When life closes a door, open it again.
It’s a door, that’s how they work.
Leonardo da Vinci
These days, whether it’s the oppressive heat of summer or the biting chill of winter, the streets of Barcelona are teeming with tourists.
I can’t help wondering how (or if) the locals preserve a sense of community – and how they find somewhere affordable to live, now our sharing economy has made holiday renting so simple and enticing for property owners.
There is so much to love about Barcelona, but are we loving this magical city to death?
It’s the local people, and the communities they build, that bring colour and life to Barcelona (or any world city). But if those people can’t get a place to rent at a rational price, then they’re going to be pushed out to the fringes.
Instead the wealthy move in, because they love the eclectic vibe of the city – and who can blame them? Meanwhile, tourists flock to soak up the history and culture for a brief time. But the people who gave the city its heart are leaving, and communities are fracturing.
It happened in New York City. Many of the artists, musicians, writers, thinkers and dreamers who once gave New York its creative edge could no longer afford to live there.
So they moved out – and the very thing that drew people to the city slipped away with them. Read more in this Rolling Stones article.
As travellers, we need to look beyond the cheap deals and site-seeing opportunities. Let’s give more than a passing thought to the people who call Barcelona and other world cities home. Because community matters.
We’ve been captivated by many fabulous cities around the world. We’re deeply shallow, I know. But Barcelona, you stole our hearts. And you did it so easily…
Yes, you’ll visit all the must-see places, be awestruck in galleries, channel your inner-chef in city marketplaces, and indulge in Barcelona’s delicious food, wine and hospitality.
But here’s something a little different you’ll kick yourself if you miss – seeing the city by sidecar, a street art tour by bike, wandering the lanes of the gothic quarter at night, and a day-trip by train to the beautiful mountain monastery of Montserrat. Let’s go!
Get your bearings in style on this fantastic Barcelona sidecar motorcycle tour.
Sadly, I can’t do the ‘backseat driver’ thing and shout instructions from the side car, since I could easily be wiped off on the nearest lamp post!
First you’ll head up the hill of Montjuic, for great views of the city and harbour.
The day before, when we’d walked up the hill (as you do), we saw six cruise ships jostling in and out of the harbour (mon dieu!).
Then you’ll meander through the streets, along the beach and past Gaudi’s exceptionally innovative and fascinating architectural creations – from Casa Batlló, Casa Milá and the magical Park Güell, to the incredible work-in-progress, Sagrada Familia.
I can’t think of a better introduction to Barcelona, can you?
Barcelona is such a busy city, it sounds like madness to jump on a bicycle and head out to the Poblenou area to see exceptional urban artworks and learn about Barcelona’s street art culture. But how could we resist…?
You don’t need to be a street art crazy like me to enjoy every moment of this tour.
So why is most of the street art in the city only on the roller shutters? In 2006, some of the world’s strictest graffiti laws were imposed on street artists in Barcelona.
Some ‘legal’ canvases remained, including the shutters of privately-owned shops and ‘painting walls’ where the artists could apply to create their transient works.
But of course, street art is about breaking rules, even if it has gone mainstream, so there are always surprises…
I’d tell you more, but writing notes and taking photographs while cycling are not skills I’ve mastered. Yet. So visit Street Art BCN for all the latest news, artist interviews and more.
In the morning, when the street-art adorned shop shutters are closed, the old town looks sleepy (but never tired). In the evening, it comes into its full quirky glory.
It’s the perfect time to get lost in the labyrinth of narrow alleyways where artisans imagine, create and sell their sensational work.
I admit I’m not a born-again shopper, but these small spaces are full of delight and wonder. You’ll go more than once, I promise.
All that wandering works up an appetite, but you’ll find so many delicious places to eat, drink and be mellow tucked away in the laneways. Who needs sleep?
The Monastery of Monserrat is a place you just have to visit.
Especially if you’re EB and you know there are mountains to climb.
Of course, one mountain is never enough, so once we’d had a quick snack, we had to climb the other one.
My legs felt like I’d done a thousand squats… well, stairs.
I digress. Monserrat is a place where hermit monks live out their days in prayer. Sounds like hell to me, but ‘purpose’ takes on many shapes…
Today, the pilgrimage continues – but many are tourists and those coming to touch the hand of the Black Madonna. Created as a wooden sculpture, the Madonna mysteriously darkened over time.
According to Monserrat’s tourist guide, worship in the Basilica is focused around the Black Madonna.
Beyond the truly awe-inspiring Basilica is a boarding school, museum, gallery, accomodation, restaurants and more. And every day locals set up stalls along the main street to sell their delicious produce.
EB loves dragging me up mountains, but if you don’t want to leg-it to the top, a funicular goes almost to the summit for spectacular views and gentle strolls…
There’s so much more I’d love to tell you about Barcelona, but I’ve run out of puff. It’s a place you have to be – and immerse yourself in. Just be prepared to fall in love…
After a couple of brief train trips, at speed, in Italy and France, I thought we’d lost our minds deciding to (mostly) train it around Switzerland, Portugal and Spain for 10 weeks.
But after an ‘initiation of fire’ in Tokyo’s efficient maze of subways and metro lines, we were well-prepared for our train adventures in Europe. And now we are huge fans…
Here’s five great reasons to take the train – and five tips on doing it stress-free. All aboard!
On past Europe adventures, we’ve always hired a car and hit the road. Taking a train around Europe just seemed like too much trouble. Who wants to be tied to train schedules and stuck with booking seats, dragging baggage off and on trains – and up and down stairs?
In fact, it’s super convenient and relaxing. This was confirmed for us when we hired a car to drive from Oporto to Estoril – when the hire car people didn’t set up our GPS to recognise the streets of Portugal (read how to fix that problem here). Give me the train anytime…
The best thing about train travel is you can both sit back and enjoy the ride. There’s always a restaurant car if you’re peckish, and the toilets are usually clean (especially on Swiss trains).
There’s no traffic, tolls or fuel stops and you arrive at your destination ready for the next adventure.
It seems expensive to go by train, especially because you pay for your ticket, then you can pay up to €25 (for domestic travel) to reserve your seat for each trip.
But compared to the cost of hiring a car, insurance, fuel, tolls and a GPS – and finding your way around when the GPS has a hissy fit or the fuse blows – then train travel is a pretty good deal.
We had the ‘select pass’ which lets you travel in 2-4 bordering countries of your choice, for a specific number of ‘travel days’. Read all about it here.
Knowing you have to be mobile and flexible is a great incentive for lightening your load. So you pack what you’d like to take, and then you take half of it out. There is nothing better than streamlining your stuff (this from me, your classic over-packer) and feeling an incredible lightness of being.
At first, train travel can be daunting. You’re in unfamiliar territory, you don’t speak the language and, when you arrive at your destination, you have to find your hotel. It helps to have a decent street map (see tips below) and to leave the station at the right exit!
But after you’ve been doing it a few times, you really get into the swing of it – and even enjoy the process.
Ignorance may be bliss, but not when you jump on the train, find a great seat – and discover it belongs to someone else. You end up standing uncomfortably near the doors, wondering what to do next…
While the guards were friendly and helpful to us two crazy Aussies, we made sure to reserve seats for our next trip each time we arrived at a destination. You can reserve your Eurail seats up to three months in advance, which is my ‘note to self’ for next time!
Before the train leaves the station, always complete the travel details on your Euro-pass, with your name, passport number and (most importantly) the date you’re travelling.
Yes, the guards will check it… carefully. No, never change a date or the information. We saw someone caught out and it wasn’t pretty. It would be hard to swift talk these guards (who have heard it all) when you speak the language, let alone when you don’t. As the hapless couple found to their peril (and a dent in their travel funds).
The biggest thing I noticed on our train travels was the ridiculous amount of luggage people had with them. I swear some of them were moving house.
The size and weight of their bags made every entry and exit a drama – and I was so glad we travelled light.
It meant we were flexible and mobile – and our backs didn’t cave in with all the lifting.
It’s surprising how little you need – especially in Europe where the women have turned flats and loafers into high fashion.
If you want to spot the touristes femmes, look for women hobbling across the cobblestones in killer heels, while the locals are striding out in their stylish flats looking supremely elegant.
After peering at the black & white maps our travel agent printed off for us, we decided there are two types of maps you’ll need:
We only got caught out once in Portugal, when we weren’t prepared for a huge line-up to get onto the train. We missed it and had to wait almost two hours for the next train. Cheap lesson – and we weren’t caught out again. It’s not unusual to see people rushing to their carriage, dragging massive bags, but that’s more like hell than a holiday!
There will always be train-travel skeptics, but we absolutely loved the whole adventure. So don’t be put off – but do travel light and be prepared. Then sit back and enjoy the ride…
While I’m not a huge fan of hop-on|hop-off buses, it’s worth taking one when you arrive in Valencia, on Spain’s southeastern coast, for a snapshot of the city. But you’ll need to get off the bus and take to the streets to really get a feel for this amazing (and dramatic) place…
Science, technology, art and nature merge perfectly in Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences – and it’s no surprise this is one of the 12 Treasures of Spain.
Futuristic buildings house an IMAX theatre complex, a science museum, an arts palace, and the largest aquarium in Europe. To be here is to be awestruck.
Wait, did someone say aquarium? I’m in! There are hundreds of aquatic and marine species at the Oceanogràfic, some in massive underwater towers that represent the major ecosystems of the planet.
But we can’t stay here forever watching those cruising sharks and graceful manta rays, or the cheeky sea lions and sassy penguins… or can we?
What could top the underwater wonders of Oceanogràfic? A walk on the wild side at Bioparc Valencia of course.
This has to be one of the best zoos you will ever visit. It’s so carefully and cleverly designed that the animals seem less hemmed in and more relaxed in their environment.
And you feel like you’re right there with them in the forests of Madagascar, the savannah and equatorial Africa. I could go on (and on), but they speak for themselves really……
Back streets, cobblestone alleys, abandoned buildings – the urban canvas inspires edgy and incredible artwork. It’s definitely my gallery of choice – and here in Valencia I’m in street art heaven. Here’s two of my favourites (more coming soon).
It’s hard to miss Estación del Norte when you’re leaving Valencia by train – but this is one gorgeous station. Opened in 1917, the original porcelain tiles, carved woodwork and lamps instantly transport you to a time when train travel was fresh, exciting – and slower!
It’s a fitting end to our visit, and we leave feeling we have barely scraped the surface of this delightful city. Adiós y gracias, Valencia.
From museums, art galleries, gardens, enormous monuments and stunning architecture, to delicious food and wine, and welcoming people… Madrid knows how to switch it on.
One of the things EB and I love to do when we hit a new city is to walk. A lot.
So it’s no surprise that hitting the streets with a bunch of like-minded food and wine lovers, and getting the inside goss from a local expert, is the perfect thing to do.
In many of the cities we visit, we’ll book into a foodie and vino tour, just to get a feel for the place.
This time we’re off on Viator’s Madrid Tapas Night Walking Tour. Apart from practicing weird cider pouring methods and learning the joys of tapas and Spanish wine on a tour like this, we often pick up tips and tour ideas from fellow travellers and have heaps of fun doing it.
Back out on the streets on our own, we soon discover some favourite places to hang out, like Vinoteca Vides on Calle Libertad (freedom street). It’s the place to be for brilliant wines, switched-on service and a great atmosphere…
With our thing for Asian-fusion food, we can’t walk past Bambubox and we’re not disappointed.
This is Thai food with a delicious modern twist, served by our lovely waiter (now friend) Thao!
Of course, there are so many great places to eat (it is Spain after all), but it’s not just about the amazing food, wine and people (well, it kind of is…).
There are wonderful – sometimes overwhelming – palaces, monuments, galleries, gardens and buildings in Madrid, and it seems that around every corner there is something divine or surreal!
Ah Madrid, such a colourful, welcoming and fascinating city. But don’t take our word for it – put it on your wishlist and see for yourself. We might even bump into you there…
It’s one of the most visited monuments in Europe – and with the crowds here today, I believe it. But nothing can detract from this incredible place. Come wander around La Alhambra de Granada for a while with us…
Once a thriving fortress-palace city with 2700 occupants within its walls, Alhambra or al-qala’a al-hamra (the Red Castle) had orchards and gardens, running water, factories and everything it needed to withstand any siege.
Since its humble beginnings as a hilltop refuge and fortress in the 9th century, Alhambra has survived many changes of fortune.
By the 14th century during the Nasrid dynasty, the last Arab Muslim dynasty in Spain, the emirs had created a combination of a fortress, palace and small medina (city) that showcased their stunning architecture and artwork.
Water was integral to their design. They believed it was a gift to be cherished and belonged to no man – and that the sound of trickling water created harmony. Today, water still runs along ancient irrigation channels on the streets, into fountains, pools, palaces, houses and gardens, then into the river to start its journey again.
By 1492, the combination of a civil war over the throne of Granada and the Reconquista (Christian reconquest) created the perfect storm that saw the Nasrid dynasty overthrown. Soon the mosque was replaced by a church, and a Franciscan monastery was built along with other structures including a Renaissance palace.
It’s hard to believe that by the late 18th century this incredible place was totally abandoned and taken over by squatters, who systematically removed and sold off most of the valuable tiles, fountains, marble and other artefacts.
But wait, there’s more. In the early 1800s, Napoleon’s troops moved in and converted the palaces into barracks.
During one retreat, they blew up parts of the towers and left the Torre de Siete Suelos and the Torre de Agua in ruins.
It was travellers, poets and other concerned people that finally saved the rotting, overgrown ruin. 19th century American author Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra (1831), written while he stayed in the palace, put a spotlight on the crumbling monument.
In 1870 it was declared a national monument and the huge restoration task began.
Over a century later, in 1984, it became a Unesco World Heritage Site – and today the restoration work is still underway.
Wandering through this place, you can almost feel its spirit coming to life again… Now that’s a resurrection!
Get tickets before you go: Try Ticketmaster Spain and be aware that lines for tickets at the site are seriously daunting (even for picking up prepaid ones!).