Category Archives: Freak Recommends…

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.

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.

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.

Cava: aka Catalan Champagne

Amongst the many things Barcelona has going for it, is the bubbly little local beverage known as Cava – aka ‘Catalan Champagne’. Like some of you no doubt, I first encountered the drink in pseudo-upmarket bars in London, where annoying city workers in suits would order it for 30 quid a bottle as a kind of poor man’s champers with which to impress their female colleagues. (Or vice versa, as was sometimes the case with me). But these days, rather than feign interest in my line manager for the sake of free flute, I like to drink it much closer to the source at prices I can afford myself.

Here in BCN you can buy a bottle of Cava in your local supermarket for as little as one euro a pop, and even a bottle made by the renowned Freixenet or Codorniu wineries (the latter is credited with creating the first ever Cavas, after nipping across the border to make some notes on the production methods of French Champagne!) costs just 5 or 6 euros from Consum.

Aside from the supermercado, naturally you can get a bottle in pretty much ever bar and restaurant in town, however undoubtedly the most authentic way to drink Cava in Barcelona is in one of the city’s cult Xampanyerias. There are two that stand out. The first is the legendary Can Paixano, often referred to as La Xampanyeria. It’s a classic spit and sawdust place in Barceloneta district, that opens at 9am and stays open until around 10pm (warning: closed on Sundays). As such it’s the scene of many a daytime drinking session, especially as the place has (deservedly) made it’s way into pretty much every guidebook going. Order up delicious bocadillos (Freak recommends the Krakowski!) for around 2 euros each and glasses of Cava starting at 85 cents. The only downers are the miserable @sshole at the door, and the fact that from around 6 or 7pm it’s so packed that there’s not even enough room to raise your glass. (www.canpaixano.com).

The second is a bit more of civilised affair. El Xampanyet doesn’t open until 7pm and also closes early at 11 or so, but thankfully it doesn’t get quite as crowded as Can Paixano. With a bit of luck you can often grab a seat in this beautiful Modernista-style tapas bar, and whilst the prices are slightly higher than C.P. they’re still dirt cheap by international standards… just check the prices as they do seem to inflate the prices a bit for those who like like tourists! Anyway you can read a review of El Xampanyet in Barcelona’s Born district here.

Those of you with a bit more time might want to go and sample some Cava at the source… ie. the Penedes region of Catalonia. Granted, it’s not quite as famous as La Rioja, but it’s one of Spain’s foremost wine-making zones and you may want to check out my former post about wine tasting day trips from Barcelona to see what your options are. Many wineries are accessible by train from BCN (hint: they’re also a great place to hold a Calcotada!). Apart from the usual vineyard tours, as our amigos at Barcelona Life point out, you can also do bike tours with wine tasting, plus in recent months I found out about a so-called “create your own Cava experience“, which I hope to bring you a full post about in due course.

Or if you want to check out what an expert mixologist can do with a good bottle of Cava and a few secret ingredients then go back to my post about Barcelona’s innovative new cocktail bars!

Barcelona Boat Party

If I was a politically-minded blogger I’d probably be writing something about strikes, workers’ rights and Mariano Rajoy right now. But that stuff is kinda boring. And when you think that it’s possible in Spain to quit your job and still get paid 80% of your salary by the government for another couple of years, whilst you go swanning off adventuring in South East Asia (I know because more than one of my amigos has done it!) then you have to say, a little bit of reform here and there might be good for the country’s majorly troubled economy. Workers’ rights are nice, but if it means all the companies are ground into the, err, ground by having to pay off cr@p staff who already cost them a tonne in salaries and benefits, then who’s going to be left to employ the workers? It’s the whole chicken and the egg thing really isn’t it…

Well unlucky if you, poor unsuspecting tourist, has some how been caught up in a riot, or simply been a victim of non-existent public transport etc., but I’m writing a quick note to let you know about a little something this weekend that might cheer you up… the launch of the Barcelona booze cruise – ie. the best, and possibly the only regular, boat party in Barcelona!!! Setting sail from the modern marina that is the Port Olimpic, this soiree on the high seas will run every Sunday over summer (or possibly more often, I’m told, if the demand is there) and involves a three hour cruise on the Mediterranean underneath the setting sun, and an open bar offering guests unlimited free beer and sangria. And you won’t here anyone protesting about that! The tickets for the boat party are a fraction pricey at 40 euros, but that includes all of the above plus free nightclub entry to one of the swanky joints on the Port Olimpic, like CDLC, Shoko, Sotavento or Opium Mar Beach Club.

Sounds like summer 2012 is going to be another great one for lovers of nightlife and parties in Barcelona! No doubt I’ll be updating this blog with some more festival reviews (last year I dropped in on Sonar and Primavera Sound!), beach parties and random nights out!

Meanwhile, if it’s water sports that rock your boat (that pun is so bad I nearly deleted it… but since I had to read it back to myself you can suffer too) then check out this handy guide to sailing in Barcelona which features a list of yacht charter companies. Hire a boat and head down to Sitges why not!

Ok sea dogs… see you on Sunday hopefully! In the mean time try not to get hit by a rubber bullet.

Cocktail Bars: Shake It Up Baby!

Well I did say that you could expect a quiet year from me, what with trying to earn a living one way or another and all that… it does stand in the way of rambling on about random Barcelona-related experiences. But here’s a new post for y’all.

I think it’s about time I shared my knowledge of the Barcelona cocktail scene on these pages, as, having written an article about mixology for Easyjet Magazine not so long ago, I’m now quite au fait with the best places in town to sip a Margarita or two.

First up I’d definitely recommend Banker’s Bar… the rather swanky lounge of the 5 star Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The head barman, a lovely gent by the name of Jordi Otero is considered one of the best mixologists in Spain/the world and the service here is first rate. Obviously there are a lot of tasty beverages to choose from, but above all I’d suggest the Banker’s Martini is a sound investment. It certainly has earned lots of interest from cocktail aficionados. Cheque it out. (Sorry just enjoying a pun-down with myself).

After that I’d try popping into Slow Barcelona. A gorgeous cocteleria in Eixample, I swung by not so long ago and sampled something I can’t remember the name of, but it definitely had Cava in it – and chocolate bubbles. Delicious. It was like drinking Champagne and eating a Terry’s Orange chocolate at once. Plus Slow also has a funky disco upstairs!

Thirdly, fans of all thing Adria would be stupid to miss out on a trip to 41 Degrees. Adjoining their new tapas bar, Tickets, it’s actually a lot easier to get into 41 Degrees and, hush hush, but according to what Albert himself told me, here is where they make the extra effort to engage your emotions… by pairing their El Bulli-style snacks with cocktails that mirror and complement the food.

Finally fans of nostalgia should check out Boadas. It was the original cocktail bar in the city, established in 1933 I believe, and still has the old-school vibe, with waiters wearing tuxedos and old fashioned elegance. Amazingly, considering it’s right on La Rambla, it’s not too touristy.

Other great bars I’ve checked out, all in the name of research, are Coppelia in El Born, where allegedly Shakira’s hips have been shaking along with the cocktails. And sister venues, Marmalade and Milk, where you can always rely on a good crowd and more ‘democratic’ prices. Most coctelerias in BCN are unfortunately aimed at the way-richer-than-me clientele.

As usual my amigos over at Barcelona Life have the full skivvy on cocktails and cocktail bars in Barcelona so for more info head over.

Meanwhile I promise to be back a bit sooner next time. Got a Calcotada planned for later this month, and if you don’t know what that is then you’ve been missing out on one of my fave Catalan traditions! Full report soon:)

Montserrat Day Out!

Right, happy new year to y’all out there. As you might have guessed one of my resolutions for 2012 isn’t to update this blog more often;) But tortoise-paced or otherwise it will blunder through another year of existence perhaps providing a rare moment of entertainment, or usefulness, en route…

The subject of my first post of the annum may as well be a rather pleasant day trip I made with a friend to Montserrat late last November. It had been on the radar for a while, but I was just waiting for a visitor to arrive with some vague cultural/outdoors interests – and as most of my friends are dissolute drunkards that took some time – so that I didn’t have to go on my Sweeney Todd.

Naturally being poor/tight/economical we elected to head to the sacred mountain by public transport – which was not as cheap as it should have been really! The rocks are only 38km out of Barcelona but you have to buy a special ticket which includes one of either a cable car or a windy train (cremallera) up from Montserrat train station to the abbey itself. When packaged together these suddenly become tourist priced! But there’s no way around it as far as I can see. Unless you fancy a very long trek up the mountain… but hiking’s not my game.

Anyway the good news is that it’s damn easy. Get your @ss to Placa Espanya train station, head over to the R5 line, and then there are two kiosks selling return tickets to Montserrat. One with the cable car, one with the windy train. We bought a ticket for the windy train, which also included a further two cable car journeys which you can make, once you’ve made the initial journey up the abbey. This cost about 23 euros. (There was a full monty ticket that also included museum entrance and lunch for about 36 euros).

The abbey of course is nice… it’s basically a big complex of which the most interesting building is the Basilica where you can – should you not mind queuing for ages – line up to see La Moreneta (Black Madonna). A famous religious icon amongst church-going Catholics. Naturally we skipped the icon and took one of the cable cars included in our ticket price down to the sacred cove – now a chapel – where La Moreneta was originally found (shepherds found it guided by a holy light of course). This was probably the highlight of the day out. The walk to the cove, after descending a little via cable car, was very scenic and marked by some impressive statues (commemorating the stations of the cross) and the holy chapel was very serene indeed… head out to the garden in the back.

I then convinced my friend that the small hiking trail we saw would lead us to some cool caves so off we set… however after about 20 minutes of some increasing dangerous trailing it was clear this was not an official path and the caves were nowhere to be seen. It was a nice jaunt, however that meant we missed the last cable car up to the very peak of the mountain… which I was a bit pissed off with myself about! However a bit of an incentive to go back at least.

Overall a great day trip and if you’re too lazy to go by public transport/train then there are tonnes of companies offering Montserrat tours leaving and returning to Barcelona.