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!

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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.

Noise Annoys

Right, time to come back atchya with a bitch and a moan. Maybe it’s because I’m very hungover and grumpy on a dark and wet Friday evening, but today finds me in fine spleen-venting fettle, so prepare for an extremely personal and heartfelt top five – in reverse order – of the most irritating noise polluters in Barcelona.

5) Motorbikes
…or c@ntmobiles at they should be called. It’s pretty obvious that every asshole that rides one of these penis-compensators is so absolutely attention-starved (no friends at school?) that they need to let the whole world know whenever they and their big fat noisy engine are leaving the house – as if somehow their life will become meaningful if they are able to disturb the entire neighbourhood whenever popping out for the groceries. Easily the most selfish, narcissistic and pathetically macho mobiles ever invented, motorbikes and their owners would probably feature higher on this list if it wasn’t for the fact that every time I am disturbed by one of these thundering dildo riders I get a grim satisfaction from knowing that one day they are going to have a serious and painful injury that will scar them for life. It’s called karma.

4) German karaoke
The general concept of karaoke, as far as I can tell, is to take a song that makes you want to sand your testicles off, with a cheese grater, and then make it EVEN MORE EXCRUCIATING by letting a bunch of drunken talentless gimps howl the chorus behind time and murder the verses with embarrassingly inaccurate versions of the actual lyrics. Imagine when this audio horror is translated to the world’s most cantankerous language and even the best tracks on the playlist make Wet Wet Wet’s Love Is All Around seem like Mozart’s 5th Symphony. Dante would need to update his Inferno. Again I would probably place German karaoke higher, but any torture enforced by those lovely hot-pant-wearing (ex)housemates of mine is alleviated by reminiscing on their luscious legs parading about the house. All is forgiven girls!

3) Guests
It’s one thing to be disturbed by your housemates, but at least they pay the rent and contribute to the bills, and you can tell them “shut the f@ck up you inconsiderate bastard, it’s 5 o’clock in the morning and I have to be up at noon tomorrow.” Guests on the other hand are another matter. Yes, technically speaking, one of your idiotic housemates, in a poorly judged show of human decency, probably invited in said guest(s) thereby giving them some kind of license to be in your personal space… but nonetheless (and please read this carefully should you ever find yourself in my house) YOU DON’T FUCKING LIVE HERE SO DON’T YOU DARE DISTURB ME FOR ONE MILLISECOND OR I’M GONNA STICK THIS PIECE OF SHIT SOLAR PANNELLED LED LAMP I BOUGHT FROM IKEA FOR 17 EUROS WHICH COULDN’T LIGHT UP A BARREL AND STICK IT UP YOUR RECTUM TO SEE IF AT LEAST IT WILL LIGHT UP YOUR @SS.

2) Construction
Aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!! Pretty much my all time pet hatred. It’s soul sapping. There’s just nothing you can do. The drilling, the hammering, the squealing, the whining, it cuts through everything, vibrates in the walls, through your bed, oscillating through your ear plugs right into your skull, where it continues to bash your soporofic brain forcing you against all your instincts to get up… except you can’t. It’s 8am in the morning and you were watching back to back episodes of Game of Thrones until 5:23am and now your dead body, assaulted whilst defenseless in the depths of REM sleep, is caught in a limbo of sonar sufferance, unable to move or break free. You just lie there willing, begging, praying for the drilling to stop. And sometimes it does. Just for a few minutes… just enough for your body to return to a blissful comatose state, before the inexorable inevitable inhuman noise starts up again even louder than before.

1) Ex-Housemate’s Heavy Metal
It’s one issue when something impersonal annoys you, no matter how irritating it is, such as a bunch of yellow jacketed bozos ripping up the road with pneumatic drills. You can go and let them know what you think of their work, but ultimately it’s their job and there probably is at least a half decent reason they’re raising hell at unsociable hours of the morning – and the fact is they’d probably rather be in bed too. It doesn’t help you get any work done, or alleviate your sleep deprivation. It doesn’t change the basic situation that their activity is directly effecting your productivity – and therefore costing you money, as well as stress and annoyance. However somehow you grimace and bear it. Imagine now the very same level of decibels, the same relentless barrage of sound, the same tidal waves of audio terror, directed at you not by some government regulated force conducting necessary public works, but inflicted regularly and knowingly on you by your very own housemate. Then it becomes personal. I mean what the f@ck?!?!? I tried to reason with her. I told her about these new-fangled inventions called earphones that would enable her to listen to whatever she wanted to 24 hours a day without hearing a single complaint for me. I tried to explain that, as well as myself, the neighbours may not appreciate being told what to listen to and when to listen to it on a daily basis… and that in the same way no one appreciates being forced to look at, smell, taste or touch something they didn’t choose to (and you can in fact be locked up for some of these), neither do we, the poor people who live within her speaker range, want to listen to something we didn’t choose to at a time we didn’t want to it. It was ongoing and willful audio rape. The fact that 90% of her music sucked @ss was actually even besides the point, except perhaps that the excessive BPM of her playlists made the noise yet more painful to endure. Despite several well-reasoned showdowns nothing changed. When faced with someone so excessively stubborn and selfish as this, you really only have two options. Poison their cornflakes or move out…

Now, does anyone have any tips on paving over a patio?

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!

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.

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...