Category Archives: Experiences

Getting Out Of The City

Right-i-o, it’s been a while. The truth is that my extended vacation around Brazil earlier in the year has left me on the back foot ever since in terms of catching up with work! So there’s a lesson for any freelancers out there… never ever go on holiday. It’s just not worth it.

One thing I did find time for was exploring outside of Barcelona. I guess it’s only natural that after several years in a place you are going to get bored of it, so it made sense for me this year to take the opportunity to step outside the city whenever possible…. here’s a list of the day trips and weekends away I enjoyed in 2014.

Sant Feliu to Girona Bike Ride (May)

Four guys, four bikes and not much of a plan, is always a great recipe for adventure and so it was we set off from Barcelona by bus to Sant Feliu, our rented bikes in the hold, after much arguing with a particularly miserable driver. Here we made our way along the so called “Green-Way” or “The Carrilet”, a one time rail track that has been turned into a cycling path, along which several of the old stations had been converted into wine bars. It was slightly uphill to Girona, our final destination, but with a beery picnic midway through, we found the energy to cover the 35km or so, passing through many a beautiful field and several picturesque villages en route. At the end of the ride there was just time for a nap in the hostel before heading out to explore the (disappointingly sleepy) Girona nightlife. Still we managed to have fun!

Trip Score: 8/10

The awesome foursome on the "Green Way" to Girona

The awesome foursome on the “Green Way” to Girona

Tossa de Mar Romantic Weekend (September)

I’ve stared enviously as way too many photos of stunning Costa Brava coves for way too long, whilst barely stepping foot on “The Wild Coast”. It was time to rectify that with a romantic weekend with my gf. As I was paying I selected the “economical” one star Windsor Hotel, which despite its budget pretensions had a wonderful swimming pool, a slap up breakfast buffet and a great location just near the old fortress and city beach. The sun refused to shine on our first day so we took advantage of the tennis courts at the hotel’s sister accommodation up the road, and followed that up with a pool photo shoot (had to test out the new camera!). On the second day we hiked along the coast through beautiful pine forest overlooking those photogenic craggy Costa Brava bays, finally arriving at the delightful Cala Pola for a sunbathe and a swim. By night and we dined like kings with nearly every restaurant offering a four course menu for €11 to €17. A resounding success.

Trip Score: 9/10

A typically craggy cove on the Costa Brava

A typically craggy cove on the Costa Brava

Sitges Birthday Weekend (September)

My girlfriend and I were kindly put up for one night at the four star Alenti Hotel, in one of the biggest and most comfortable beds I’ve ever slept on. Sadly – despite it being my birthday – the weather Gods were on poor form indeed with a deluge of Biblical proportions preventing any fun exploring on our first day. On our second the skies brightened up and we took a long walk northwards, past a gay nudist beach, over the marina and took a second breakfast (some delicious pastries appropriated from our first breakfast at Alenti… now slightly squashed!) on a patch of grass watching surfers riding the waves on a rough bay. There was time on the way back to stop off for a very VIP soft drink lounging on an Ibiza-style club couch overlooking the sea at restaurant Vivero, which was a nice highlight of a too short weekend. (For more on Sitges check out this post about the town’s raucous Carnival celebrations).

Trip Score: 7/10

Looking back over Sitges

Looking back over Sitges

Return To Tossa (November)

An invitation to check out the sensational Casa Granados was one we couldn’t refuse, even if we’d been to Tossa just a few weeks beforehand! Plus it was my girlfriend’s birthday and how better to spoil her than in this luxurious four star mansion that once belonged to the famous Catalan musician Enric Granados? The place is classy indeed, with a curvaceous pool, open air bar with views over Tossa and rooms tastefully decorated with every mod con. Sadly at this time of year not only are the days short but the town was closed for business pretty much… we struggled to even find a restaurant open on a Saturday night! Although in the end we did find a nice one and it even was showing La Liga… my girlfriend was delighted. She forgave me after I ran her a hot bath in our hotel suite and we enjoyed some midnight Cava and chocolates.

Trip Score: 8/10

The Catalan flag flying over Tossa

The Catalan flag flying over Tossa

Tearing Around Tarragona (December)

La Liga de los Ciclistas Extraordinarios reconvened in December for what was supposed to be a pleasant, easy-going jaunt around Tarragona and the surrounding countryside. Luckily the bike rental company issued us with mountain bikes as we sped off to see the celebrated Puente del Diablo (awesome UNESCO-listed Roman aqueduct outside the city) and found ourselves dirt tracking over flooded and rocky roads and over thigh-burning hills. We really should have worn helmets, because the going was treacherous and tough indeed. After lunch on top of the aqueduct (reminiscent of the four musketeers’ breakfast on the bastion) we fumbled our way through the forest to the coast with just 45 mins or so to go before sunset. My rather sensible suggestion that, as we didn’t have any lights or even high visibility clothing, we should get back to Tarragona before dark was heavily derided and so we went, cycling along the wet sand, in the opposite direction to Waikiki beach. Entry is through some wooded rocks only but we cycled as far as we could, then clambered down into this beautiful bay, just in time for sunset and a well deserved beer and some photos. The journey home was hardly pleasant or safe, but hey we made it. As in Girona, there was time for a nap and then a big night out. Great times!

Trip Score: 9/10

We ate our lunch on top of this, the Devil's Bridge

We ate our lunch on top of this, the Devil’s Bridge

So there you go, a few trips to imitate or not as you please, but hopefully some inspiration at least to go and see the great sights surrounding Barcelona in every direction. More weekend and day trip ideas right here.

Cinema Under The Stars

Picture the scene. Up high above Barcelona, in the fading light of another dazzling summer’s day, the sweet refrains of modern flamenco guide film lovers towards the grassy scarp beneath Montjuic’s castle walls. Here they lay out their picnic blankets, break out a hamper full of fresh treats from La Boqueria market, and settle down to watch one of the year’s most arresting offerings on the silver screen. Friends share a glass of Cava, couples cuddle close together and fireflies skit like miniature shooting stars through the ink-blue sky.

No doubt that was the vision of the organisers when they conceived this romantic(-sounding) al fresco cinema that screens four movies a week from late June to early August….

Summer cinema season at Sala Montjuic

Summer cinema season at Sala Montjuic

However as I trudged up from the funicular stop that didn’t take us anyway near as high up the mountain as I would have liked, my new shoes pinching my toes harder with every step, I got my first reminder why I don’t visit this festival on any old occasion. My second reality check was the enormous queue of hopeful cinephiles who hadn’t bought their ticket in advance and were now waiting in the (unlikely) hope there would be enough space to admit them (I’d been there before two years ago and that sure wasn’t fun!). The third whiff of coffee was when, having found that rarest commodity at Sala Montjuic, a patch of vacant grass (admittedly way at the back where we could barely see the screen) we were joined by approximately twenty loud American teenagers, who parked their blankets approx. 6 inches away from ours and proceeded to regale all and sundry with their schoolboy/girl humour. Hardly conducive to romance.

Undoubtedly the biggest obstacle to enjoying this festival of cinema however, was just how impossible it is (at least for a fidget like me) to sit on a rock-hard piece of turf for the two hours required to ‘enjoy’ the film. As the scant cushions and blankets we had managed to carry with us on the hike up Montjuic became soaked through with humidity I found myself constantly wrenching my moist ass to and fro in the vain hope of finding a position I could hold for more than 10 minutes, whilst hands and elbows were overstrained and redistributed on multiple occasions as I balanced the pros of sitting up and being able to see the screen, and lying down and being at least moderately comfortable – the latter requiring I glean what was going on from the top 25% of the projection only. After 90 mins I was begging the film to finish. Not that that signals the end of the evening’s ordeal. When several thousand people try to exit one of Barcelona’s least accessible locations all at once, the results were quite predictably chaotic and frustrating. At least for those foolish enough to enter the melee. I enjoyed a good stretch, attempted to pat dry my saturated buttocks and finished my Cava, before even thinking about making the long journey home.

Tips for Attending Sala Montjuic

Ironically enough the film I had gone to see on this occasion, Moonrise Kingdom (a typically pointless, enjoyable, unsatisfying, Wes Anderson diversion), was all boy scouts, and the moral of both that story and mine should be “always be prepared”. With that in mind here are some tips that can make or break your Sala Montjuic experience!

1) Buy your tickets in advance! If you don’t there’s a very real chance you’ll be climbing the mountain for nothing.

2) Even having bought your ticket in advance get there as early as possible. If you want to put down your blanket anywhere near the screen this is essential. Also there is a limited number of those funny little beach mattresses which you can borrow for free, plus also deckchairs for rental. The latter cost 3 euros, but I don’t think you can reserve them in advance, so getting there early essential once more.

3) Arrive by car if possible, or scooter or taxi. That way you can bring loads of comfy blankets, pillows, cushions, mats etc, as well as your picnic. Parking can be a bit of a mare, so see point 2).

4) Bring loads of comfy blankets, pillows, cushions, mats etc:)

5) Bring a sweater. It may be hotter than Satan’s sauna when you leave home but it can get chilly, esp. after two or three hours of reclining.

For more info head to the official website.

Holi Sh!t, That Was A Great Festival

I’ll be honest. I hadn’t heard much about Barcelona’s very own version of India’s Holi Festival of Colours (in fact I hadn’t heard anything about the original Indian version either), and when someone told me it started at the ridiculous hour of 11am on a Sunday morning I was pretty tempted to sleep through the whole shebang. But fighting all my natural instincts I roused myself and my housemates at an ungodly hour this April 14th to trek all the way to Rambla del Carmel up in the Barcelona hinterlands around Horta. Naturally we arrived a good couple of hours late and when we saw plenty of people heading back home already at 1pm, their faces a badly smudged kaleidoscope of coloured powder, we feared we’d missed the main event. However the Bhangra drums were still banging and there were plenty of smiling faces sticking into a cerveza or two so we decided to stick around.

I'm just off to powder my bros

I’m just off to powder my bros

Lucky we did, because on the way back from the offie, we chanced upon a couple of organisers handing out sachets of coloured powder on the outskirts of the festival. Suddenly groups of youngsters were jumping up and down (House of Pain style) whilse one or more of them would spray the open powder packets over everybody’s heads. All you had to do was join the mosh pit of merriment to guarantee a good dose of colour for yourself!

Managing to get our own greasy hands on some sachets I and my housemates were able to fight fire red with cyan blue (and mix in a bit of bright yellow and green for good measure) as we covered all and sundry with a healthy dose of hues. We’d also, with surprising foresight, come heavily armed with waterpistols (two each, and I had a supersoaker-esque machine gun monster for serious battle credibility) which proved to be a big hit with (nearly) everyone at the festival – and a big annoyance for innocent passers-by. Thankfully there were enough similarly-armed folk to round off the day with an awesome water fight, Songkran-style.

Too young to die? Nah!

Too young to die? Nah!

Overall a very fun day out, even if its growing popularity meant some people went home with clean faces (there wasn’t nearly enough powder for all!). I’m looking forward to April 2014 already… although I’ve heard several rumours about a second edition this year during summer! In which case I’ll have to refill the supersoaker a little earlier than expected…

Just discovered that the event is organised by Casa Asia.

The Three Kings Parade

If you are unlucky enough to come from the UK, or perhaps some other bland ultra-“Western” country, your Christmas probably ends the minute the clock chimes midnight on the 25th, whereby you groggily go to bed early and set your alarm so you can hit the Boxing Day sales. Meanwhile, across the entire nation, all festive cheer immediately vanishes, passers-by grumble and swear, shop attendants get lippy and public officials become morose and perfunctory once one.

three-kings-barcelonaFor Spain (and indeed Catalonia) however Christmas is much more about romance than rebajas, and right here in Barcelona you get a full 12 days of festive fun, culminating in the Epiphany on the 6th January, which for non-church-goers out there is the very day the Three Kings are said to have arrived at Jesus’ manger bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Appropriately enough, it’s on this day that Spaniards and Catalans exchange presents, making it a far more interesting date than Christmas itself – at least if you’re a Spanish kid waiting for the latest version of Call of Duty on Xbox.

The eve of Epiphany is also a particularly charming time to be in Spain because in many cities you’ll get to see a lively carnival-esque parade around town of floats, led by none other than the Three Kings themselves. In Barcelona this festival is given a fun twist as the Wise Men actually arrive from their exotic kingdoms via boat… naturally I was keen to check this out and went down to Moll de la Fusta to investigate. Sure enough at 5pm sharp on the 5th January, a vast and archaic vessel (the sort Christopher Columbus might have chartered… and indeed he has a good view of proceedings as this all takes at the port not far beneath his famous statue at the bottom of La Rambla), sweeps into view as the crowds huddle up to the railing to wave back at their royal visitors. It’s quite a cute site, with hundreds of toddlers sitting on their dads’ shoulders to get a view of the Magi. festival-parade(Although my idealistic notion of Spain/Catalonia as the home of free spirited romance was dented by the cheap cardboard crowns sponsored by Samsung!). Next there were speeches by some old Catalan dude and the chief King (I’ve no idea which of the three he was supposed to be though!), which were wasted on my linguistically-limited ears, before the crowds were parted and the Wise Men walked between two barriers shaking hands with wide-eyed children and generally looking pretty badass in some chic zero-BC robes. One fun thing to observe was the kids, aided by their parents, handing their Christmas wishlists to the Kings and their numerous helpers, presumably to be passed on to Santa later (talk about short notice – they have to be delivered that night! – but seems like Papa Noel still has a better logistics set up than Amazon. It’s all about the reindeer and elves).

Anyhow after the initial boat landing, The Three Kings Parade parade starts proper (around 18:30) in a route that starts at the port then heads to Parc de la Ciutadella, up Via Laitena, and then back along Carrer Sepulveda all the way to Placa Espanya. As I’d already received my pressies back in London on the 25th I didn’t hang around for the calvacade, but if it’s sweets you’re after this is when to arrive as they apparently handed out by the bucketload!

For more about traditions in Spain on the day of Epiphany itself (6th Jan) check out this article in the Spain Scoop.

Festes Majors: Barcelona’s Street Parties!!!

Barcelona is melting, every sensible city dweller has buggered off to the Costa Brava or the Balearic Islands, tourists swarm round La Sagrada Familia like cockroaches around a Bicing-flattened kebab… what does it all mean? It means, dear reader, that it’s another sweltering mid-August and the peak of the “festa major” season in the Catalan capital.

Street decorations at the Festa Major de Gracia

Festa major is Catalan for ‘grand festival‘ and during summer every district in Barcelona and pretty much every poble in the region has their own knees up, lasting several days to a week and varying in intensity and renown. The most famous is the Festa Major de Gracia, when the streets of the Gracia district are decorated in different themes (the residents of each participating street form a council and spend half the year preparing the decor) and in fact tonight, as I write this, is the closing night for the 2012 edition…

As you see I’ve decided to stay in to (finally) update my blog, but I did pop along last week for three consecutive, somewhat blurry, nights. I must say, I do love Barcelona’s street parties. They are a little bit ‘cutre‘ but there’s something charming about their complete erm well let’s be honest crapness. Taking the F.M. de G. as an example, whilst some of the decorations are pretty fun and impressive, others look like they’ve been put together by a children’s playgroup with a few cereal packets, a pair of safety scissors and (the quintessential) double side sticky tape. As for the music… I can see how the Catalans might enjoy what is obviously their equivalent of Kajagoogoo after a few cervezas but it might leave guiris like you and me a bit perplexed (solution: even more cervezas!). But anyway, to pick holes in the programme / presentation is utterly pointless. You go for the atmosphere. For the chance to see teen punks, village drunks, dreadlocked anarchists, local hipsters, lost tourists and even the occasional granny carted out onto the street in her wheelchair all hang out together around the district, either sinking beers and mojitos from the bars and ad hoc kiosks, or – my personal preference – surreptitiously swigging from a carton of Don Simon sangria.

Sing Don Simon if you love sangria

I must say this year in Gracia wasn’t the best year I’ve seen… and the effects of the crisis were notable in the relative lack of stages / concerts. Maybe it was just my imagination but there seemed to be a lot less going on than previous years, and when you did find a stage in full swing therefore it was absolutely rammed. Also the music was switched off at the distinctly un-Spanish time of 02:30… leaving you feeling if it really was a proper party or not. (And more evidence of the noise restriction policies that are dampening the city’s nightlife).

Anyway this weekend it’s the Festa Major de Sants and last year it kicked ass. There was even some dubstep on the main stage! Plus a firing range where took a shot of tequila before taking a shot at magazine cut outs of your favourite baddies, like Zapatero, Belen Esteban and Ronaldo.

Come September and you’ve got the fiesta del Poblenou… which is a bit spread out but tends to be fun. And of course La Merce… the grand festival of Barcelona if you like, and Europe’s biggest street party! This one naturally takes itself a bit more serious and if you haven’t seen the Catalan traditions of correfoc and castellers yet, then this is your chance. Not only that, but unlike the other festes majors you may have even heard of some of the bands that are playing. Nonetheless, like all of the district fiestas everything at La Merce is free (except the drinks of course, but you can always bring your own… as per my sangria advice earlier!).

Finding reliable information about Barcelona’s festivals is like finding a scrunched up 50 euro note in the key pocket of a pair of jeans you haven’t worn for 6 months. Fantastic and improbable. Some of the festes have their own (poorly-maintained) sites, such as:

www.festamajordegracia.cat
www.festamajordesants.cat

Whereas info about La Merce is put up here.

But most seem to require a Jedi-like prescience to divine when they start and what’s going on. Keeping tabs with Barcelona Life’s events page and Facebook profile is a good start.

Calcotada… Onions, Wine and Moonwalking

“What the Fr3k is a calcotada?” I hear you ask! Ah well let’s not run before we can walk: to answer that question first I’d better explain what a calcot is… It’s a slightly oddball Catalan onion that is harvested from November to April, looks like a leek and tastes a lot sweeter than those bitter round things you find in Gary Linekar flavoured crisps.

By way of extension then, a calcotada is a feast(/mission) in which calcots are the main dish. Typically they are grilled over an open fire until char-black, at which point you peel off the skin, dip the succulent bulb in some Romesco sauce (a tangy local specialty) and then, holding the veggie by its green leaves, dangle it into your mouth and munch off the edible bit.

Know your Catalan onions

I’ve been hanging around Barcelona for a couple of years now and calcotadas – which can take place any time during calcot season, but most commonly in February in March – seem to take one of two forms. One, an expensive, all-inclusive meal in a posh (faux-)rural restaurant; or two a big outdoors BBQ, either in a designated public place or simply round someone’s house. Both should take place somewhere in the Catalan countryside, outside Barcelona to be considered the real deal.

So far I’ve signed up for the latter option, ever since the Calcotada of 2011 took us to Sant Sadurni D’Anoia in the Penedes region and more specifically the winery of Cava Blancher. Here you can reserve a table for ten people for 17 euros or so, plus a minimum spend of 6 bottles of Cava a table. So another 30 euros. But you do get a great place to grill as many calcots and as much meat as you can carry so it’s not such a bad deal at all…

Textbook use of the porron

The last two years me and my amigos have enjoyed muchas merriment of the primero order and the fact that you can hire a porron from the winery definitely aids and abets the party vibe… these glass vessels make doing the “dentist’s chair” a piece of pie, and before you know it you’re be ordering another six bottles of Cava for your table and wondering why you can’t walk straight. (Hint: you might want to come back this way for a bit of wine tasting!)

As for the calcots themselves… whatever. Slightly overrated IMHO, but they’re just really an excuse for a winter/spring-time BBQ and a great outdoors party. If you want to make your own Calcotada a little more Fr3ky then I suggest throwing in a moonwalk competition and then heading off to the central square of Sant Sandurni D’Anoia to challenge the local kids at football… in which case try not to kill any passing old ladies!

Who's bad? Moonwalk 2012 winner...

Barcelona Wine Tasting

In case you didn’t realise, here in Barcelona, you’re in wine country… and this is definitely a country for old men. And young men too. And women. And children. Well maybe not children. Ok then just a glass for the nippers.

Catalonia is, if not world-famous, then still pretty damn famous as a wine growing region and second only to Rioja in Spain for the quality of vintages it produces. In fact wine-making (not to mention tasting) in these parts goes way back to Phoenician times, and they settled (don’t quote me on this) around 800BC in Spain – so the locals have had plenty of time to perfect the art. Having said that the export industry only really received a boost when some canny Catalan had the smart idea of taking a leisurely holiday to France, duly noting how the French perfected the art of Champagne making and put it into action just outside Barcelona. Hey presto the Spanish sparkling white wine, known as Cava, was born, and has acted as a cheap substitute to Champers ever since… particularly popular with suit-wearing ‘professionals’ in cheesy Late Night London venues in the UK.

Anyway today Catalonia, and particularly the Penedes region, are still busily engaged in harvesting, grape crushing and bottling etc and as well as Cava the region also produces great non-sparkling whites and some highly-regarded, oak-aged red wines. So where to taste these delicious fruits of Dionysus? Well the wineries of many famous Cava producers are dotted about in villages etc. within striking distance from Barcelona. The most famous brands are Freixenet and Codorniu, although you might actually have more fun exploring some of the lesser know vineyards. A typical thing to do in February/March is a Calcotada, which is basically a big BBQ of Catalan onions held at a winery. The idea is you book a table at 15-20 euros, which comes with several bottles of Cava, and then you take advantage of some grilling facilities to toast yourself up a boozy feast. Highly recommended! Anyway we did this at Cava Blancher, and whilst I’m no wine connoisseur the 12 bottles we had definitely did the job.

I digress. For would-be Bacchic revellers hoping to enjoy a day of wine tasting in and around Barcelona there are two basic options. One, choose a winery/vineyard and then work out how to get there by public transport (assuming that you don’t want to hire a car, as that would kind of spoil the fun). Not always that easy but the RENFE (Spanish rail) website is available in English, and if you’re prepared to do that I highly recommend you take a look at this excellent post by Catavino: Wineries you can visit by train from Barcelona.

A feeling of smug independence and a wallet heavy with money you didn’t waste on an all expenses paid guided tour are the pros. Getting there and finding the place is closed, or no one speaks English, is a potential con…

The other option is to splash out on a ‘no brainwork required’ wine tasting tour of which there are many offered by tour operators all over Barcelona. You pay for the privilege of course, but with transport to and from your hotel, and often quite a few welcome extras these are a guaranteed good day out for tourists who don’t want to gamble with their holiday time. They vary a lot in price, but one highly recommended by our friends at Barcelona Life takes you to both the Cordoniu wine cellars for a tour and a spot of tasting, before dropping you off at a ’boutique’ winery where you actually get a full on tasting session (think Sideways), tapas meal with the family owners and a real insight into a small production vineyard. Check out ‘Barcelona wine tasting tours‘ for more info!

If you can’t be bothered to leave the city then there are a couple of great little Xampanyerias in Barcelona itself, such as El Xampanyet and Can Paixano. These authentic little bars serve laughably cheap Cavas and snacks and are a great, if somewhat intense, experience. There’s a good article here on the five best Cava bars in BCN.

So there you have it. Go forth, get tasting and be merry…