Friday, March 23rd 2012
To celebrate Tigger’s birthday, we are off on a short trip to Barcelona. We found an offer which included 3 nights in a hotel and the return journey by easyJet.
We have a leisurely start for once, so I got up at 7 am and did all the last-minute things. Then we caught a 73 bus to St Pancras and bought return train tickets to Gatwick. We boarded the 8.48 Brighton train on platform A.
At Gatwick, we had to take the shuttle – an automatic train – to the North Terminal. We looked for our check-in and found we were much too early. So we went off for breakfast at a nearby cafe-bar. We had porridge and a cooked course with coffee. This was a bit more expensive than we would normally expect to pay, given the quality of the food and the size of the portions, but that is something you have to expect in an airport, I suppose.
When we came to check in, we were offered the choice of putting our handbags into our rucksacks, which could then go with us into the cabin, or of paying for them to go separately. As it was impossible to squeeze anything else into the rucksacks, we had to let these go separately and pay for them – £25 for each! On the return journey we’ll try to pack more efficiently and condense our baggage but I don’t think we will manage it.
Even though it was still early, we went through to departure and endured the misery of the body and bag search. This time, I remembered to take off everything with metal in it – rings, belt, metal items from my pocket – but even though I walked through the sensor gate unchallenged, I was still retained and had to have my bag searched. The reason? On the X-ray they had spotted a “small spray”. A spray? I have no such thing… It turned out that the suspected “spray” was the pepper mill I always carry with me to pep up bought meals. Once this had been verified, I was released.
Tigger was similarly detained, partly because in her bag was a metal drinking bottle. They needed to be satisfied this didn’t contain suspicious liquids. As it happens the bottle was empty as could be proved by the simple expedient of turning it upside down.
By the time I had rescued my trousers from gravity induced collapse by putting my belt back on, there remained an hour and a half to wait until boarding began, and so we retired to a Costa coffee bar with comfy seats and a view over the marshalling yards.
The day is sunny but with a definite haze that turns the surrounding countryside grey and indistinct. The sky too, though scarcely stained with shreds of cloud, is also grey up to an angle of about 30 degrees, above which it turns pale blue with grey overtones.
The airport departure area forms a strange isolated world, superficially like so many other centres of travel with shops and cafes such as railway stations, but with a feeling of enclosure akin to a hospital or a prison from which we may not depart without permission and then only by specific routes.
People read, doze, chat, stare around them, eat, drink, wander around apparently aimlessly, or stand watching the flight information boards. Every now and then an announcement elicits a wave of movement but then calm returns but with an indefinable air of expectation.
Eventually it was time to go to our departure gate. As usual, they kept us waiting and then there was the usual milling about on the plane before everyone settled down. The flight itself was uneventful.
At Barcelona airport, we went to the tourist information office to collect our three-day public transport travel cards that we had ordered online before leaving home. This card is called Barcelona Card and gives unlimited travel at no extra cost on buses, trams, the Metro and the train from the airport. It also entitles you to reductions on admission charges at many places. You can find more information on Barcelona Card and order it here. If, like us, you are restricted to public transport, this card is invaluable.
Armed with these cards we took the train from the airport and later changed to the metro to reach the stop called Selva de Mar, the nearest Metro station to our hotel.
The hotel, Condal Mar, is quite swish. The curious thing is that it is in a somewhat dodgy area. This is obvious if, like us, you access the hotel by public transport and on foot, but perhaps less so for those who travel by car or taxi.
After making our acquaintance with our room on the fifth floor, we set out for a preliminary exploration. As we had not eaten since breakfast and it was now evening, we needed a meal as well. We first took the tram and then the Metro to the Plaça de Catalunya. We looked at a couple of menus before choosing the Cafe Catalunya. Spain is not a particularly welcoming country for vegetarians and you may have to hunt around to find something suitable. In Cafe Catalunya we had a vegetable paella which was surprisingly tasty. Other days will no doubt bring other problems and triumphs.
After our meal we went for a walk along the famous Ramblas. By now the sky was dark and any photos we took were done using artificial light.
We went down to the old port and walked along the promenade, finally making our way to a bus stop to return to the hotel.
I asked the driver of the first bus if he went to Selva de Mar. He said no but told me I needed the 36. When this came, I asked the driver to tell us when we reached the stop.
The journey seemed very long and we were beginning to think he had forgotten us but at last he told us we were arriving at our stop.
From there we needed to find the hotel but for once, Tigger’s “inner pigeon” seemed to have gone to sleep and we were uncertain which way to go. To orient us, I asked in a bar for the Selva de Mar Metro station and a customer came out to point the way. From there we were able to walk to the hotel.
As I write this, local time (one hour ahead of London) is 1.08 am so I will end this account for now and take it up again later.
Saturday, March 24th 2012
The first night has passed well enough and I slept through it without waking once. The beds are comfortable and the room stayed at about the right temperature even though whatever I did to the air-conditioning controls seems to have no effect! (A common enough experience in hotels, I find.)
Tigger has been to Barcelona before but I have not, so she is in that sense my guide, having already an idea of the places she wants to revisit or see for the first time.
Before coming, I wondered about the language. Barcelona is in Catalonia, which is one of the Autonomous Regions of Spain and is thus able to decide its own official language in addition to the global official language, Castilian Spanish. It has chosen Catalan, and while this is widely used and spoken, so is Castilian. The linguistic situation reminds me somewhat of Wales and the use of the Welsh and English languages.
What is perhaps more remarkable is that English is also widely spoken. You gain some premonition of this from the fact that all public notices are written in Catalan, Castilian and English. Not even the usually omnipresent French gets a look in. I have yet to approach anyone who deals with the public, such as waiters, tourist office staff or transport officials, who did not understand English and speak it well. In that regard, Barcelona resembles Flanders and the Netherlands. I wonder whether there are concerns about the effects on native language and culture of English as there are in those two countries.
We had breakfast at the hotel. This takes the form of a buffet so you can choose what you want and how much. There is a fair selection of foods from yogurt and cereals, through bacon and eggs, to cheese, cakes and various breads. Fruit juices and coffee are provided. It’s best to get up early to avoid the crush at the buffet!
After breakfast we caught the tram and then the Metro to go and visit first Montjuïc and then the Poble Espanyol. Montjuïc is the flat-topped hill that dominates the centre of Barcelona. The name is thought by some to translate as “Jew Hill” and by others to derive from the Latin words meaning “Hill of Jupiter”. Among the buildings on it, perhaps the most noticeable is the Palau Nacional (National Palace), built in 1929 for the World’s Fair and now the home of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (National Art Museum of Catalonia).
We visited the hill and enjoyed the view and the gardens. Here we found a young bird, possibly a juvenile egret, trying to take a drink from an ornamental pond. He had long legs and neck and the water level was so low that every time he bent to drink he nearly fell in, recovering with a fluttering of wings. I think he succeeded in quenching his thirst, however.
From here we moved on to the Poble Espanyol. Like the Palau Nacional, this “Spanish Village” was built in 1929 for the World’s Fair and is the only exhibit to survive. All the buildings are scale models chosen as fine and “typical” examples of Spanish architecture, some being houses of noble families and others town administrative buildings. Many are currently “inhabited” by shops, some selling retail goods and others being artisan workshops where you buy goods made on the premises or at least by the person running the business.
There is also a gallery of modern art to which admission is free. There is a charge to visit the Poble itself but you have a 20% reduction on showing your Barcelona Card travel pass. (I said it was good value!) You will find some more information here.
The Poble is attractively laid out with streets and squares. There has been some attempt to make the streets resemble traditional streets that you would find in old parts of town in various regions of Spain. It is therefore an attractive environment on its own account.
We stopped off for tea at one of the several cafes and then visited a little park opposite the Poble from where you have a view over a section of Barcelona. This makes it look totally unplanned, a right royal mess, one might say. Tigger likes this “organic” growth pattern but I am not so keen.
We took a bus down the hill and then rejoined the Metro and emerged at the Mercado de Sant Antoni which is currently closed and undergoing refurbishment.
When visiting a strange city, there is always a doubt in your mind as to whether you simply wait at the bus stop or give the approaching bus driver a positive signal to stop for you. In Barcelona, as in London, you are advised to put your arm out to request the bus to stop. I believe you can buy a bus ticket from the driver but I never saw anyone do this. Like us, the passengers all had travel cards. You drop your card into one of the franking machines (make sure it’s the right way round!) and after a bit of buzzing, the ticket re-emerges. This system is not as efficient as the London Oyster card but is pretty good and helps to speed things along.
Tigger had established that there were four vegetarian restaurants in the area (named, respectively, Sésamo, Buenas Migas, Organic and Juicy Jones) so, for lunch, we set out to look for one. We found that the first one, Sésamo, was closed as it opens only from 8 pm to midnight. We continued on to the second, Juicy Jones, which was open and quite busy. There was a three-course menu for €8.50 so we chose that. It was quite good, apart from the fact that they didn’t have all the items advertised and we had to compromise on our choice, but I would be happy to go there again.
We took the Metro again and as we were getting onto the train a pair of pick-pockets targetted Tigger. The operation was quite slick: a man and a woman got in our way in the doorway and the man seemed to be asking questions, in order to distract attention; the woman, with a coat over her arm, used this as a cover to attack Tigger’s waist bag, getting as far as partially opening the zip. Tigger, who is quite streetwise (and has saved me from embarrassment more than once!), realized what was going on and routed them physically and verbally. Finding themselves detected, the would-be thieves of course ran off and nothing was lost but they would only continue their criminal activities elsewhere.
Despite this annoyance, we continued on our way and went to see the famous Sagrada Familia church. This is still unfinished, of course, though completion is scheduled for 2026 by which time it will have taken 133 years to build. Though irrevocably associated with the name of the revolutionary architect, Antoni Gaudí, this church was in fact started in 1882 with plans by another architect, Francisco de Paula del Villar. His more famous successor took over in the following year and continued work on it until his untimely death in 1926 as a result of being knocked down by a tram.
Opinions vary as to whether La Sagrada Familia is a brilliant creation or something misconceived. I have to say that, while the creative decoration of figures is intriguing, the building did not impress me as I had expected it to do. I think that films and photos may have shown it to greater advantage than its reality actually deserves. Perhaps when it is finished and cleaned up, it will more closely resemble this idealized picture. We would have liked to complete our impression by visiting the interior but were unable to go inside as it for being used for a special event and was closed to the public.
Afterwards we sat in the nearby park for a while. There was a man feeding the birds and he had quiet a few clients. There were pigeons, of course, and sparrows and collared doves but also a colony of green parakeets. These were amusing because unlike the other birds who pecked at the bread on the ground, the parakeets would grab a piece of bread, fly onto the railings or a tree branch and eat the bread, holding it in one “hand”, almost like a human. They are also quite fast and vigorous and often snatch food from under the very breaks of the other birds.
After the park, we started back to the hotel, stopping off for tea and coffee at a corner cafe called Brasilia. We got slightly lost along the way but eventually found the tram rails and took a tram to Selva de Mar.
Even though we had eaten a good lunch, we still felt we needed a snack to round off the day. Walking back to the hotel we investigated a couple of cafes but nothing tempted us. Most were filled with drinkers watching football on TV. In the end we settled for snacks in the hotel bar. They were good but, of course, somewhat overpriced.
Finally, we retired to our room where we brewed tea and planned our next adventures…
Sunday, March 25th 2012
A mi amigo catalán encontrado en el restaurante vegetariano “Organic” le dedico este artículo. Véase también el párrafo en francés más abajo.
Today is Sunday and our second and last full day here. It is also Tigger’s birthday, the reason why we came to Barcelona in the first place. Happy birthday and lots of love, Tigger!
The other significant event is that the clocks went forward one hour during the night. We saw no reminders of this anywhere yesterday, but fortunately our electronic devices updated their clocks and my mobile’s alarm went off at the correct time.
What is Barcelona like on a Sunday? We are about to find out.
It turns out that Barcelona is very active on a Sunday. Banks and similar businesses may be closed but everything else is open and people seemed determined to make the most of the day. The sun is shining again and the temperature has risen a couple of notches so that even I am wandering about in my shirtsleeves.
There was an early hiccup when we went first to the bus stop and then to the tram stop, all in vain because the road and tram track had been closed for some sporting event or other. Closure of the stops was not clearly indicated but we eventually realized something was amiss and diverted to the Metro. In town we found what looked like a marathon in progress and we had also seen groups of cyclists speeding by.
In Barcelona’s architectural history, the name of Antoni Gaudí is writ large and for many people completely obscures all other architects. This is both a pity and an injustice because the city fairly bristles with brilliant building designs, many but not all of which stem from the movement of Modernisme within which Gaudí may be situated. Above, for example, is pictured Casa Josefina Bonet (1915) by Marcel.lí Coquillat i Llofriu which stands just a few doors away from its more famous neighbour, Casa Batlló. Personally, I find many of these others more sympathetic than those by Gaudí, who, it seems to me, often lets his virtuosity run away with him and to pile on tortuous forms and overloaded decoration just for the sake of it.
Casa Battló was built (or, more exactly, remodelled from an existing house of 1877) between 1904 and 1906 on a main street, Passeig de Gràcia, in the midst of the city. It is therefore quite hard to photograph from outside. You need to cross a busy road and wait for a gap in the traffic but then worry you are blocked by the trees planted in front of it. All being well, though, something of its extraordinary appearance comes through in the above photo.
There was a queue to enter the house but it moved fairly quickly and the ticket clerks were friendly, polite and helpful. Once again, our Barcelona Card travel passes secured us a 20% discount on the admission charge. The house is tall and narrow and there is a lot of stair-climbing involved in exploring it. We took the lift to the top and then worked our way down. We were glad we did.
You can visit the roof but the lift does not take you up that far. There is a staircase to take you up the last part of the way. In modern buildings, the roof is usually just a cover or is used as a storage and service area. In the Casa Batlló, it has been made a feature and you can visit it and enjoy interesting views over the city.
The roof is a place of curvaceous surfaces, covered with mosaics, which accommodate doors and other features. Strange objects stand about and you could almost imagine these to be giant chess pieces from a surrealist version of Alice in Wonderland. Some would once have served as chimneys but I think others are just there for… well, are just there. (The numbers are reference points for the audio guides, should you choose to use one.)
To bring light into the interior of the house, and perhaps as a reflection of the traditional central patio often included in Spanish house designs, there is a light well running the whole height of the building. Despite – or perhaps because of – my fear of heights, I am always drawn to such features by a sort of horrid fascination, but, either way, it’s an impressive sight.
Later, you will of course want to photograph the opposite view, that gained by looking up the light well. Well, I did, anyway, and to me, with my feet planted firmly on the ground floor this was an altogether more reassuring sight!
Sometimes, the curves appear as arches, lending a surrealist and somewhat disorienting feel to the environment. The whiteness of these arches and walls recalls, for me at least, the whitewashed buildings of Andalucia. Was this the architect’s idea or just a style choice?
Given the tall, narrow configuration of the house, the appearance of this terrace, about half-way up (I don’t recall which floor it is on), came as a surprise, as did the size of it.
From the terrace, we have this view of the rear façade of the house. If nature abhors a vacuum, then we can say that Gaudí abhors a flat surface. Curves are the order of the day, so that surfaces seem to undulate like the surface of a slow sea.
In other parts of the house, the decor is done more warmly in wood. It is here that we perceive those “organic” forms for which the architect is famous, whether in the carvings or in the curving and twisting shapes of panels and window frames.
Just as quickly, however, wood gives way to metal and tiles, as in this ingle nook, an intimate and warm corner of a room. Were this my house, this is where you would find me huddled in winter!
The house includes a shop, quite a large one, selling all the sorts of things you would expect, and attached to it – and to every other Gaudí exhibition – is a row of chairs for sale. If you have some spare cash you can take a Gaudí chair home with you.
This is far from being a complete exploration of the Casa Batlló but you can find more information and the usual facts on Web sites, including the official Casa Batlló – Gaudí Barcelona Web site.
Not very far away from Casa Batlló is another Gaudí building, called the Casa Milà. This residential structure, comprising an apartment for the owners and two blocks of flats, was built on what was then the edge of the Ciutat Vella or Old Town. It was commissioned by the industrialist Pere Milà and his wife Roser Segimon and erected between the years 1906 and 1912. No such building had been seen before and it became an object of mockery. Because of its rough hewn exterior, people called in “la Pedrera”, meaning “Stone Quarry”. With the passing of time, it has come to be accepted until it is now one of Barcelona’s best loved buildings and has been made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There is of course an admission charge, with a 20% reduction on production of the Barcelona Card. The trademark avoidance of straight lines and flat surfaces linked to “organic” forms is present here too. The building’s design was revolutionary, being supported entirely on columns. This meant that the walls were not load-bearing and could therefore be shaped and pierced with windows as the designer wished.
Casa Milà is structured around two courtyards, one of which is shown above. Much of the building (which is currently owned by a banking corporation called CatalunyaCaixa), is inhabited, and visits are restricted to certain parts. Happily there is much to see here, both in terms of the building itself and of the person and work of Gaudí.
Here, the roof, or azotea, is an even more intriguing space than that of the Casa Batlló. It is on several levels so that you are continually walking up and down flights of steps as you go around it. It is inhabited by a set of giant figures. In reality they are chimneys and air vents and covers for doorways but they seem like quasi human figures, their openings looking like mouths and the slits in warriors’ helmets.
They seem to lurk and to spring out at you by appearing suddenly along unexpected sight lines.
Views from the roof are fascinating, of course. You can literally see for miles. The street below appears as that of a model village and the distant hills stand out thinly veiled in haze.
Another Gaudí landmark, the Sagrada Familia, holding court among a retinue of cranes, floats not far away, discreetly clad in a haze of city pollution.
You can, if so minded (as of course I was), look down into the courtyard so far below that the people seemed like ants.
Stepping down a level and entering the attic – surely too grand a space for such an understated name! – we again find arches as we did at Casa Batlló. Here is laid out for us an exhibition of the works of Gaudí, with models, plans, pictures and all the memorabilia you would expect; a place for study, if you have the time.
Something we have here that is barely visible in the Casa Batlló is an apartment set out almost as it would have been when occupied by the Milà family. We find a number of rooms with their decor and furnishings, recreated to give an inhabited appearance. I have chosen just three rooms but there are also Roser’s bedroom, a sewing room and the kitchen.
Tigger had in mind another vegetarian restaurant, called Buenas Migas. It was about a mile down the road and walking seemed the best way to reach it. A mile may not be much normally but on a hot day, pushing along crowded streets, makes it seem a long way, especially when you arrive and find it closed! Nothing daunted she set off with me in tow to find a second one. This is called Organic and was – oh, relief! – open. The menu here comprises 3 courses, first soup and/or salad chosen from a buffet; second, a main course, collected from the counter at the kitchen; and finally, a desert which you can fetch yourself. There is minimal supervision and the atmosphere relaxed.
Here I made the acquaintance of a very interesting gentleman who works at Organic. We conversed in French and he told me something of his history. Though a true born Catalan, he went to school in France as a result of his family going into exile after the Spanish Civil War. I gave him a SilverTiger card, saying I would be writing up our Barcelona adventures in due course. Maybe he will visit this blog. I hope so.
Mon ami catalan, ces quelques mots en français sont pour vous dire que c’était un grand plaisir pour moi de faire votre connaisance, de causer avec vous, et de partager quelques détails de votre vie en France. Vous avez apporté à notre repas la meilleure sauce, celle de l’amitié. Lors de notre prochaine visite à votre belle ville de Barcelone, nous espérons rendre visite à “Organic” pour vous serrer la main.
After lunch we went for a walk and then caught a bus down to the beach. We spread a blanket in the shade on the sand and sat for a while, then went in search of refreshments. We had drinks at an open-air cafe terrace near the beach.
As it was now around 6 pm local time, and we have to get up very early tomorrow, we caught the 36 bus back to our “barrio”. At the hotel we requested an early morning alarm call (to make doubly sure we wake up in time); a taxi to the airport; and a picnic breakfast, as we leave before the breakfast room opens for normal breakfast service. We have also checked out in advance and only need leave our electronic keys at reception as we leave.
We will pack all but last-minute items tonight before going to sleep and, all being well hit the floor running tomorrow morning when the cab has been called to pick us up at the ungodly hour of 5.30 am.
Monday, March 26th 2012
Our flight was at 8 am which was, to say the least, somewhat inconvenient, but it was the cheapest flight available at the time we booked our trip.
Allowing two hours to check in, etc, and the 30-minute cab ride to the airport, last-minute packing and a margin for error, we asked the hotel for a wake-up call at 4.30 am. We set our own alarms, of course, and it was just as well that we did because the hotel call never came. If we had relied on them we would most likely have missed our flight.
We reached the lobby about 4.50 and collected our “breakfast in a box”. This consisted of a cheese sandwich, a fruit yogurt, a small fruit drink, a small bottle of water and two items of fresh fruit. It was cold, being straight out of the fridge, but we ate it there and then rather than carry it around with us.
By the time we had finished it was still only 5.15 and when the hotel clerk suggested calling the taxi straightaway instead of waiting for 5.30 as planned, we agreed.
After a 30-minute drive through a city still lit up from the night, we arrived at the airport which seemed, metaphorically, to be still rubbing sleep from its eyes.
We sat and waited for the check-in to open. We were told it would open at 6 am but of course it didn’t. We queued up nonetheless because a large group of people arrived and we didn’t want them to get ahead of us and hold us up.
We were expecting to have to pay for our bags as we had done on the outward leg but they were accepted without a word. Why we had to pay one way and not the other remains a mystery. Was that payment for both ways or was the charge a mistake?
Having checked in, we went upstairs and submitted to the humiliating ritual of the bag and body search. On the plus side, this time around, my pepper mill caused no ructions.
We waited in the departure area until an airport official made a long announcement, proving herself incomprehensible in three languages. However, this at least signalled the opening of the gate. We crowded into a bus and were driven to the aircraft. As there are no seat reservations on easyJet, there followed the usual scramble for seats. Tigger managed to secure us seats beside the central emergency doors where there is extra leg room.
Once we were settled, we received the bad news that because of fog in the Gatwick area, only restricted landing facilities were available, causing delays. We would have to wait up to 45 minutes before we could take off.
I used to advantage the fact that I had got up early by dozing. This helped pass the time.
When we eventually took off, the flight was uneventful except that just as I was looking forward to landing and getting off the plane it was announced that there were still delays and we would have to circle for 15 minutes. (Is there a more miserable way of travelling then flying? If so, I have yet to encounter it.)
At last we landed, reclaimed our bags, went through passport control (“Welcome back to the UK,” said the headmistressy-looking passport controller) and were finally liberated.
After the rigours of air travel, the train journey to St Pancras seemed to pass comfortably and swiftly and we were soon disembarking once more in familiar territory. Still somewhat in holiday mood, we went upstairs in St Pancras station and lunched at Carluccio’s, then caught the bus up the hill to home.
Tomorrow I go to Higham’s Park to collected Freya and we shall then be all together again.