Saturday, 19 January 2013

Hola! Hablas Español?!

Okay so I am going to sound like a complete idiot here... But I have to be honest with you. Growing up I had always imagined that Spain was somewhat of a third world country full of crime and poverty. Blame it on my lack of attention in geography classes, poor representation in the Australian media or my childlike ignorance... but I had always imagined a dusty desert landscape filled with a ramshackle collection of cheaply made buildings strung together by washing lines and dodgy power poles. How wrong I was...

Spain was a destination that I had wanted to visit on my first trip to Europe but, unfortunately, it was one of the first places to get the cut due to its awkward placement in our timeline and the poor train connectivity into the country. The poor Spaniards almost got cut a second time but I fought vehemently to keep tapas in the mix and rejig the schedule so that we had a grand four days in the country... This meant that we got to visit one city...And the lucky city was... (insert drum roll) BARCELONA!

If we take into account my earlier musings on my preconceived notions of Spain you can understand that when we arrived in Barcelona I was suitably impressed! The city is a thriving metropolis with a sturdy underground system and a good (if sliding) infrastructure of services. The streets are full of people and the tourists almost outnumber the locals. There is a veritable bounty of attractions (most of them architectural), shopping opportunities and eateries! To top it off the weather is usually stunning. Barcelona swiftly shot its way up my list of favorite places!

When we talk about Barcelona, I would be remise to ignore its fantastic collection of architectural gems! Spain was the home and principal work place of the famed Neo Gothic/Modernist Architect Antoni Gaudi, whose creative gems lie scattered across the lands. To experience Gaudi's work first hand we made our way through the beautiful Passeig de Grácia to the popular Casa Batlo. Feeling suitably like I was inspecting an open home, I partook in the Audio Guide (because let's face it, I know naught about architecture) and was soon rolling through the dragons innards in an upward spiral. The building is stunning and its references to nature and the natural world made it somewhat relaxing, despite being a tourist destination heaving with visitors. What impressed the most was the beautiful views once you reached the top. It might not be the highest viewing platform in Barcelona, but it was certainly the most interesting journey up.

The stunning parts that make Casa Battlo a magnificent whole. Such a fantastic work of art.

Barcelona's most celebrated skyline contribution is most certainly the unbelievable Sagrada Familia. This towering creature is probably the most intriguing house of worship I have ever visited. First things first, visit this attraction on a weekday and early in the morning. The line gets huge and if you are there in summer you will spend most of your time queuing in the sun with a swarm of gypsies and "entrepreneurs" trying to sell you crap. The cathedral itself is a sight to behold, the audio guide will explain the entire building at an intense level of depth, but it is just as rewarding to wander around aimlessly and take in the grandiosity of the structure. The walls and doors are covered in unusual puzzles and riddles full of symbolism, the towers are adorned with elaborate stonework and the stained glass windows let in some absolutely magical light. Probably one of the most extraordinary parts of the cathedral is the fantastic views from the towers. You can't go up all the towers but the ones you can scale offer extraordinary, if a little disconcerting, views of the city and some up close and personal studies of the tower detailing. Extraordinary to think that this amazing piece of history is being built right in front of our eyes!

An example of one of the unique riddles found at La Sagrada Familia, all the columns and rows add up to 33 (the age Jesus was at his death). One of the elementally themed stained glass windows lets in a shock of beautifully coloured light. The branches of the pine tree that perches high above the cathedral doors on the "Nativity Facade".

The city of Barcelona owes a great deal of its current infrastructure to the Olympics and its inevitable revitalisation of the city in 1992. As an Australian I have an innate interest in sport, even if only very mildly, and my favourite sporting event is certainly the Olympics! This inevitably ended up with me wanting to pay homage to Barcelona's bygone Olympic era. I must say that having now visited the site, a visit to the city would be a bust if you didn't spend some time admiring the Olympic arena on Mont Juic. All the tourist buses go there and you can even catch a ride on the cable car if you want some supreme views over the city! The arena and surrounds are a surreal ghost town of aging athleticism and former glory. Giant pillars lining the promenade show a pathway that would have once been teeming with excited revelers for a brief few months in 1992. Nowadays the area has become a well maintained wasteland awkwardly punctured by the odd tourist taking jumping photos by the giant water features. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the Olympic park is certainly a breathtaking place worth spending some time at. While you are up there I suggest you take a quick look at the fantastic pools used for the olympic diving events. The pools have some of the most amazing views over the city! If you cant make it to Barcelona just watch aforementioned pools draped in scantily clad dancers in Kylie Minogue's music video for "Slow".

You can see the beautiful Olympic flame cauldron in detail and sitting perilously close to spectator seats under the clock. The telecommunications tower reigns supreme on the hill whilst the giant columns line your path to victory... Well they line your path to the stadium anyway...

Shanwah's tasty tip: One thing I missed out on when I was in Barcelona was traditional food. Now I'm no stranger to Spanish cuisine, but it is always a pleasing experience to indulge in a country's traditional fare whilst you are actually in said country. My biggest tip is to search out some grub at a small family run establishment (I am not telling you something new here I know) and this is true of all counties. The difference here is that because Barcelona has a large tourist population, it has a high concentration of bad eats in easy to find locations. I suspect that once you feel comfortable with exploring local side streets in the evening hours (please be aware of where you are and how common muggings are in this country) you will be presented with a veritable smorgasbord of tasty treats at a reasonable price.

Shanwah's tipsy tip: I may not have had the chance to explore Spain's culinary offerings, but I certainly managed to find an amazing bar! The story goes like this... After a month and a bit of traveling I decided that a massage was in order (a perfect way to revive you after lugging around your belongings for a month or two). Some intense googling and an email or two later, I secured a well priced rub down at a reputable nearby establishment (I can only say wonderful things about the massages we received there). The only catch was that there was only two consecutive appointments available... So Ross took the first appointment and I took the second. I bet you are wondering "When is he getting to the bit about the booze!" Don't worry it's coming... Whilst sorting out the massages, I took the liberty of asking our masseuse Nunu if there was anywhere to fill my time while I waited. Nunu kindly suggested a small cafe and a nearby bar. Well as it was stinking and I had no interest in a hot beverage, I chose the bar. The establishment in question was actually a bar/museum/brewery just a few doors away called Moritz. The brewery was set up here in 1864 and was used for more than a century until production moved elsewhere and was eventually shut down altogether. This particular piece of the Moritz story was revitalised in 2004 and has been turned into an absolutely amazing place to explore, learn and sample some fine Spanish beer! While I was there I was served up some fantastic in house brews and spent the remainder of the time exploring their beautiful maze of beer inspired art installations and glass fronted brewing facilities. If you do drop in, I recommend a visit to the bathrooms as the trip there is worth it.

The amazingness that is the Moritz brewery!

My piece of advice for Barcelona, and Spain in general, is to ensure it doesn't get cut from your itinerary! The train connections may be a bit ragged and the reputation can be a bit worse for wear, but the destination is well worth the journey! Just be sensible about your surroundings.

Shanwah's lovely links:
For a fabulous (and well priced) massage whilst in Barcelona visit Nunu at The Vital Touch

Click for more information about Moritz... This may require translation...

Just because we love Kylie...