse, but I think I was drawn to his “Black Paintings” the most. This series of works had some very dark and evocative themes – each painting seemed to portray feelings of dread, fear and rage. I’m not sure what happened in his life to summon this phase of his contribution to the art world, but it definitely led to some powerful images being put to canvas.

The one other artist I suggest you check out if you’re there is El Greco though my friend found his works to be lacking diversity, I found them to be quite inspiring, in fact when I walked into the room and saw the first piece I actually said “WOW” out loud. The work was titled “The Adoration of the Shephards” and indeed was aptly titled. His use if vivid colors within a pool of darkness built a beautiful contrast and there seemed to be almost a divine light from the baby Jesus in the middle of the painting, I genuinely thought at first that it was a result of the museum’s lighting!

All in all I am quite sad to have left Madrid so soon – there was so much to do and it is far less expensive than many other European cities. I could have quite easily stayed another few days, but sadly real life was calling. Some of my friend have commented that Barcelona is nicer – a question I look forward to settling for myself later his year when I take my 3 week trip around Europe with my best friend, till then let it be my favourite city in Spain : )