Category Archives: Travel Advice

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.

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I’m Not The Messiah…

I’m a very naughty boy. And I haven’t updated this blog for what seems like hours but is actually months.

And I’m not going to now either. After all it’s Arsenal vs. Dortmund in the Champions League tonight.

So let me draw your attention instead to a little guest post I’ve done over at my good amigo, Rob Dobson’s blog, the excellent Homage to BCN. After meeting him during a cookery class, in which he mocked my inability to chop up veg. let alone rustle up an edible meal, I promised to contribute to his excellent city diaries… and naturally I chose my specialist subject: Barcelona’s nightlife!

So here it is… if you’re wondering what are the top five clubs for late night fun in Barcelona all your questions have just been answered.

But as I was keen to point out at the end of the post, nightclubs are just the tip of the Torre Agbar really when it comes to partying in Barcelona. There are so many fantastic events and fiestas, such as Sant Joan (midsummer’s night), the crazy Sitges Carnival, Primavera and Sonar Music Festivals, and the billions of Festes Majors (street parties which take place in various districts over summer) that there really is never a dull moment in the Catalan capital. A fun new fad for travellers recently, for example, is also to jump on board a hedonistic booze cruise, and drink copious amounts of beer in the midday sun before diving off the side of the ship into the ocean. Totally responsible behaviour.

Unfortunately there are some shit aspects of Barcelona’s nightlife too… such as noise restrictions and, for aspiring Casanovas, horrible male to female ratios in the clubs, whilst fannying around with guest lists can be a pain (but save you money and possibly queuing time at least).

Overall BCN may lack some of the cutting edge cool of Berlin, London and New York, but good luck listening to live bands as you get wasted on a €1 carton of Don Simon sangria at a street fiesta, followed by a Cava breakfast on a stranger’s rooftop terrace, in any of those cities…. I’ll stick with good ol’ Barna for now!

Skiing & Snowboarding in Barcelona

I hate skiing.

And whilst some of these reasons are deeply personal, there are some aspects of my hatred that I find hard to believe aren’t shared by others. For example:

1) It’s fucking cold. Who likes to be cold? No one sensible that’s who! That’s why we invented fire, central heating, duvets, tea and you know clothes and that. Don’t spit in the face of science and deliberately subject yourself to cold unnecessarily. That’s what I say.

2) There’s loads of stupid equipment. Those toe-crunchingly uncomfortable boots, ridiculous goggles, day-glo bomber jackets and shellsuit bottoms, those funny stick things plus the unwieldy skis themselves. As for snowboards even worse. They’re like the shackles of the notorious S21 prison. I don’t like sports with a lot of equipment. Makes everything a huge hassle, and makes everything expensive as hell. If a sport requires more than a ball and an open area to play then simply put, it’s a crap sport.

3) Drag lifts. Who in their right mind wants to be dragged up a mountain by a metal pole wedged between their legs??? Apparently this medieval form of torture though is popular with middle class English, Frence and Swiss folk who must get some kind of thrill from the possibility of being castrated at any moment, or of being unceremoniously tossed off a mountain when your skis hit an insidious patch of ice. The humiliation of being dragged 100 metres over snow-packed rocks on your arse, feet in the air, grimly hanging on to said metal pole for fear of your life in front of your fellow wintersportsmen is arguably worse than either.

Video: A week of this? No thanks!

Video: Or what about this painful episode gleefully captured by a fellow skier?

4). It’s dangerous. Any group of more than six people going skiing / snowboarding for a minimum of one week all but guarantees a hospital incident. From nearly having your brains bashed out by a rogue drag lift pole to smashing your fibulas to pieces on a tree trunk, when you decided to charge off the top of something very steep and slippery, with just some fibreglass planks to guide you, it’s no surprise that people get hurt. For beginners in particular a week’s skiing holiday is basically a sadistic physical and mental assault course, where one wrong move puts you in plastercast.

If you’re dumb enough to ignore all those reasons then mosey on over to Barcelona Life where they have a guide to ski resorts in the nearby Pyrenees, as well as weekend skiing trips to Andorra from Barcelona.

The nearest resort to BCN is El Moli and you can check out their website here.

Click here for more activities, tours and trips on Barcelona Freak!

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.

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!

Saddle up: Bicing and Biking in Barcelona

Forgive us Barcelonistas if we gave Londoners a patronising smile as they waxed lyrical about the whole Boris Bikes scheme that seemed to have Brits in fits of ecstasy not so long ago. Here in Barcelona we’ve had a city bike scheme since 2007. I’m not trying to say that makes us cooler than them (well maybe a little bit), and in fact even us BCN-dwelling folk must doff our caps off to the residents of Amsterdam who first came up with the idea waaaaaaaayyyy back in 1965 (Google the Provo movement for more!). These days it seems every major city has one, from Montreal to Melbourne.

Barcelona’s city bike scheme is called Bicing (pronounced “bee-sing”) and if you haven’t seen the red and white critters, either stationary at their, erm, stations, or on the move, then you must have been walking around the city with a labrador and white cane. They’re everywhere, kinda nifty and cool looking and it must be said damn practical. Simply turn up to a station hold your Bicing card up to the thingamebobby and then wait for said thingamebobby to alert you which number bike you can grab from the rack. After that you’ve got 30 minutes (I believe!) to make your journey and deposit your two-wheeled wonder at a different designated parade.

Apart from a 45 euro annual fee for the card itself and charges if you spend longer than the 30 mins on a journey, the bikes are free and the fact that you don’t have to lock them up and worry about them (thieves are the plight of Barcelona!) makes them very handy. Are there any draw backs? Damn right they are!

The biggest drawback, as far as travellers are concerned, is that you need to have a NIE number (probably need a separate post on that… but it’s an ID number for foreigners that requires a bit of running around to obtain) to get a Bicing card, which basically makes them inaccessible to the casual tourist. Although, if that happens to be you, then Barcelona is full of bike shops where you can hire bikes, so don’t fret!

For those living here who are able to get the card the biggest irritations are:

a) no f@ckin’ bicycles at your nearest station! And yes you’re always in a hurry when that happens
b) no space left at the station nearest your destination, cue cycling around for ages trying to find an empty slot and running another 20 minutes late
c) getting a really crap bike with no breaks and a saddle jammed so high only a giraffe could pedal it.
d) station refusing to accept your bike, in which case you have to phone the non-English-speaking support staff and see what they can do. Cue practicing your Spanish!

In mitigation a) and b) happen on rather predictable routes, so you should soon learn when to expect a surfeit / shortage of bikes on the stops you regularly use, and line up some back up plans, or allow for extra time on those journeys. For c) I saw the other day that you obviously have a short time limit simply to return the bike to the station and pick another one (some Catalan geezer tested the brakes of about five before finally driving off and letting me take the space he had vacated!). And d) doesn’t happen often.

Having finally got my own card the other day I must say the pros are definitely outweighing the cons, esp. now as the summer is arriving and I don’t want to be stuck in the metro!

As mentioned, if you are not eligible for a run on the Bicing system then simply rent a set of wheels and set forth. Barcelona is a fantastic city for biking around (flat, great weather, amazing districts!) and if you’re not sure where to go then there’s a gazillion backpacker-style companies that offer guided tours on two wheels – and even the odd hip alternative bike tour if you know where to look!

Or why not go the whole hog and head off on a cycling holiday of Catalonia, maybe taking in Sitges (flat) and Montserrat (mountainous). Nothing like returning from your hols with thighs of iron.

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.