September 28, 2013

Paris for the n'th time


We got a brilliant night time bus tour as we rolled in to Paris and to the hostel. While I'd booked ahead, I got stuck with having to swap back and forth between hostels. I started at the prescribed one, being the same St Christopher's I went to with Madde back when I had my first visit from London.  I joined a roommate from the Netherlands down in the bar for a quiet night with mediocre Parisian De Mory beer. We accepted the hospitality of a rather drunken Frenchman in the bar who shouted a round of yager-bombs before heading up to bed. Hostel charm.


I wasn't going to be denied one more time at the opera house so I went to Opera Garnier first thing in the morning, getting my booking for the tour. There was some time to wait so I strolled down to the Tulleries Gardens to read under a tree for a while. On the way back, I joined some Eminem groupies as they waited for the notorious rapper to emerge from the exclusive hotel. I only stayed long enough to get a glimpse of his swaggering entourage but it was fun to know what the hype was all about.


The interior of the Opera Garnier was absolutely stunning, with all of the glitz and glamour that the art had assumed at the Napoleonic time when it was built. The staircases were built for flowing dresses and the building was set up for a structured procession of proceedings from room to room as the drawn out social event of the opera went on.


When we walked in to the main interval hall, I was absolutely dazzled. A room to rival the hall of mirrors in Versailles for sure. I didn't know so much about how it was done back then but I found out how the social convention was for women and men and how different it was to how we go now. Women stayed in the boxes and the men went out to conduct their business, following strict conventions in courtship and presentations when arriving at the house. In the main auditorium, at least they had the fantastic fresco by Cézanne, bringing colour, life and modernity in to an otherwise regimented space.

 

I took the afternoon nice and slow with a meandering walk to the Grand Palais, then going over the road to the Petit Palais where there was an all sorts museum with artefacts and art from all over the ages of France. While walking through the Petite Palais, I couldn't help but stop and wait a while. I sat there and absorbed the low rumble from the nearby Cafe where despite the amplification and echo of the tall vaulted veranda, the lush green courtyard lapped up the sound, transforming it in to something all the more soothing. The sky was dull with occasional patches of blue jumping at the eye but all was really made better by the long green banana leaves and a smatter of yellowing leaf reminding me that summer was indeed coming to an end.


That night I went out to the Eiffel tower to start a bike tour by night that I'd booked through Busabout. Strangely, by the time I got there, the groups were being divided up but when we went to show them our receipts, it appeared that our bookings hadn't been properly recorded and there wasn't space for all of us. The group of girls wanted to stick together so they left the spot for me, leaving quite disgruntled with the company and Busabout for giving them the false assurance that they had their spot saved.


I helped lead the bike convoy full of terrified riders over the hostile Paris roads as they were familiarized with the commands from the tour guide for single file, mob formation and bunching up. The tour had much less talking and information than I expected and for someone like me who would happily take to the roads at night anyway, it wasn't much of a novelty. We stopped for some good but terribly expensive gelato for a good 20 minutes and I started to doubt the quality of the tour but when we stopped by the ferry terminal on the side of the Seine, I was happy that we would get to see some sights from the water as well. The highlight was cracking open a good number of bottles of red over the course of the voyage, finding a funny

I had moved to a new hostel for the 2nd of 3 nights having not managed to get the middle night at my original hostel. I stuck with the St Christopher's brand and tried out their new hostel near Gare du Nord, a good 25 minute walk from the original. I made a new friend over breakfast we agreed on heading straight out to Musée d'Orsay to check out my favourite brand of art, French Impressionist. Sam was a casino cocktail waitress and body builder/sculptor from Alberta and it was interesting to hear about her rather different way of life. We got on well and after a good couple of hours of walking through the gallery, we both sat down to relax over lunch in the gallery. Having seen one of the waiters pass by with a decadent mille feuille, we decided to order and share one before heading back out to the gallery. There wasn't all that much time left in the day when we left the gallery and I had to head off to change hostel once again to be ready for the early pick up the next morning.


I rushed out of the hostel with some juice and a left over baguette that I still had packed from breakfast. I was on the run to the Bastille where I hoped to catch the performance of Lucia di Lammermoor they had that night. I was told that if you got to the ticket office 60 minutes before the show started, you could often get discount tickets but I was only there 45 minutes before after a long check in ordeal at the hostel. The line moved smoothly but by the time I got towards the front, number 4 in line, the tickets ran dry… Bitterly disappointed, I talked to the scalpers and looked out for any people who were trying to sell any leftover tickets from partners who hadn't been able to come. The options were thinning and I went back to a couple of scalpers but wasn't happy with their price, trying to haggle down by playing the student card and since I knew the market well enough but he knew too well that there were still enough people around to price me out of the market. There was one more guy with a ticket but even with the show having just started with the lock out in place, his deal was just a little too good to be true and having no way to check that his A4 print out ticket was genuine, I think I dodged a bullet by saying no.

I was rather desperate having come so close that I stayed outside the opera, waiting for the unlikely possibility that someone would be waiting around for their +1 to arrive or cancel, allowing me to step in and buy the otherwise un-used ticket. My luck was running thin and as it came to 20 minutes in to the first act, still outside, I asked a couple of open looking people as they left the house what they thought I could do, suggesting that I may be able to buy a ticket from someone if they left the opera having not liked the first half but they didn't give me too much encouragement as the line-up was star studded that night.

40 minutes in to the first half and I was almost ready to go home when I greeted and struck up conversation with a man as he left the main doors. As it turned out, he was the director of the French National Opera Young Artist's program. I asked him about the program and learned about it spanning all of the main opera houses in Paris and not just the Bastille or Garnier and just how many were currently on the program. He was very sympathetic to my plight that night and thought I should be able to see the opera so he took me inside to the ticket desk where he spoke quickly in French to the ladies before writing something on a small square of letterhead paper which would soon act as my VIP ticket. He told me to take the lift up to the 3rd floor where I could wait for the break in acts when an usher could show me in. I greeted the usher as I wondered towards the nearby late-comer's video screen but when I explained the situation, he just winked and lead me to the heavy auditorium doors. He showed me inside and pointed out that I could take up a position on the stairs of this upper balcony.


The second half of the act was in full swing and I could see everything through the thin balustrade in front of me. The Chorus was seated in a stark semi circle on stalls set 4 metres above the action below as long ramps broke up the stage and moved around between scenes. The singers were top notch and while the soprano was very different to the Emma Mathews version of Lucia I was involved with in Perth, it had a different sound that still made a lot of sense of the crazy character. I spent the interval exploring some more of that modern house. It was completed in 1990 with an obvious mission to make sight and sound accessible to every seat in the house. It wasn't the traditional horse shoe shape at all and with a capacity of close to 2700 it was obviously a house for some pretty big voices.


Having been told at the close of the first half by a couple of lovely old opera ladies (who I think were staff from somewhere else in the house) that I'd have to find a better place off the stairs to sit. I told them about by little white ticket and exclaimed that I could go and get a much better seat than where I had been before. I went down to the dress circle and the usher then told me that I could take any seat I wanted that wasn't currently used. I felt very privileged, especially considering the alternative of still being on the road side either attempting to get in in vain or having given up.

The opera closed with a fantastically supportive rupture of applause, making it a real night to remember and leaving me with the lesson that a friendly face and a polite tone can take you a long way when coupled with hopeful persistence.

I took the train back to the bar strip to catch up with Samantha for the evening session back at ye ol' faithful, O'Sullivans. It was still early so we took a couple of pints and then sat down, watching two classic Italian boys eye off people around the room. We had a lively chat about the transparency of it all but as the night wore on, we made guesses on who they would hook up with that night. It was that sort of place in a way. After a good dance and general wind up of the night, we caught a taxi back to her hostel (the people who lurk around Gare du Nord are bad news) then I carried on back home to mine.


Yet another early morning bus ride out but before, I took the time to enjoy the fruit I'd stocked up on before. Some banana slices to compliment my nutella baguettes in the morning was all I needed to brave the long ride to Bern.

September 24, 2013

Wine country

I didn't really know what to expect from Bordeaux and I think one part of me thought would be a town that was really just defined by the vineyards surrounding it. To an extent, that was correct but there was a lot I was to find out about the city in the two short days I had there.

Lesson 1: There are no hostels. Apart from a dodgy place pretty far away from the cultural centre of the town, there were no hostels. This was a provincial sort of place and my last minute approach to booking wasn't really the best in this case. What they did have were lots of little economy hotels. The bus stop hotel didn't have any cheap single rooms left so with a hint to check down the road, I hung around at the reception door until the host decided to turn up. I was in luck with a little double bedded room for me to indulge in after a good number of sleepless nights in Spain.

Lesson 2: Nothing is open on Sundays. I went out to explore as the sun made its way to the horizon but quickly realized that there was something I was missing about this place. What day was it? It only seemed relevant when I found that most shops and even restaurants would be closed that night. I settled for a pizza joint, taking the steaming box back up to my room for an early night in, in the first private room I had had in a long time.

Lesson 3: There really isn't too much in the town of Bordeaux and while the town is quite interesting historically, there aren't too many good places to witness it.

Lesson 4: The town is full of students and while it's certainly a walkable place, a bike is a pretty good idea since it's quite long and narrow.

The following morning, I found my camera was showing the final stages of a slow death with the screen degrading to a final darkness and the lens just failing to extend when turning on. It was time for a quick run through the local fnac (the only thing open on a Sunday coincidentally), finding myself a little shockproof camera that seemed a little more suited to my new phone-less lifestyle. I had gotten in to the habit of replacing my phone maps with pictures taken of paper maps and tourist information boards at tourist bureau's. It worked out pretty well from place to place. Whoever needed a phone anyhow.


I joined a winery tour in the afternoon which just seemed to be the thing that you do in Bordeaux. After a bus trip out through the burbs and out to country, we arrived at our first Chateaux called Chateaux Segonzac, learning about some of the quirks of marketing wine out of Bourg or Cote de Bordeaux and getting that name on the label of your bottles. One of the things I liked about the first tour was that it took us through the industrial parts where all of the hoppers and separators were, showing the big concrete vats where the skins and juice would be mixed to bring the red colour to the wine. I didn't know that the early process of wine making depended so much on re-mixing the skins through the wine vats before the product gets strained, barrelled and cellared. I now knew that apart from the type of grape, the major distinction between a white, rose and red is the difference between no hours and a weeks' worth of skin mixing.



We were shown around the bottling areas and shown the big racks of aging bottles. Not big compared to the monster Torres winery I saw out of Barcelona but it was fun to get closer to the action. I got to know a couple of German exchange students living in Bordeaux on the bus between that and the next destination being the very cosy Chateaux Falfas, enclosed by high walls and a well over-grown garden. Perfumed roses took our noses before we delved in to the dark cellar for a dimly lit wine tasting.


The girls invited me to a little pub quiz night that evening but they were off to freshen up and meet some friends for dinner so I set out to find this killer crepe place I'd heard about. I sat down by myself to a little table at a place called Crepe d'Angel and tried out my ordering and not long after, my first savoury crepe ever was on the plate. I am a now a convert to the crepe but I still couldn't leave without a chocolate sweet crepe. I took a light jog down the road with my desert in hand, knowing that without a mobile, coming late could spell the end of my evening. At the agreed time I sat outside the tourist bureau. 15 minutes past the time and my impression of German timing was down the chute but without anything to replace the wait in the meantime, I persisted and just as well because, 30 minutes the girls emerged, all apologetic with stories from dinner.


We roamed the streets, deciding how to eat an oozing crepe elegantly, eventually finding the bar. House wine was cheap and good as what seemed like whole Erasmus exchange crowd flowed in to the little bar. The quiz questions dissipated into the noise as the night drew on. The three of us took in the sights on the river bank, including a mirror-like water bed, reflecting the glowing Haussian architecture as if it was inverted and floating in the air. I enjoyed a good sleep in the next morning, making the most of my big room before catching the bus out to Paris via Tours before Lunch.



September 22, 2013

Towards Basque country: San Sebastian

Some friends were on the bus that morning out of Madrid, asking about my unlikely date but like me, they were hardly surprised that it had fell through. On the way to San Sebastian we were made aware of all of the little differences that separated the middle of Spain to 'Basque country'. The fact that they had a completely unique language, on land with a financially separated administration from the french and Spanish authorities that have jurisdiction over the small provinces. In Madrid, they had tapas, in San Sebastian they would have pintxos instead of tapa (the main difference being the toothpick stabbed through the bread, deriving the name), zurito instead of cerveza and kalimotxo for the half half mix of win and beer you would often find at bars.

Back in Madrid, Katie had told me about this place she was staying in San Sebastian so having not booked anything until the bus ride over, I thought I would give it a shot. Katie and I got off the bus together, heading to Rodger's hostel, well away from the Busabout options (which had really gotten some horror story reviews). Katie's sense of direction was simply rubbish though, taking wrong turns almost as soon as we got off the bus. I ended up having to take the helm, going in to a couple of shops with our tiny map, pointing and using a couple of words in Spanish before realising that they really did just speak Basque in many places. We finally found the place, stealthily hidden behind an apartment building door with a little name tag on the doorbell directory. We were in the old town while the rest of the Busabouters were in the mass market hostel a good deal north of us. After asking Katie where she had taken me to, she explained that most of the hostels in the old town took this format, composing of 4-6 rooms on a single floor of a building. I could only end up getting the first couple of nights in the place but there was always a good chance of spaces emerging as people changed plans and left their bonds in the hands of the owners.


We went out to find some dinner and joined up with some of the busabout group who had taken the recommendation of the guide. The food looked incredible and the format was somewhat different to what I had experienced elsewhere in Spain. Tbe pre-prepared pintxos occupied the bar counters, ready for individual selection and purchase. At 3EUR per piece with some going for more, it was not a place for a big evening meal. Katie and I retreated to a bar we had seen on the way with a Thursday night special on pintxos. Back at bar, we stocked up on tasty morsels and the beer to wash them down with. There was just enough space for some desert quality art food at the first place before we headed out to find some night life.


I followed the crowd over the river and we ended up at a crowded strip full of life. Bowing to a bus load of pressure, I gave busking a shot. I hoped that there were no Italians to boo as I started reeling off standards from the baritone repertoire. Coins started dropping in to a borrowed hat from people on the bus but soon I got the attention of some locals, not knowing what to thing about this random guy singing at the top of his lungs in the middle of the square, surrounded by a rowdy bunch of Aussies. The change ended up going to some communal drinks. I figured out why this place was so popular when I passed my mountains of coin shrapnel over the counter to a sighing tender in exchange for 6 beers. A smaller group of us wandered around for the next hour trying to find some place to kick on, finding ourselves eating birthday cake under lite rain. Finally, we ended up at this packed little one roomed place called  be bop bar. I ended up saying hi to a bunch of local architecture students who I hung around for most of the night. Some drinks later and with tired feet from dancing, I made off with on of them, re-joining her cajoling friends an hour or so after to say farewell.

Katie and I traded stories of love and conquest from the last night over a late, absorbent breakfast. There was one thing I could think about doing that day to bring back consciousness and that was to go for a swim. San Sebastian is known as a prime location for surfers and it didn't disappoint. Cold and refreshing with some great waves to catch.


That was about all we could manage that night before the evening began once more. In that small 40 person hostel, the kitchen was small and homely and Marco would cook up a brilliant paella every second night. Drinking games too and it was just a stone's throw to Ezpala. Courtney and I met and had a very energetic night on the dance floor of that dark underground bar.

Another second hung over morning and I caught up with Katie for a familiar breakfast before heading up to the tall Jesus statue that watched over the old town from the peak of the adjacent hill. We found it best to walk off the spirits, urging each other to take more steps up the hill face. We were rewarded with panoramic views over both sides of San Sebastian, the beaches and the island sitting in the western bay. On talking about the last night, we decided to catch up with Courtney and her friend by the beach bearing street side candy but mobilelessness struck again and we just missed them.


The hostel opening I was hoping for didn't end up opening up, leaving me to move around the corner to an even smaller hostel composing of 4 quad bed bedrooms and an even smaller kitchen. Rodger's hostel seemed like the surfer's choice with paraphernalia scattered over the walls but to me, it was just a bed for that night. I already had my people over at my old hostel.

It was a weekend night and hunting for affordable food in such a food capital became very difficult. Delectable pintxos adorned the bar tops of every bar we saw and having missed lunch, we were up for a big meal. San Sebastian is such a wonderful destination for food with each bite being a pleasure and the sight of the next taste to come being even greater. On the down side, it is not a cheap place. With drinks being a good deal more expensive than your average over Spain and the preferred pintxos style being on a per portion basis, it is somewhere I would definitely come back to on a more adult budget. This being said, we settled for the franchise fixed prices of McDonalds.

Stocking up on a bottle each of 4EUR vodka (not intending at first to finish them...), it was back to the old hostel where Marco had another night in store for us all. We ended up at a nice little place which had a bit of a festival, open air concept, based on tokens. Either way, once the Macca's lining broke down, Katie and I were pretty out of it, finding ourselves preferring not to stand up for some time. We both met again the next morning at 7am while trudging in land to the bus pick up point. We had both unused tokens in various pockets and concluded eventually that I'd managed to lock myself in an automated bathroom, mistaking the 'delay exit' button for the one that lets you out, for the maximum 20 minutes while Katie headed back with Marco having not been able to find me.


By the sounds of it, San Sebastian had been more of a party stop than a cultural one for most of the others too. I felt like I knew the place and it was now on my re-visit list with the next destination now on the horizon. The bus ride over the boarder marked the end of my time in Spain with a new found fondness for this country that has so many more facets than I had expected. Having only had a glimpse of this country, it is now a top place to explore in the future. Having learned about the completely different regions in Catalonia, Valencia and Basque country made Spain a real surprise to me. With a national identity being to me a mix of creative flair, laid back life style and great food, I felt I had a lot to learn from the place. Till next time Spain.

September 19, 2013

Towards Basque country: Madrid

A short walk from the bus an the drowsy Busabouters streamed into uHostel but I had other plans. This was another place I decided to avoid and down the road, I found the state run Hostel with the name I couldn't say which was immaculately fitted out. The internet had perfect reception in the rooms and the bathroom was refreshingly luxurious, making Madrid the top hostel so far.


After the general move in to the place, I joined the rabble once again on a trip to this tapas place called 100 Montaditos. This place was the best place for cheap drinks and was a bit of a franchise take on Tapas. We came to learn that Madrid was much more of a place for it than Barcelona not that this was the best place to find that out. Beers were 1.50 and the 100 different tapas varieties came in packages with names like "The Destroyer" and "Classica". Aside from the lame naming the place was a good start to the evening and the evening ended up kicking on way in to the morning with a trip to Maccas just around the corner from the 360 hostel belonging to some new found friends.

 

I went to catchup with Elenore, Katie and Lydia on another Sandemans walking tour. We walked around the city with Jose, out of Placa de Mayor, down towards the oldest restaurant in the world and then to the local 24hr chocolateria. Onward to the Royal palace and the opera before taking up Jose on his recommendation of a place called La Tiacebola. I guided the girls as the map reader and just as they thought all hope was lost and that the place was never to be found, we spotted the little old sign by the door. This was undoubtedly the best Spanish meal we had had up till then. Not only had Jose delivered on the tour but he had gone on to make the day for us. We dusted of a decent carafe of house wine and found our merry way to the Palace for a closer look. This, surprisingly, was actually the biggest Palace in Europe and offered some real treasures.



While it wasn't as consistent as say Versailles, it bettered the place in variety with the occasional instance where crazy creativity had taken over. Some rooms would fake it and some were over the top in a way that made you think that budget was low but that some artists would take it upon themselves to make a masterpiece. The highlight for me was definitely one relatively small room that we found where the wall wasn't covered in fresco, stuco or tapestry. It was covered in countless ceramic works, adorning the walls and coming out of them with green and turquoise leaves and cantilevered cornucopias. The roof was rich in texture and shape, changing shape as I moved around the room. The dining hall had a table to seat something like 100 people with the table settings immaculately measured. It was near closing time so we had just enough time to see the old school, in house palace chemist. Shelves stacked with elegant jars full of exotic spices and 'erbs made for a rather strange sight which had a weird sort of clinical feel. That evening was another tapas haunt with a rather different food policy.


All drinks came in 500mL plastic cups and there as really only one rule: If you still have something to drink, they'll get you more taps. I got one super sized beer and the surges of food started to come. It was clearly a good student and young person hang out as the food got noticeably more filling as the beer dried up. A great way to catch up with  a big group of friends as when you finish eating, you've all already bought your drinks. No skwabble on paying for shared food. It was already built in to the drinks costs (and a beer really wasn't expensive anyway).

The main event of the night would be a flamenco show. We didn't get there particularly early which may have been an oversight as we got shunted down to a table down the end of one of the wings of the room. The rhythm was exquisite and the guitars looked a bit like they'd done that show a thousand times but the sound they made was still everything one would expect. Unfortunalty, the singer pitch didn't really satisfy but out of two singers, there was still plenty to love. It finished late so something brilliant came to mind: 24hour Churros. We made the trek across the town with hot chocolate in mind, not leaving the place till 2am.


I took a moment by myself the next morning to check out the famous Prado Gallery, walking just 20 minutes across this rather small capital city. The place was just choc-a-bloc full of Renaissance Spanish religious art and after that, it was full of the more crazy brand of art, edging closer to the surrealists. One curious work was a prelude to the Mona Lisa but a student of Leonardo. It had all of the hallmarks including the pose and the face but did not draw any attention. It was interesting to think of how close that painting was to the real deal in time and space. Of course there was a whole wing devoted to Goya which was packed full of tours and students alike. I had less than an hour to explore what could have consumed days but such is the beast of short term travel.

I joined the girls in the Parque del Retiro for lunch, taking in the warming sun and the space and silence afforded by an expansive city park. The sweet sound of unaccompanied violin filtered through the trees to compliment the last throws of our picnic. She played Bach's violin sonatas and partitas from memory and it was exquisite, I had been starved of good street music for so much of my time in Spain (a marked drop in quality when entering Spain actually) and she provided relief.


I talked to her after she played and learned about her move from Latvia to Spain and now to Switzerland where she had been playing in the orchestra belonging to Gideon Kramer, one of the true virtuosos of our time. I went bank to the group and they said I was obviously more interested in the music than them. They said I should ask her out which didn't really seem like a bad idea at the time. I said that I was going to see the Barber of Seville that night and that she may want to join. Funnily enough, she already had a ticket and was going with some friends. I had no phone and no method of contact but we arranged a place to meet at interval but having not been to the opera house before, soon after we said goodbye, I knew that we wouldn't meet again.

I headed down to the Teatro Real in time for 4pm to buy my last minute ticket as they sell them at 90% off in the hours before curtain open. I made it to the hostel to change and back in time to get a bite before the Opera started. Of course you have Largo al Fatotum in opening with Figaro boasting his wears. The house was big an although Figoro's voice was nice it didn't carry. Unfortunately he cracked a couple of times towards the end, setting a precedent for a relatively ordinary performance. The colours were bright and though the set was sparse, rainbow colours featured in the costumes and the final cast call was pretty. The orchestral pit was quite high and open, leaving me to wonder whether the fact that vocals sounded soft was due to the singers or the building, I did try to catch up with my Latvian friend at interval that night. Our rendezvous was to be on the second floor balcony facing the royal palace. Little did I know the size of this balcony. A VIP event consumed a segment of the balcony and the floor's bar, making it difficult to see all of the faces around the area. I thought of many reasons why I would not see her there, as it was a bit of an absurd idea in the first place and with half of the interval left, I went to explore the rest of the house. The interval food options being tapas rather than chips etc. looking like quite a good idea for the longer operas.


I left the opera feeling a little unsatisfied having not been impressed with the performance as I had been by other European performances and I had also missed the representative of those wonderful Bach violin sonatas. I decided to go and join a pub crawl at that time, the Spanish night still being young, I tried two venues I knew from adverts but those Madrid bars composed of this weird mix of bar and club where the music was too loud to talk but the light didn't seem right to dance. I was clearly more sober than many others at that point and couldn't really make friends or maybe just didn't want to. Some pub crawl guy tried to recruit me in to the crawl with a free armband, staying for a couple of free drinks before deciding that I just didn't seem in the mood for a night out.

I jogged up a couple of main roads, heading towards the hostel, not being a victim to those I saw prowling on the main road out of placa del Sol. The similarity it bore to La Ramblas in Barcelona the week before brought on an instinct to raise my senses and keep good distance in my jog home. It wasn't a time to be kind or friendly.

September 16, 2013

A Mediterranean Spain

It was a big drive from Nice to Barcelona stopping in Avignon on the way. It looked like a pretty interesting town with a whole lot of Papal history behind it, so after the long drive, it was getting late. The bus arrived in Barcelona and stopped on a main road, leaving us to walk over, past a pretty considerable row of sex shops and finally on to the Be Sound Hostel which was one that I decided not to stay at and from the walk in and the tiny staircases up and as I saw the narrow little staircases up and down the hostel, I was pretty happy with my choice. I got myself on to their internet and figured out where my bed actually was then said goodbye on my walk up to the Barcelona St Christopher's Hostel.

My walk took me north along las Ramblas to the Placa de Catalonia. This hostel was the newest in the St Christopher's franchise and was fully configured with key card lifts, floor access barriers, room lockers, bunk curtains, hostel-wide wifi, a bar and free breakfast in the morning. Definitely the better choice. After I settled in to the room which even had its own little lounge area, I went out again, back towards the Be Sound to catch up with some friends for dinner. We were pretty keen for tapas as it was the sort of thing we were expecting to get out of Spain. I suggested a little square lined by restaurants that I'd passed on the way through. A couple of drinks down in the open air of the square under trees. A big group of school kids ran past on what seemed like some school physical education class. It was 7pm. Even though we were all pretty peckish at this point, 7 is really a pretty early dinner in Spain and we thought we'd have to force ourselves in to a new routine, We only lasted till 7:30pm before we succumbed to hunger and ordered a big 7 dish tapas pack. The tapas would always be ordered separately to the drinks it would seem, something different between the Catalonian area and other parts of Spain. One of a couple of cultural things we were struggling to figure out. It seemed to us that there were some quirks and lots of know-how about eating and drinking in Spain. A little past 10 and the same group of 40ish kids ran past, making us wondering what schedule they could possibly be operating on. Night over and it was time to sleep so I said goodbye as they would be heading out of Barcelona the next day.

The next day I woke up to the rustling of a girl in one of the other bunks of the room who I had met when I came in the day before. I let her know about the bike tour I had signed up for the day before and she jumped at the chance to join albeit without time for breakfast. Sophie and I walked on down to the old town where the tour was due to start from and with some pastries on the go; she was ready for the adventure.


Once on these fat wheeled bikes, we were gliding through the narrow lanes of the Barcelona old town, amazed at our brazen tour guide and his cavalier attitude to pedestrians. We heard about the old town hall and the earlier leaders that I can't remember so much about anymore. Over time we made it to the Sangrada de Familia, The single craziest structure I've ever seen. We learned about the architect Gaudi making his home in Barcelona and his demise during the construction of his masterpiece. This church resembled a melting sand castle with tall spires and great bunches of fruits adorning their tops. While this was my top destination in Barcelona, I would have to wait till another day. The tour took us past the biggest brick triumphal arch in the world and an old moor inspired bull ring. Lunch at the beach and then a little more history on the Spanish absorption of Catalonia and some of the reasons behind an independence vote and also the futility of it.

Sophie was pretty impressed by the Gaudi art we saw so the afternoon became a bit of a building hunt. We found two apartment block-type buildings including one which resembled a dragon in some way. The bombastic curves really thrilled me and while pretty amazing; I couldn't help but sympathize for the poor engineers that had to make it work.

That afternoon we considered trying to make it out to Park Guell for a picnic dinner but the weather closed in on us. Just as we were heading from the hostel to the metro station, the rain started pelting down with thunder following soon after. It would have to wait.

Tonight would be a big a big one. With the Hostel bar (Belushi’s) pumping up for the night, Sophie and I went down and introduced ourselves to a bunch of Belgian med students who were taking a post exam holiday together. We joined in on their drinking game until about 2am when the bar closed. Turned out that this was a thing they did every night and whenever the bar closed, there was always a hostel contingent that would go out to a club – a different one for each night. The club was great, down an inconspicuous staircase which popped out of the floor, down in to a beach side club called Opium. What was so amazing about clubs in Barcelona was just how civilized it all seemed to be. Even though it was almost 3am in the morning, everyone seemed so level headed and just wanted to dance and have a good time. I ended up going back with the Belgians at 5:30am as I heard stories of how wonderful Bruges was and how I should have had it on my itinerary. The club was just starting to get busy.


The next day and Sophie and I met up again over breakfast before heading out to Park Guell, Gaudi’s gift to public space. Gaudi was inspired by nature and only tried to enhance it so when he put his hand to a park, the result was so unique. Elevated rock balconies blended seamlessly into the surrounding greenery with rough pillars topped by aloe vera which looked like they had been naturally formed by centuries of erosion. We took to the high road and found a lookout which gave us a view of the whole city, quite flat and low but punctuated by the massive Sangrada de Familia which we had seen the day before. The mosaic art took even more time for us to explore as the patterns and colours absorbed us, despite the occasional spell of rain.




We came back to the city centre to the roars of crowds. It was the Catalonian Independence Day and the locals were out in full force. Sophie and I saw the traditional human tower and saw the little toddlers climb to the top, a good 8m up to be the 5th person at the top of the tower. It seemed like a pretty crazy tradition but I guess that what makes it so fun. The colours were all yellow and red with Catalan flags flying from every balcony. We said farewell as Sophie headed off to Madrid.


I rushed off soon after to a tapas and paella class where we I chanced across some more Busabout people. We learned about making a traditional tapa by rubbing a cut half of a tomato against the bread like a grater, the traditional Manchego cheese. A good sangria mixing tutorial and a couple more plates of nibbles and we were ready for the main event: A paella cooking demo by their fantastically charismatic chef at the Travel Bar.


The next day, I was on yet another wine tour that would also be taking us up to the picturesque monastery of Montserrat. We passed the city cemetery on the way to the mountain, a curious cultural quirk where cremated remains are slotted into holes in the mountain side and faced with plaques. The more affluent, the more people would pay for their loved ones to be higher up on the hill, ‘closer to God’. When we got to the Monastery, we were faced with a huge line, shaking our heads in dismay as we only had 40 minutes in the place before having to move on. We soon learned that the line was only to pray at the Black Madonna, a sacred site at the back of the church. We could simply walk in the front door to see the inside of this magnificent building. In the far distance, we too could see this relic as pilgrims passed by in front of it.


Before our time was up, we timed our arrival for the funicular to the top of the hill which was blessed with incredible views and many small chapels. I power-walked along the path to the first of many lookouts, most of which I’d have to miss out on. I raced up a steep, root infused rock staircase, up to the summit of the hill, granting a fantastic 360 degree panorama of the area, this rock being the highest point for as far as the eye could see. I paused to take in the strong breeze before scaling the path back down to the funicular station.

The Torres Winery was next and it was pretty obviously geared up for tourists. After a cinematic introduction, we were corralled in to a little tractor train with audio guide for a dozen languages. It passed by row after row of vines before taking us down in to one of the state of the art climate controlled cellars, sitting mostly underground. We could see endless rows of French oak barrels, stacked in these huge rooms. Passing by the big processing silos and huge cages of bottle aging wines, we could appreciate that this was truly a high production winery. We could taste wines and see a somewhat extensive history of the Torres name as they even had a little museum.


Coming towards lunch, we stopped in a little town called Sitges, a thriving community of gay men on the coast. The beaches were busy and it was a curious sight when you realized that the town seemed to be about 95% composed of men. We could walk up to the church and see the town hall but the town was pretty quiet over the weekend. We ended up relaxing for a while with beers and hot dogs, seeming to reinforce the stereotype belonging to our majority American group. I grabbed desert at this wonderful pay-by-the-gram bakery called ‘Granier pans artesans’, leaving with this beautiful apple and hazelnut pastry.


I’d seen adverts around town and online for a duo of Spanish guitarists and having arrived back in Barcelona just in time, I strode over to the little church where they would be performing, guided through the many pedestrianized streets guided only by my phone. I made it to the church just as the concert was starting so stood outside this little stone vaulted side chapel that faced a lovely cloistered courtyard. With a capacity of not more than 50, I slid into a seat between songs before the music really heated up. The players were husband and wife and played beautifully together, strumming closed-eyed with a somewhat sensuous nature. You could really see that they had grown up with that music and knew it in their souls. The small space erupted following the last song with a spectacular encore to follow. The couple whipped out their party trick with four hands on one guitar. The pair changed roles of fingerboardist, ground bass player, plucker and percussionist too many times to count as they romanced the instrument and each other leading to an even grander applause. We all stayed around to enjoy a glass of white where I enjoyed the company of an older Canadian couple who had not more than a couple of days in that brilliant city.


I met Claudia and her friend over breakfast the following morning and it seemed we all had one thing on our minds being… Lunch. And Sangrada de Familia. We started in La bouqueria which was a fantastically colourful market selling everything from seafood and Jambon to saffron and fruit juices. The two South African girls had been to this great little organic/raw type place around the corner from the hostel for the last two days and seemed keen on making it the third day running.

We avoided the long walk under the sun and took the metro to find the line already stretching around the building. Long but fast since 40 minutes later, we were in and admiring one of the most fantastical pieces of architecture I have ever had the pleasure to enter. It was like the rule book had been completely ripped up. As if Gaudi had walked into a rain forest one day and emerged with an architectural model of a church made of mud and sticks the next. The interior was so tall and full of colour, all engineered with minimal columns to hold up that colossal sculpted roof. Like in the park, the balconies were like eroded cliff faces and the whole atmosphere was like a reconstruction of a forest.


From the outside, closer to the carved facades, you could see people but from a distance, the structure continued to look like a melting sand castle. The place is still under construction with an estimate construction date being somewhere at the end of the century. There were a couple of models of the completed project which showed how it would look at the end. Apparently, the place is already so popular as a tourist destination that it’s making profit already. Some even expect the construction to be delayed because the church is paid well by the city until the date that it is finished.


The museum below the church was equally fantastic with full 3D detailed models printed and viewable. Apparently Gaudi left so many models and drawings behind that they can complete the thing without substantial re-invention.


In the evening we headed out to the ‘Magic Fountain’ which puts on a show at 8pm each night. We took a funicular out to somewhere up a hill and ended up having a really long walk through well-manicured but dark gardens, using phones to light the way on occasion. In the distance we started to hear Disney tunes and headed for the music. The show had already started and the crowd was huge! We ended up finding a place on the stairs and began to unpack our picnic. We unpacked the Torres wine, cheese, bread and chocolate and were sat transfixed. The music was timed and the light and water show was fantastic!


That night, we picked up some more hostel people before heading out to Razzmatazz, a Barcelona 5 floor super club. The line was long and we were ready for it but when we got to the door we found out that the cover fee was 30 Euros since there was some big act on that night. We didn’t really want to bother and moved on to another club, somewhat closer to the hostel. A little put out; we found a little place suggested to us called Jamboree. It was great fun in our little group of eight in this tiny club with a capacity which was probably not more than 100. We danced till the morning with some leaving later and later. I stayed with some a couple of new found friends till 6am since I didn’t really see the point of sleeping before hopping on an early morning bus out of Barcelona. I said bye and walked back to my own hostel, up Las Ramblas.

Had I known what I know now, I probably would have taken a more dodgy way home as believe it or not, the most popular pedestrian thoroughfare in the day is safe at night but still isn’t a great place to walk at 6am. Drinks were at least 10 EUR a pop at the club so I hadn’t had a drop for a good 4 hours at that point. I was in a pretty vigilant and sober way. It wasn’t the first time I’d walked back by myself in similar cities but it wasn’t going to be my night. I walked 10 minutes up Las Ramblas from the club, passed a police patrol and not more than 200m onwards, I passed a news stall. From behind that, two African women came up to me and grabbed me from in front and behind. It was pretty obvious that they were trying to sell sex so I just thought it’d be a simple no and to walk on but it wasn’t so simple. They distracted my hands at the time but I didn’t realize the significance of that till I checked by pockets not more than 20 seconds after they went away. My phone was missing. I looked around but of course they were gone. I jogged back down the road to the patrol I’d passed just moments before but the language barrier hit. They directed me to a station down one of the perpendicular roads. I knew at that moment that they weren’t even trying to sell sex and that that was the ruse in the first place. I still had my wallet which I was grateful for but a new phone getting taken was really not what I was looking for at that point in the trip. The station was open but they could only say that I should wait for their translator to get in at 9am to take the theft report. I didn’t have the time. I admitted defeat and headed back to the hostel, hoping to at least salvage some phone information while I still could. I saw countless other women along Las Ramblas on the way home who approached me so I ended up breaking into a jog instead to avoid any possible contact. Easy prey I realized and thank goodness I wasn’t drunk as I’m sure most of their victims were.

Back at the hostel, I logged into a handy little online phone locator and looked at the activity logs, finding out that these crafty women had already changed the sim card four times, I assume to find out whether it was locked and had finally turned it off. I sent the remote wipe and kill command but they knew what they were doing and not more than 30 minutes after the theft, they had wiped it off the face of the network.

I packed up and jogged on towards the bus rendezvous, somewhat put out but in the grand scheme of things, pleased that I still had my health and also my wallet. The bus arrived mid-day in Valencia, checking into the ‘Green hostel’ which was a pretty middle of the road place. Not wanting to sit in the police station first thing in the day, I went for a walk with some Americans around the town, taking in some of its really old roots. For quite a small town, they had a couple of very grand buildings including the Cathedral and a rather old Valencian Gothic Silk Exchange building. The de-commissioned bull ring was playing host to Oktoberfest celebrations and as far as food went, they were known for some sort of special tigernut milk known as horchata which was a pretty good drink, chilled under the afternoon sun. For its size the monuments were of a pretty good standard with the silk exchange hall of columns being pretty fantastic but I think I was getting a little used to the big city marvels and it didn’t amaze me as much as it might have at the start of my trip. The city had the hallmarks of a once great mercantile city.

I dropped into the police station later that afternoon and it would have been much easier with a phone to entertain me but the 3 hours it took to get through to an office passed pretty slowly. Eventually being woken from unintentional slumber, I was directed to a phone where an operator took down most of the detail in English, sending the translation through to the local officer who did all the rubber stamping. A well-cooked traditional and authentic paella put an end to a long, long day.

I woke up to the sun and realized that I had no alarm clock since my phone was gone. I never thought about the consequence though. I was late to a bike tour I had booked the day before. I raced to the reception and got the tour company on the phone. I let them know I was fit and able and moments later I was out the door running over to the bike store. I followed the map they had given and arriving, well puffed and hot, they found me a bike. Contrary to their protestations, I got them to put a likely tour path on a city map and then I was on the bike to go and catch up. I was almost an hour late for a 3 hour tour but I was going to catch them. I cut ahead to where I thought I’d defiantly be able to head them off. I then followed the map to the letter through little alleys and along busy roads till I was sure they couldn’t be behind them. Seated at the top of a staircase at the edge of the old city, I hoped I had guessed the guide’s path correctly and had found a foolproof choke point. I rinsed an earlier graze from a fall, having gone over the handlebars when I rode down some stairs while riding hands free, reading the map. Fifteen minutes went by and I was beginning to doubt myself. I back tracked a little bit, only along the most visible road options and in one of the small squares, I found them. The tour guide was surprised and a little suspicious of this random coming up to him claiming to be on his tour but armed with his name and a convincing story, I joined them. War torn but relieved, I joined the tour for the valuable last part of the tour.


This segment would take us to the new town. Santiago Calatrava, responsible for the Turning torso skyscraper in Malmo and the new World trade centre transportation hub in New York, was accused of bleeding the city dry after massive budget over-runs on this project of tremendous scale. The ‘City of the Arts and Sciences’ is an incredible architectural complex complete with opera house, sports stadium, physical sciences museum and planetarium. I was happy to get the background from the guide and felt my rapid and foodless morning was worth the struggle.

I ran into my New Zealand friends from Cinque Terre once more and joined them that night at a tapas festival down by the port. I had no idea it was on but thankfully I did run into them. What a great evening full of food, drink and cultural exchange. Money switched for tokens which you could exchange for tapas, drinks or deserts at one of 30+ stalls around the tent. Chefs were tasting and rating the morsels on a stage and the rumble of merriness echoed off the ceiling. After double deserts, we were so full at the end that we rolled into the taxi. I joined them for a super homemade breakfast the next morning before we caught the mid-day bus to the next destination.


I had learned about Catalonia, about Valencia (the fact that they were originally completely different Spanish cultures) and was ready to move west to the next area, to the centre of the country and the capital, Madrid. I had marvelled Gaudi architecture, partied till the morning with the locals, tasted the wines of the area and seen the land from a height. I was beginning to understand the flavour of Spain and where their relaxed and casual nature came from. Despite a little mobile theft setback in Barcelona, I was resolved to get by without and to make the most of the rest of this surprisingly intriguing country.