Spain and I…
Spain. A country that has never featured highly on my ‘Need to Experience’ list, as the thought of spending a holiday surrounded by obnoxious drunken tourists in a cheap beach resort is what I imagine hell will be like. But, after some skilful persuasion by my better half, I surprised myself by coming round to the idea of spending a week in the Catalonian capital city of Barcelona in the upcoming holidays. Up until this point, I knew precisely nada about Spanish culture or history. Being a Brit colonial who grew up in Southern Africa, why would I? In school, I was taught about van Riebeeck, not Franco. More Shaka than siesta. However, in the interests of the European community and international enrichment, I agreed to let my chica play tourist guide and show me around a city I had never been to before for a week of (hopefully) fabulous weather, complicated history and basic Spanish lessons. I couldn’t wait!
I can see why Spain is such a magnet for the British now: a beer at Newcastle Airport, a short two-hour flight, get through customs and onto a bus that takes you straight into the heart of the city, and then BANG! You are immersed in glorious sunshine, consistent warmth that you just don’t get back in ‘Blighty’ and the pulsating flow of the crowds as they move from place to place… I felt alive!
We got off the bus at Placa de Catalunya and were headed for the underground metro system because my significant other actually knew where she was going (due to living in Spain for study purposes). A metro station is a metro station I suppose, and this one was exactly the same as the one back home in Newcastle. Apart from the heat… wow! It was like stepping into a sauna and is not the most pleasant way to wait around with thousands of other commuters waiting for your connection. Unlike Newcastle though, I was amazed to find that these metro trains were uber-punctual AND… they had air conditioning! Some even had crappy music playing through the speaker system. Or live entertainment. The buskers were pretty insistent in collecting what they saw as their dues after a brief performance, but so long as you don’t wear your tourist face and cough up Euros every time somebody demands it you’ll be fine in Barcelona.
Speaking of crime…
I had heard a lot of negative opinions before I went over:
‘Oh, the crime… the crime!’ ‘Expect to be mugged at least once by the beggars and pickpockets’ ‘The street kids can rob you without even using their hands!’ What a load of tosh! If you wear a great big neon sign saying: ‘I’m a tourist, free pickings here’ then somebody will possibly have a go. So don’t make yourself a victim then! I always try to imagine that I’ve lived in the place for ten years, so just because I have pink / red skin and ginger hair (ie I’m not a local) it doesn’t mean that I have to act like a witless victim with lots of money and mobile phones for you to take off me. I don’t act rude and unpleasant, and I always try to act respectful, but I am also not your friend or saviour when I’m actually out and about. And the result: not once did I feel unsafe or threatened. The worst that happened:
- Girlfriend didn’t take all her change out of the metro ticket machine, and by the time she had realised this an elderly lady had already swooped in and flown off with it! Entirely our own fault for the loss of about a Euro or so.
- The local bakery short-changed me by ten Euros on our last morning there. I had a loud Hawaiian shirt on and was lugging my girlfriend’s
minusculemassive suitcase about, so I reckon he had a punt on me being a naive tourist and not checking my money properly. No problem correcting him and getting all my change, though. As always, this could happen in anywhere in the world.
So, to conclude my riveting lecture on big city safety: Know what things cost, check your change, walk around aware and with a purpose, and learn as much local language and lingo as possible. Don’t mess about checking Facebook or sending tweets from your phone out in the middle of a square, and don’t look inviting by having phones, wallets or nice bling hanging off every part of your body. Every city is the same, and Barcelona is a big metropolis, and so is no different. Much like London. But with sun. And an awesome beach!
Still fuming about the Euro we lost in the metro ticket machine we arrived at our destination in Clot. I’ll get straight to the point – I absolutely love the place! It is an area / suburb (depending on where you come from and what you want to call it) in the district of Sant Marti, to the North of the city centre. To put it in travellers terms it was about a 40 minute (clueless) walk to the seaside, however, it only took about 25 minutes to walk back, largely due to far better route selection / chance.
Clot suits me perfectly. It is a Catalan working class residential area. There are no real airs and graces, everybody is just busy going about their own business… and comparatively speaking there are very few tourists here. When you go out to the shops or bars (of which there are dozens… maybe even millions!) you don’t feel swamped by masses of holidaymakers trying to map read (like I was), so it has the genuine feel of a Catalan neighbourhood. Which means you should really be able to speak a few basic Spanish phrases (although it’s different to Catalan, but you will be understood fine) in order to buy things.
If you are looking for bright lights and tourist attractions, then you are in the wrong area! El Clot has a large and lively modern park, loads of little shops, bars and restaurants, a famous longstanding marketplace and one large, modern shopping mall. And that’s it. No hidden gems relating to Gaudi or Picasso, no golden beaches littered with bronzed sun worshippers. No art galleries or massive cathedrals that took 130 odd years to build. It really is just an area where a lot of Catalans live and go about their daily business.
There is a metro station centrally located, so you could travel to anywhere else with ease. There is also a lovely street, called Carrer de Rogent, that is like a mini Las Rambla, that is mostly pedestrianised, and offers you the chance to just walk in comfort and safety, simply discovering whatever catches your eye. Perfect for late night strolls or a beer with some great food. We even paid a visit to the local ice cream parlour here one night, as many places stay open really late in Barcelona… even ice cream shops! To some people, all this would make el Clot quite boring and unappealing as a holiday base. But to us it was perfect. It gave us experience and feeling.
Trip to Tarragona
One day was spent exploring this smaller coastal city, which is about an hour away from Barcelona on a train. The reason we came here was because ‘wor lass’* lived here once upon a time, so off we popped for a nostalgic visit…
Tarragona train station reminds me of Middlesbrough’s own station – just warmer. And that’s where the comparisons end! Tarragona is a lovely little place with surviving links to ancient Roman occupation, an interesting cathedral, a gorgeous coastline with a large harbour and a quaint old town area that smoothly merges into the modern town.
The trip to my partner’s old apartment building was quite emotional for her as she really fell for the area when she lived here. Every street and building were another memory for her, and it was great to see her happy like that. I found the history of the Cathedral of Tarragona sad (Roman slaughter basically), but thoroughly enjoyed the one day tour of this picturesque little gem.
Wandering around some of the obvious tourist attractions in Barcelona was enlightening, with the following being some of my favourite highlights:
- The Gothic Quarter: Just off La Rambla, this zig-zag maze of shops and squares, bars and restaurants were a pleasure to explore, as you never knew where you were, or what you would find next. Such as…
- George Orwell Square: Being an aspiring writer and ex-squaddie I find the man’s story very interesting. So it was a treat to stumble across this pleasant square, where we had a relaxing lunch and an ice cold clara (it sounds so much more classy than ‘a pint of shandy’, and it tastes FAR superior, as all the bars use traditional lemonade with the lager… Mmm!).
- The Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (or MACBA, which is far easier to say) was interesting, although the live sex video of artist Andrea Fraser might not be to everybody’s liking! Or maybe it is..? The ‘Punk’ exhibition could be seen as enlightening or tasteless, depending on how you see things. Boo to the ‘faeces display’, the ‘Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen murder scene’ and particularly the ‘Israeli hostage slaughter exhibit’ from the 1972 Munich Olympics.
- La Boqueria Market: An indoor sensory sensation as sights, sounds, smells and flavours send you into gastronomic overdrive!
- Not only is the bakery next door to the hotel a hybrid between a traditional bakery, a Thorntons chocolate outlet and a gift shop, but it is also open 24 HOURS! (I live such a sheltered life)
- Playa Vila Olimpica: Miles of golden sand, stacks of bars and restaurants, a casino, water sports, and an attractive harbour and waterfront – what’s not to like? PS: topless sunbathing is normal around here, so stay mature and respectful children!
- Walking up La Rambla and seeing ‘Marilyn Monroe’ hanging around on the balcony of the Museu Erotic luring punters away from their Euros… (we didn’t go in)
- Paying SEVEN times as much for a shandy near the Christopher Columbus monument (who may have been Catalan?) by the beaches (at the end of La Rambla), and then going up to a shady looking apartment to visit a Salvador Dali tribute museum. The artwork turned out to be pretty pornographic, but the owner was interesting to listen to.
- Going up to the top of Montjuic to walk around and explore Castell Montjuic. Discovering that the fortress was used to establish the metric system of measurements was quite a surprise!
- The casual manner of the bars and restaurants was lovely. Supping (northern slang – it’s not a typo!) unmeasured cocktails at a street table with the locals late into the evening, with no speed drinking before closing time was lush.
- Barcelona has wild parrots called Monk parakeets! As if.
- Oh, and the Basilica Sagrada Familia – obviously. Majestic in every sense of the word. Super interesting back stories as well. Highlights were Gaudi’s crypt where I had a quiet moment of prayer, the engraved doors with the crucifixion verses and the section discussing Gaudi’s style of architecture – wow. I will discuss all of this in a future blog.
- Our hotel had a rooftop pool, which was luxurious to swim in late in the afternoon after the customary sunburn.
- The Barcelona Aquarium are bigger thieves than the local ones! Outrageous entrance fees, rude portrait photographers demanding even more of your money after you’d just been robbed by the admissions team, and a conveyor belt style of viewing the bog standard variety of fish that you can see anywhere else. Ok, the actual moving walkway through an 80m underwater tunnel is pretty cool, but I still wouldn’t go back.
- Barcelona isn’t big on health and safety yet, which means the hotel always smelled of cigarettes and you often got a lungful of smoke when you ate at an outside cafe or bar. Which was often. Once public smoking gets fully abolished it will be an even ‘awesomer’ city!
I cannot wait to take the opportunity to revisit this fabulous city again, next time possibly using Tarragona as a base instead. We saw so much, but there is still so much waiting to be discovered by us that we could see on a future visit as well. You can do cultural, historical, party time or romantic getaway here. Both Barcelona and Tarragona are well worth a visit and have loads to offer to everyone.
I found Barcelona to be vibrant, yet relaxed. Exciting but also extremely casual. I find the proudly independent spirit of the Catalan people noble and love the lively atmosphere of a city that has passion and promise to anyone who visits! Would I move here in the future? I wouldn’t say no…
*(which, if you don’t come from Newcastle is Geordie for ‘my girlfriend’)