Wednesday, 30 October 2013

More housekeeping

Planning a trip to Portugal?

In order to tidy up this blog, I have decided to split it into a collection of microsites. The next of these, Redbeardtravels2Portugal, is now ready.

There's no new information, but everything has been overhauled so that it is easier than ever to read my travel diary in chronological order, browse through my photos and pick up some travel tips.

Friday, 18 October 2013

A bit of housekeeping

Going to Greece? Taking a trip to Turkey?

In order to tidy up this blog, I have decided to split it into a collection of microsites. The first of these, Redbeardtravels2Greece, is now ready. 

There's no new information, but everything has been overhauled so that it is easier than ever to read my travel diary, flip through the photos, pick up some travel tips and view all the video clips.

Friday, 17 May 2013

GR8 2CU BCN: A walk in the park, a trip in the dark

Each day during our week in Barcelona the weather got better and better, so it was typical that the last full day of our stay was the hottest and sunniest yet.  Might as well enjoy it while we can, so how about a walk in the park?

In addition to the basilica of Sagrada Familia and a number of apartment blocks along the Ramblas, the architect Antoni Gaudi's other main contribution to the Barcelona cityscape is Parc Guell. Like Sagrada Familia, the park is incomplete; unlike the basilica, we are likely to never see Gaudi's original idea come to fruition. What was intended to be an exclusive development of private homes is now an overgrown and overrun green space with a handful of Gaudi's buildings.

From the metro station at Vallcarca, we headed downhill and veered east a bit until spotting the first of a series of open-air escalators built into the hillside atop which Parc Guell was laid out. This brought us to one of the 'back door' entrances to the park, so first impressions were not good. The park looked shoddy with eroded dirt paths instead of proper pavements, lots of ugly chainlink fencing and little in actual landscaping. There's no denying it was a stunning view from here though.
We were greeted by a guitarist dressed in a sheer leopard-print leotard with bells on his ankles. He stomped his feet, shouted nonsensical lyrics and frantically bashed out a tune on his guitar like someone working through his problems with music therapy. 'I'm a tiger, let me eat you,' he growled at bemused tourists.

We were stopped at this point by some Australians who knew by our pale skin that we were pommies. They asked if we knew what there was exactly to see in the park. A good question! The hill was intended by Gaudi to be a luxury housing estate, not a park, but it seems that after he stopped construction early on in the project that little effort was put into the turning the space into an enjoyable public space.

Wandering along after sending the Aussies down a random dusty trail, we found ourselves in a dusty plaza  ringed by the famous sinuous mosaic bench which we couldn't actually see for all the people sat on it.
This also turned out to be the roof of what was intended to be the market hall for the housing estate. Nowadays the forest of columns supporting the roof provide a shady spot for thousands of schoolchildren to play tag, their shrieks echoing off the ceiling in a manner that had me reaching for a nerve pill.
A series of playful steps watched over by smiling lizards lead down to the main park gates, on either side of which are cute little guardhouses that look like gingerbread houses.
One is a museum, the other a gift shop, both are certainly prime money spinners. A shame the rest of the space felt tired and under-utilised. Leaving through the park gates, we followed the crowds downhill past the tat shops into the Gracia neighbourhood, which the guidebooks recommend but which we found to be a dense collection of modern tower blocks. There were plenty of places to eat, many advertising very good menu offers, including one which posted a notice reading 'We speak poor English but have good cooking.'

Without any particular agenda, we kept on walking through Gracia, down the Ramblas and all the way into the Gothic quarter (about three hours of walking in all). It being our last day, we bought our souvenirs and gifts for the folks back home. At one grocery store we stocked up on 'pick-n-mix' sweeties but forgot to weigh and tag them. I don't know what it is about the Continent, but I predict that some day their tills will have these wonderful things called 'scales' which will be within reach of the cashier. Christian assumed it was so that customers could bag up a few things, weigh them, put on the price tag before popping in a few extra goodies for good measure. That was my sign that we had spent far too long among the maƱana crowd and that it was time to go home.

First though, we had one last night in Barcelona to enjoy. It was a balmy night, perfect shirt-sleeve weather, incredible to think that it was nearly the middle of November. Time to visit another park, this time the slopes of Montjuic which were crowded with thousands of people enjoying the 'magic fountain.'

Spotlights shot up into the sky from behind the MNAC on the crest of the hill above us and a full moon hung low in the sky.
The air was thick from the cool mist wafting off the channels of water that were racing down the hillside and into a huge fountain which danced to music and coloured lights.

The display was particularly lovely when the water jets faded down into a mist, which the multi-coloured lights turned the water into silken curtains, lava flows and glowing clouds.

As you can tell from my clip, the sound system needed souped up a bit. It was hard to hear the mix of pop tunes there were playing like 1999, Independent Women and some Celine Dion what with all the splashing water and chatter of excited tourists. It was also a pickpocket's playground as thousands of snap-happy visitors crowded together in the dark, distracted by the spectacle. Still, mustn't grumble, it costs money for the water and electricity but there was no admission charge or sponsorship ads.

Around the corner and downhill from Montjuic is the Poble Sec or 'dry town' so-named because for many years it was without a reliable water supply. The avenue of Paral.lel was busy with the evening strollers, dog walkers and up-cyclers raiding the bins for scrap furniture to flog on at the flea market. Taking a left at a Burger King, we headed up a side street called Carrer del Poeta Cabanyes until we found Quimet & Quimet, a tiny eatery we'd seen both in travel guidebooks and cookbooks. Its doors were flung wide open, with people stood in the street.
We glanced at the menu but it had no translation. We decided to push our way in, taking a spot at the counter right as another couple left. This gave us a front-row view of the staff who were frantically preparing little plates of beautiful food. A wheel of cheese appeared (not the maggot-filled kind, I was relieved to see), the top was lopped off and the creamy contents scooped out like so much ice cream.

Plates were being passed over shoulders to diners behind us and piles of seafood atop toasted bread buns seemed to be popular. We asked for a salmon version of this plus a couple of croquettes, a plate of olives and some potato crisps. They had just tapped a barrell of Urquell Pilsner so naturally we wanted a couple glasses. 
Here's our array of tapas right before the croquettes arrived. As you can see, the 'crisps' turned out to be enormous thick slabs of potato which were dressed with a slather of honey and a dusting of cracked pepper. The pitted and stuffed olives were delicious. The croquettes were out of this world, crunchy on the outside and creamy on the inside, with the perfect balance of mashed potato and flaked fish. The salmon was curled atop cream cheese and drizzled with honey and balsamic vinegar. And the whole lot cost us a bargain €13.

The place is actually a deli, run by the brother and sister who were serving us. It's a single room with the walls stacked to the ceiling with bottles of wine and olive oil. The deli counter in front of us was crammed with the goodies they were dishing up for their diners, while the wall behind them was a veritable cornucopia of foodie delights. While it is a deli, not a restaurant, the standard of food is incredibly high. Yes, the mussels may be coming out of tins, but they must have been good judging by the clamour for them. They well deserve their top 20 restaurant ranking on Tripadvisor!

So, lots of fresh air and sunshine followed by a moonlit stroll past a dancing fountain, before we enjoyed some delicious food and good company. A perfect end to a lovely holiday. Bon apetit!

Thursday, 18 April 2013

GR8 2CU BCN: on edge on Montserrat 2

I was surprised to find out that the summit of Montserrat tops out at around 4055 feet, only a few feet higher than Mount Sunflower, the loftiest 'peak' in my home state of Kansas. The key difference is that Montserrat dramatically erupts from a flat plain near the sea, whereas Mount Sunflower happens to be the marginally highest flat spot of a broad plateau (it is the only 'mountain' west of the Mississippi which it is possible to easily ski up).

The monastery complex at Montserrat is about halfway up the mountainside, tucked into a cleft that sees direct sunlight merely a few hours each day. I suppose if it was more exposed it would bake in the hot Spanish sun; that, and the site was probably selected because it would be easier to defend.

The monastery has a history of sackings and pillaging, from the Moors in the AD700s to Napoleon's army in 1811, with the Black Virgin supposedly tucked away safely each time. Don't tell anyone, but most experts agree the current statue is from the 1100s so it's not the original one which was said to have been carved by St Luke. These days the only people invading the site are hordes of pilgrims and tourists; the best way to escape the crowds is to embark on a hike atop the mountain itself.

And so it was we took advantage of the perks that came with our TransMontserrat ticket by boarding yet another one of the creative means put in place to tackle the impossible terrain: the Sant Joan (Saint John) funicular. With an incredible gradient of 65%, this is Spain's steepest inclined railway, whisking 120 people at a time 800 feet up the mountain slopes in about 5 minutes.

The carriages have panoramic roofs for interesting views of the monastery below as the funicular sweeps up the mountainside. Again, not one for those with a fear of heights!
The terminus of the Sant Joan furnicular is a rest area with a loo, a vending machine and several panels that both describe the local floral and fauna as well as show visitors how to strike out on one of the many trails that lead from here. Even at this lofty perch after disembarking the funicular we were still a long way from reaching the mountaintop; it would have taken another hour to reach the summit. I bet on a clear day after a rainstorm the views from there are tremendous, but we were happy to take a more leisurely saunter.

The information centre at the monastery hands out leaflets and maps with information about all the walking opportunities. We decided to strike out for a cluster of hermitages, the first one being that little building way over there on the ridge...
...but don't worry, the path in between is broad and surprisingly flat. I bet around 1 in 10 people who visit Montserrat bother to make the trip, because there were only a couple dozen people riding the funicular. They all quickly dispersed in different directions while I got some water from the vending machine, leaving us in near solitude as we soaked up the warm sunshine.

Montserrat by the way means 'serrated mountain' and there are many sawtooth ridges like this to be seen.
The hermitage turned out to be an empty shell of a building which, judging by the rubbish left inside, must be the after-hours party joint for the choir boys. Above it though are the remains of much older cliff dwellings,  where the monks would have lived over hundreds of years ago. We climbed up for a closer look... us a beautiful bird's eye view of the hermitage below...
...and the path back to the funicular (can you see the people on the path?).
From here the trail carried on in a loop, but we doubled back to the funicular rest area and picked up another trail to take us back down to the monastery. This turned out to be blissfully free of any hikers as we gently descended the slopes. There wasn't even a breeze to disturb us. The switchbacks meant we had ever-changing views in all directions.
Here we are looking down to the river valley which the train follows as it cuts through the terrain on its way to Barcelona on the horizon...
...while here are the stone fingers of the summit lit in glorious afternoon sunshine.
On the path itself we noticed this defiant reminder that Catalonia is indeed a different country!
At last the monastery reappeared in the distance, the last of the day's sunshine catching the rooftops. The descent probably took about an hour and was a wonderful way to connect with nature and recharge after nearly a week in the city.
Back at the monastery and we had some time to kill before the next cable car departed for the train station so we had time for the audiovisual presentation which was included with our combo ticket. This was quite simply a slideshow, a series of photos set to music but without any captions or narration. It was interesting to see photos of the pilgrimages, when even thousands more people visit the site.

After the slideshow, we walked past some very basic interactive panels on display in the next room, one of which was simply a map showing the locations of rooms which were off-limits to visitors. If I had paid the €2 to see it especially, I would have felt ripped off. Exit was through the gift shop and we were back at the cable car within 20 minutes.

I tried to suss from the maps whether it was possible to walk all the way down the mountain to the train station, perhaps using the other funicular to take us part way as it went down from the monastery to the cave where the Black Virgin statue was found. Back aboard the cable car, it was clear to see how impossible it would have been, judging by the sheer cliffs and tumbling pools of water below us.
For even more fresh air and sunshine, click back next time for a walk in the park plus I will finally reveal where we had our finest food experience in the city as it comes time to wrap up our trip to Barcelona.

GR8 2CU BCN: on edge on Montserrat

An outing to Montserrat is the most popular day trip from Barcelona and the time it takes in getting there means an early start is recommended. We set off from the train station at Plaza Espanya, the gateway to Montjuic and a major intersection for several metro and train lines. All these are underground and it is a complicated labyrinth to negotiate (details below in IF YOU GO section), but in the ticket hall we found a couple of booths where people were on hand to explain the options for getting to Montserrat.

We chose the cable car as opposed to the mountain railway, declining the hair-raising flying daredevil-in-a-wingsuit approach:

NO THANKS! Trains leave hourly and we had missed one by 15 minutes, giving us time to head back upstairs to the bull ring shopping centre for coffee and croissants in the basement cafe. Returning to the platform, we joined the other tourists who between us ended up taking nearly every seat on the train. No doubt it is a crush during rush hour or summer. The train was slow, staying underground for the first half dozen or so stops. Once overground it seemed to stop every 5 minutes so we never built up any speed and it was quite awhile before the jagged peaks of Montserrat came into view. The train line followed a wooded river valley and we hopped off at the station for the cable car over an hour after leaving Barcelona.

The air hitting our faces was cool and fresh, giving us an extra kick to our step as we trotted along to be among the first 30 or so tourists boarding the cable car waiting for us. The monastery clung to the side of a cliff thousands of feet above us...
...and not long after boarding the cable car we were soaring into the air heading towards it like eagles catching a breeze. Here's my video (note the lack of any wingsuits):

Arriving at the monastery was like walking into a small town: almost every available inch of open space in this  mountain cleft has been paved over so that the millions of pilgrims who throng here each year can be fed, watered and ministered to.
Visitors walking around the sprawling complex will find monastic quarters, a famous school of music, an art gallery, shops, restaurants, a hotel and apartments plus an underground train station and car park which have been drilled into the side of the mountain itself. The basilica itself with its holy relic is sheltered inside the fortress-like building above; step into the courtyard of this plain monolithic edifice and you'll see this highly decorated archway and clock tower.
We joined a queue coming out of one of the doors for the church, thinking it was the way in, but instead it turned out to be the line for cuddling up to the effigy of the Virgin Mary. No ta. We entered the gaudy interior through another door and took a seat to soak up the atmosphere. It was a bit difficult to admire the stained glass and murals on the ceiling what with all the cameras constantly flashing and clicking.
Why does the statue attract such devotion? St Peter apparently visited Spain and decided to hide a statue of the Virgin Mary which had been carved by St Luke himself. Years later some monks find the statue, which they name La Moreneta ('the little tanned one'). Each time they try to take the 'Black Virgin' with them somewhere, the statue disappears and returns to where they found it. Heavenly music and miracles also accompany the relic, so the monks give up and build their monastery around it.

Although the original monastery was established over a thousand years ago, the basilica is a comparatively modern construction dating back to the 1850s. Some of the decor was not completed until nearly the turn of the century so there are strong modernista influences in the designs. The reconstruction project coincided with a surge in Catalan pride, sealing the monastery's role as a symbol of pride and identity for the region. Along with St George the Black Virgin of Montserrat is a patron saint of Catalonia.

Along either side of the nave is a virtual conveyor belt of pilgrims paying their respects to the statue. Newlyweds in particular flock here. All the touching and kissing of the relic didn't strike me as being particularly hygienic.
We had a half hour before the renowned boys choir were due to come out for their daily number, so we returned to the sunny courtyard and ate the sandwiches we'd bought earlier. The crowds were building up so we squeezed back inside the basilica to catch the boys choir as they filed in. A priest gave a welcome message in about six different languages, then he handed over the floor to the boys for their piece. More and more people were crowding in and the service was soon drowned out by cameras clicking and beeping.
What better time to visit the monastery's art gallery & museum?? Sure enough, we had the whole place practically to ourselves with its two floors of art and artefacts. Their Caravaggio was out on loan, but it was one of his many St Jeromes and I'm sure we've seen a version or two already. El Greco found us yet another saint with glossy eyes staring up into a black sky; the works by Monet were also quite stereotypical and not particularly memorable.

I was surprised to see that much of their collection was made up of secular art, with plenty of Catalan artists, including a few by Picasso such as a realistic portrait of an old fisherman which proved he knew how to paint 'properly' before moving on to Cubism. We admired several portraits by Ramon Casas, whose work we'd first encountered in MNAC on Montjuic; his depictions of well-dressed socialites amid the local cafe culture reminded me of Manet. It was also interesting to recall his self-portrait we'd seen at MNAC and to compare it against the one here, done when he was much older.

In addition to the paintings there are several rooms of icons and Holy Land artefacts like Mesopotamian tablets and Egyptian mummies. It took about a half hour to walk around the exhibits so it was a bit overpriced at €6.50 each, but it was a quiet diversion from the circus taking place at the same time in the basilica.

Time to enjoy the number one attraction of Montserrat: the mountain itself! Click back next time for a lovely walk and magnificent views.
IF YOU GO Although it is possible to drive the 30 miles out to Montserrat and there are plenty of coach tours leaving the city, the train is more comfortable and relaxing. Whether arriving by car or train, you have two options for ascending the mountain, either by cable car or mountain railway.

I recommend buying the TransMontserrat ticket which includes 1) a return ticket on the Barcelona metro for connecting with the train at Plaza Espanya; 2) your return train journey to Montserrat and back; 3) a return trip on either the cable car or mountain railway up the mountain; 4) unlimited use of the funiculars while on the mountain and 5) entry to a slideshow presentation (more on that in my next post). Tickets currently cost €26.60 and can either be bought in advance from the link above, or purchased on the day in the ticketing hall of Plaza Espanya train station. Staff representing both the cable car and mountain railway run booths in the ticketing hall handing out leaflets and answering questions, while someone is also stationed next to the ticket machines to make sure you are buying the correct ticket.

When buying the TransMonsterrat ticket you have to decide before joining the train whether you want to ride the cable car (AERI) or take the mountain railway (Cremallera). You cannot take one up and the other down. For the cable car, alight at Montserrat AERI station, which takes 1h5m from Barcelona. For the mountain railway, stay on the train another five minutes or so until reaching Monistrol de Montserrat station.

Not sure which one to take? Don't take the cable car if you are claustrophobic or afraid of heights!
I also thought the cable car had better connections. It meets trains as they arrive and should descend from the mountain about 15 minutes before the return train pulls in. Leaving Barcelona on the 10.36am train, we arrived at the cable car around 11.40 and were stood in front of the monastery 15 minutes later, meaning we only had a half hour to wait for the choir service. In high season though you might be left waiting for a cable car at the station unless you hustle off the train, although as one cable car goes up another should be coming down.

The last cable car heads down at 5.30pm in low season, which still left us with a full afternoon to see the monastery, art gallery and slideshow plus a ride up on one funicular and a walk back to the monastery.

You can also buy a Tot Montserrat ticket which includes all the perks of the TransMontserrat ticket, plus admission to the museum & art gallery and lunch in the cafeteria. At €42.65 each, you're better off with buying the TransMontserrat ticket, packing a picnic lunch and paying €6.50 for a museum ticket if you're interested in seeing the artworks.

A third option is to buy a train ticket at Plaza Espanya, booking your cable car or mountain railway connection at the same time, although this means buying separate tickets for the Barcelona metro and Montserrat funiculars. See if you can figure out the fares and savings on the local travel website?! Thought so. Stick with the TransMontserrat ticket!

In order to find the ticket hall and trains under Plaza Espanya, follow signs for what looks like a sideways S (see left): the route is called the R5 and trains are bound for Manresa. You don't necessarily have to to join the train at Plaza Espanya as the train calls at a number of suburban stations, but even on a mid-morning weekday departure in November the train was nearly full when it left Plaza Espanya.