Category Archives: Spain

Travelogue Iberia 10: Madrid

MADRID
21-23 September 2013

It’s always one step forward, two steps back. On the bright side we found Atocha Station in Madrid surprisingly easily (once again without Google Maps); on the downside dropping the car off turned into a nightmare! 

We found a petrol station right outside Atocha Station and filled up the car, as instructed. We had no problem finding the Europcar depot or passing the checks. The big fight started when Europcar wanted to charge me SIX HUNDRED Euros for the car when my total according to the online booking I did months ago was €278. They were saying we had opted for insurance, we definitely did not – and distinctly said no – because the insurance is more than the rental and our online booking contract included the major theft/damage waivers so we didn’t actually need it. That brought the total to €400. Then they added a whole bunch of other admin charges like one way fees (already covered in our booking contract) and fuel surcharges (not applicable because we’d filled the car up).

Two hours of back and forthing, phoning the Barcelona depot where we got the car and the online agency that rented us the car etc until I eventually had had enough and asked for a complaint form. I put my sorry story on paper and told the man at the counter that they could call me when they had the correct paperwork ready and I’d come in to pay. Needless to say, despite a post on their site, a series if tweets and an email to their central customer services, I still haven’t heard from them. So, it’s as yet unresolved, but all my correspondence states they can’t take a cent over €278 off my card so better hope like hell that they are consumer litigious like in the US and that’s scary enough for them not to just deduct the €600!

Anyway, that was enough to ruin the first impression of Madrid, but fortunately there was much more to come. 

We caught a taxi to our apartment since we were now very late to meet our landlady and there was no wifi at the station or Europcar office for us to reschedule. Fortunately, she was very understanding and showed us around our digs. While our entire apartment (bedroom, living room and bathroom) totalled about the size of my bedroom at home, the space was very well allocated and the flat newly upgraded and clean, so we were very pleased. And we could not have asked for a better location – a quiet street with a festive café at the bottom of the road, a small plaza at the top with a shop a restaurant and a pub and a short trot to all the action on Gran Via and surrounds, which is where we headed first. 

It was early evening and the place was teeming with people! Restaurants and cafés full; wide pavements a throng of people moving in all directions. It made it slow-going to get anywhere and since we didn’t have a specific plan to get anywhere, we stuck with what always worked and entertained ourselves with caña, tapas and, for a change, a nice sit-down dinner with lasagne, seafood pasta and good Rioja.

On Sunday morning we were once again grateful for Lonely Planet guide since there was, surprisingly, not a tourist office to be found. Having breakfasted at the apartment (boiled egg and soldiers) we planned on a vigorous sightseeing walking tour (of our own design), starting with the museums Christian wanted to see, then the a few key monuments and buildings, leisurely lunch and an evening of tapas touring.

Spanner in the works when we got to the first museum, the Museo Del Prado, only to find they have free entry in the afternoon from 5pm. Quite a saving on the usual €18. So we went to the next one, the Reina Sofia art musuem. Same story, free from 3pm. 

Not to be deterred, we did a walk around and took in some of the other sights. The Puerto del Sol, which is where the city gates once stood and is now the official centre and “heart” of Madrid; the Plaza Mayor, which might be every bit as lovely as its Salamanca counterpart were we not so biased; down this road and that to churches, monuments, old buildings, arches, statues and fountains… stumbling across less famed treasures in between.

We of course stopped for the obligatory refuels and lucked out in crossing another aim of the day – an authentic Spanish paella – off the list quite by accident when we were served it as a tapas at Los Madroño in the Plaza del Angel and a huge bowl of it, also as a tapas, at Boñar de Leon on Calle de la Cruz Verde. Both recommendable depending whether its quality or quantity (respectively) that you’re after.

We returned to Reina Sofia and had no trouble gaining free access. Our primary mission was to see Picasso’s Guernika, so we went to that hall first and worked through the rest of the Picasso, cubists and Dali exhibits from there. Quite a thing to have seen such famous works up close – especially Guernika since it was so relevant to the regions we’d just visited. 

We then made our way back to the Prado, but weren’t as lucky. The queue was out the door, round the corner and up the street. We made do with a photo of the statue of Velazquez outside (since it was the exhibit of his works that we’d primarily wanted to see) and went back to our informal wanderings.

Madrid is a great city for that. Even though its criticised for being younger than most of the other main tourist cities in Spain, having only been capital since the 16th century and most of its buildings being from 19th and 20th centuries, there is a distinct elegance to its layout and a healthy enough representation of enormity and grandiosity to have us impressed! It’s got all the wide avenues and beautifully manicured street gardens to equal the most sophisticated European cities as well as a lively energy and the constant hubbub that gain the city its reputation for character and unsurpassed nightlife and entertainment. It’s not a city that never sleeps, but certainly one that doesn’t sleep at night!

Monday, being our last day, we covered the other half of the city, starting with the Mercado Marvellas. Even though well after midday, lots of restaurants and cafés were only starting to open for the day – and even more were still shut tight. By sharp contrast, just as many people were drinking beer and wine as were drinking coffee and OJ!

The crowning glory of the day’s tour though was the Real Madrid stadium, Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, which is predictably enormous! Similarly sized to our FNB Stadium with a seating capacity of 90,000 people, it must cause chaos when there’s a match on seeing as the stadium is right in the middle of the city! 

Last stop was a fond farewell caña and tapas (lomo, pork loin) at our corner pub. It’s quite something to watch those barmen operate. The pub is about the size of my lounge (maybe 20 x 6m) with a wide bar counter running lengthways along the middle. The barman is on one side, with his hard tack and barrels behind him; the counter has tapas cases on it on one side, a sunken sink built in on the other and draught taps facing the barman in the middle. There are customers sitting on barstools, standing leaning on the counter and milling about… and 1 barman serving the lot! And by serving it means taking orders, pouring drinks, serving the tapas, keeping tally of who has had what, sorting out bills and even washing glasses and tapas plates! One guy! It was amazing – and a little exhausting – watching him juggle everything! Maybe we’ve been on holiday too long! 😀 

Travelogue Iberia 9: Toledo

TOLEDO
20 September 2013

We must have gotten quite an amount of good luck from spotting the frog in Salamanca as our trip to Toledo started off with a nail-biter. We left Salamanca with 20km worth of fuel according to our digital fuel gauge and wrongly assumed there would be a service station on the outskirts of town. It was only with the dumbest of luck that we freewheeled through a little town about *thirty* kilometres from Salamanca… having been holding breath since the range number tripped to zero several kilometres earlier!

From there we could at least start to enjoy the scenery. Not that there was much to see as a drive through the Spanish heartland is akin to a drive through the Free State at home.

AVILA
We’d initially considered an overnight stop in Avila based on recommendation in the Lonely Planet guide, but it wouldn’t have been justified. The town is so small that it’s easy to crisscross and see all the sights in half an hour (assuming you’re happy with a “walk past” the churches and monuments and a few snappies of the prettier relics, as we are). It was definitely worth a stop though, since it is so well preserved and looks every inch a fairytale.

Its real history sounds a little more dramatic than a “once upon a time” though, tributing the foundation of the town to obscure Iberian tribes, who were then assimilated into Celtic society, Romanised, Christianised, changed hands regularly for 300 years, and then became an important commercial centre after Alfonso VI took Toledo in 1085. Things then got controversial with the nobles picking fights with the Muslims and in the imperial escapades in Flanders and South America, then expelling the Jews in 1492 and a century later trying to get rid of the Christianised Muslims. No wonder Tomas de Tourquemade chose to retire to Avila after organising the most brutal phase of the Spanish Inquisition!

The city walls, built in the 12th century are still perfectly preserved and offer a 2,5km walk including 2500 battlements, 88 towers, 6 gates, 3 wicket gates, the apse of a cathedral and a singular belltower. That’s thirsty work! In a town with more than proportionate watering holes!  Had we not been driving, Avila would be lovely setting for a caña and a tapas, and there are many pavement cafés and restaurants that looked very alluring. 

If we had done an overnight, it would have been nice to visit neighbouring Segovia, which is supposed to be just as wonderous but on grander scales with the extraordinary engineering of the 728m aquaduct and the Rapunzel-like Alcazar towers, turrets topped with slate witches’ hats and deep moat around (said to have inspired the Sleeping Beauty castle at Disneyland).

TOLEDO
The countryside changes quite radically when you enter the province of Castilla-La Mancha with its harsh dry southern plateau, as immortalised in the literary classic, Don Quixote. There is little else to see beside Toledo (its capital), so the region is often skipped by tourists.

I’d tussled for quite some time trying to figure out where we wanted to be based in Toledo. There are so many websites giving info and flogging accommodation that it’s info overload and increasingly difficult to make decisions. Toledo is a tricky one since the town is contained within old city walls, nestled into a U of the Rio Tajo. This city particularly is known for the labyrinth-like maze of roads, so I logicked that this was one place worth sacrificing the authenticity staying in the old town and the beauty of a view of the river for the pragmatism of staying just outside the upper city gates, parking the car at the hotel and managing the rest on foot. Paydirt! I could not have done better as the town is super confusing, even with a map and the roads are the kind you’d have to be born to navigate!

We stayed at the Hotel Martin, which could not have been better. Off the main drag but only one road from the Toledo old city gates, the hotel is rated (and priced) a 2 star, but our suite was big and beautifully decorated with white linens and curtains, wooden wardrobe and furnishings, a bathroom big enough to have a party in – and terraces off the bedroom and the bathroom. Add the location, big fluffy white towels, free toiletries and big flat screen TV and it’s madness that we only paid R400 for the night!

Being about 5pm by the time we were in and settled, we rationalised it best to leave the hard work tourist stuff for the next day and just focus on a dinner in the old town… but despite ourselves we got swept up on entry, approaching the Bisagra Gate with its triumphant arch flanked by semicircular towers, impressive imperial 2-headed eagle coat of arms, the insignia of the Golden Fleece… appearing as magnificently to today’s visitors as it did to visitors approaching from Madrid in 1550!

We’d been given a tourist map at the hotel so blended a “best of both” tour of our own, smattering some sights and cultural stuff in between a caña and tapas crawl (an art we’ve perfected) and even upping the ante with paying for a round of tapas since there were 2 local dishes I really wanted to try. First was a Carcamusas de Toledo, a rich blend of pork cubes stewed in tomato and herbs that was equal portions tender and juicy – absolutely delicious. The second was a peculiar local favourite called Migas Manchegas that I was more curious about than anything – white bread lightly toasted fried in garlic and oil to make sort of croutons, served with diced sausage and ham and topped with a fried egg and bacon. The result is a sort of breakfast dinner.

Day 2 in Toledo was made that much easier since we already knew where everything was and what we wanted to visit (properly) AND we knew what and where we wanted to breakfast on – although we have adapted to Spain time, so breakfast was scheduled for midday! 

We entered by the same Bisagra Gate – now fully appreciating what we were seeing – and up the entry road to the next attraction, the Puerto del Sol inner gate, built in the 14th Century and so named because of the sun and moon on its tympanum. There’s a modern art statue in front of it that, from its label, claims to be a bull. Personally I think it’s a load of bull because frankly it looks more like a big metal speech bubble! 

First stop was the famous central square, Plaza Zocodover, to try and get an English tourist map, which we did. The legend made it easy to narrow our hit list. Nix the 7 museums, 4 churches, 4 convents, 2 mosques, 2 synagogue and a monastery and it was easy – 3 gates, 2 bridges and a Roman Baths (we could have had a partridge too since it’s a local delicacy, but without the pear tree it’s just a bony little bird really). 

The bridges are so worth seeing! Enormous arched structures spanning deep gorges to connect the multi-volumed brick outer walls of the city to the green valley banks on the far side of the Rio Tajo, with high towers and arched gates flanking either side. It’s quite a job getting up and down the slopes and stairs toward the gates, but perfect if you’re working up an appetite for Salamanca Charcuteria, where you can get the *best* jamon bocadilla and lomo and chourizo pie, which is made like a Beef Wellington so the cheese melts into the pastry and the lomo is soft and tender.

Since we’d already done the gates, all that was left was to check out the Roman Baths, which turned out – bonus – to be a free exhibit. Beautifully preserved since the Romans had used cement to build them. This wasn’t the only ingenuity they’d used – they were really clever and had made all sorts of thermal aquaducts to heat the water for their steam rooms.  

All said and done, Toledo is a ‘must do’ stop – and it’s only 79km from Madrid so can easily be done as a day trip or overnighter.

Travelogue Iberia 8: Salamanca

SALAMANCA
19 September 2013

After a 314km uninterrupted drive from Coimbra, we were pleased to arrive in Salamanca – and the first impressions on driving into the town further warmed our welcome. 

As usual, Google Maps had successfully guided us the bulk of the journey, but we once again found ourselves left hanging as we approached the town and found the directions for roundabouts and exits not matching up.  At least Salamanca is a less complicated layout though, with 4 bridges crossing the Rio Tormes on approach and most roads in the town directed toward the central square, Plaza Mayor (right upon which was the pension I’d booked us into). Rather than messing about, we parked the car in the first parkjng garage we saw (€14.40 a night!) and attacked the finer directions on foot.

It was really easy to find our accommodation (Pension Los Angeles) since it was literally on the Plaza Mayor, a little door wedged among the bars and restaurants leading to the apartments upstairs. The perfect location! Our en-suite room had a balcony overlooking the square. The perfect view! Plaza Mayor, with it’s harmonious and controlled Baroque design, impressive size and symmetry, built-in matching City Hall and arcaded square, is noted as being the most beautiful in Spain – and this is fact, not opinion!  The Plaza is much bigger than others we’ve seen (roughly 80 x 80m) and the combination of its “squareness” with uniform rows of balconied rooms mirroring each other and the monochromy of the use of golden-hued Villamayor stone (same colour and texture as sandstone) from floor to ceiling, would send poor old Gaudi into apoplexy! But the result is breathtaking and literally awesome. 

Having garnered a tourist map from our landlord, we realised it wasn’t worth plotting a formal walking tour route around Salamanca as almost all the sites (all bar the Roman Bridge) are contained within the old city and there’s something to see on almost every corner – although with 11 churches, 4 convents and 10 historically relevant mansions it can get a bit samey-samey.

Salamanca is home to the oldest University in Spain, founded in the 13th century, and most of the old buildings house university faculties museums. It’s understandable why young people would relish spending time here – and their presence is definitely felt in the price and value offering of the glut of restaurants and bars and the overwhelming amount of entertainment options, more or less 24/7.

We did visit the one university building, the Universidad Civil, to do some “frog-spotting”. It is said that if you can spot the frog on the elaborately carved facade, then you’ll enjoy great luck. We both managed to see the frog… but with a little direction from the info boards!

Hard work aside, we were able to settle into an evening of tapas hopping…

Meson La Dehesa – baguette with jamon (cured ham) and Iberian cheese
O’Hara Irish Pub – kettlefried crisps, chourizo on baguette 
Bambu – lasagne, bolognaise tortilla, sourdough with prawns on garlic cream, Iberian ham and sweet tomato pizza
La Perla Negra – no tapas, but a free boys Guinness t-shirt
Casa de Vinos Doctrinos – sourdough with lomo cabecero (combination of lomo and jamon) and Iberian lomo (marbled) 
Catalina’s – bacon and cheese croissant and ham, cheese, cream cheese  and onion crepe
Cervesaria Gambrinus – (poor) sausage and quail’s egg on baguette; pork dumpling in phyllo
Disfruta de Todo  – jamon croquette 
Irish Rover – crisps and a free girls Guinness t-shirt
Gastro Taberna El Reloj – calamari strips and tuna lasagne ; meat lasagne

All of the above served free with our orders of caña or fine local Rioja, never over €2!

Travelogue Iberia 4: Leon

LEON
14 September 2013

With a 2 and a half hour (265km) drive from Santander to Leon, we decided that we would break the journey with a stop en route. Originally planning on breakfast in Santander before handing the apartment keys over at 11, we were bemused to find that we were likely the only people awake in the city at 10, let alone a supermarket shopkeep or open kitchen in sight! Fortunately we had our trusty chocolate mousse protein shakes on hand, so good humour was still intact as we hit the road at 11.

It’s quite a straightforward route along the A-67 South, then the A-231 West, both of which pass directly through a number of small towns. Consulting the Lonely Planet guide, we selected Aguilar Campoo and put foot on the journey to get there.

AGUILAR CAMPOO
A small town of only 7700 people, Aguilar has been around forever and a day, being a settlement of the Cantabrians, the Romans and Visigoths, a bulwark during the Arab occupation in the 700s, and then being rebuilt, restored and expanded from 820 to become a very important town in the Middle Ages. King Alfonso X declared the site a Regal Town and the fiefdom of Aguilar de Campoo exercised jurisdiction over one of the most extensive territories of Castille at the time, stretching across current day Cantabria, Burgis and Palencia.

Long history aside, it’s a small town easy to circumnavigate on foot, best begun at the central Plaza de Espana where you can get a free local map. From the doorway of the tourist office you can already see 5 of the town’s 19 top sights! The most impressive of these is the Collegiate Church of San Miguel, elevated to the rank of Collegiate by Pope Paul III in 1541.

We had little interest in touring the town – and seeing the likes of its 120+ shields and coat of arms adorning palace fronts and house facades – until we had eaten, so we headed along the Paseo de la Cascajera running alongside the Rio Pisuerga which is lined with bars and cafés. We couldn’t find anywhere serving off menu – everything being pintxos and raciones, so we chose Nuevo del Rio to have a club sandwich (cheese, ham, egg, tuna) since it was the most substantial looking and ordered Cokes to accompany. The Cokes were served with a snack each – a long crunchy straw that looked like a springroll on the outside and turned out to have a prawn on the inside. Delicious! 

We’d studied the map and the Medieval Castle on the hill overlooking the town was the only thing we wanted to see, so we walked down the Calle Modesto Lafuente which took us to the foot. A short steep climb had us at the Chapel of Santa Cecilia at the base of the Castle’s much steeper hill, so we made do with a photo and moved back to the car.

LEON
Leon is gorgeous! We got lost as we entered the town and – frustrated by a series of pedestrian roads blocking us from where we thought we needed to be – parked the car first opportunity found the tourist office to be closed so couldn’t get a map, didn’t have a street address for our destination and couldn’t find anyone who could speak enough English to understand our request for a payphone (messages not going through on cell phones).. and we still weren’t put off the town in the slightest! 

We found help in a hotel where the receptionist spoke English, called our host to extract the street address and arrange our meeting, provided a tourist map and marked simplest route, easiest on foot through the old city. 

We had 15 minutes to kill so stopped in the plaza closest our destination, which is called the “wet district” because it has the highest concentration of bars and restaurants in a very bar and restaurant intensive town! The bar we picked, at random, from the 12 or more choices clocked from our pivotal point in the centre of the small plaza, served our beer with a wedge of cheese and a strip of deep fried calamari each. Apparently this is a major cheese producing area, and the mild light white creamy cheese served bears testament that its indeed their specialty!

We were in top spirits when we met our host, Fran, some 20 minutes later, having arrived at our square to find that it’s equally beautiful to what else we’d seen of this wonderful old medieval town, with it’s authentic uneven cobbles on winding warren of streets, but with the added appeal of being alongside the monastery overlooking the central water fountain monument. A quiet square, with only 2 tabernas! 

Fran was very pleased to see us and offered to walk us back to the car so as to navigate us to closer free parking. This chore doubled as an impromptu tour since we’d managed to park all the way across town (still only a 10 minute walk) and we passed almost all of the major sites en route. Fran’s English is about as good as our Spanish (which is coming on quite nicely, thanks to the in-car tutorials), but we managed to communicate quite effectively with slow simple speak and animated hand gestures (and Google translate for absolute fallback).

It was quick ‘n easy to find our digs, now that we knew how, and a free parking right outside Burger King seemed a good omen.

Our apartment is incredible. All the finishes are shiny and new and this apartment is an absolute bargain and highly recommended on facilities and location for anyone visiting Leon! It’s enormous, with a living room (large kitchenette against the back wall, 4 seater granite table against the far wall, couch and big flat screen TV unit occupying the remaining space) as big as both our San Sebastian and Santander apartments combined! That, and a big bedroom also overlooking the square and a bathroom big enough to have a party in! 

But partying in town was likely to be more fun, so we headed out.

It was very early by local standards, being around 5pm, so we took the opportunity to go back to the Tourist Office (that had reopened from its 2-5 siesta) to get a map and cover some of the sights. The first was a neo-Gothic Gaudi building (Casa de Botines) right opposite the tourist office, which delighted me since I am Gaudi’s newest fan. 

Our whirlwind tour included all the Palacios (palaces), mercado (markets), plaza (squares) and Iglesias (churches) as well as a walk around the outside of the old city walls, admiring the merge of medieval inheritance with modern growth… and working up quite a thirst.

Beers are served in a variety of common sizes: corta can’t be much more than 100ml for €1.20, caña about 200ml for €1.60, cañon at 350ml for €2.20. They know about pints (pinta) but don’t stock the glasses because there is no demand. The only place that had was Molly Malone, which had Guinness pints as standard, for €2,50.

Leon follows the doctrine of free tapas tasters with drinks orders – no matter what size drink is ordered. We found caña to be optimal and spent the evening pub crawling:-
Miche – cheese and deep fried calamari
Cervesaria Gotica – baguette with cheese/jamon and jamon croquette
Molly Malone – corn, peanuts, olives and gum sweets
Jamon Jamon – sour dough, salchichon (greasy sausage), chorizo, cheese
Bar La Noria – deep fried mussels; patatas with jamon York (fried potato with wedges of boiled ham)
Enburidos Caseros – sourdough, chorizo, cecina (dried, uncooked, like biltong)
Nuevo Racimo De Oro – sourdough, chorizo, salchicon (and all served in a lovely cellar Bodega with original 2000 year old Romanesque walls!!)
Bacanal – homemade kettlefried crisps sprinkled with bacon
Taberna Orienta Media – chourizo server on a flaming skewer
Vinos Serveca – jamon and cheese on sourdough (seemed a bit dull after the rest)

We learned to pick and choose according to tapas offering. Bearing in mind we’re ordering about 175 ml of beer at a time at an average of about €1.50 a pop… It’s working out cheaper to feed and water here than at home! We can’t work out how they make any money from customers with the decadent offerings and generous portions of the tapas, but a local in the one bar said it’s a matter of bars being compelled to offer tapas to draw customers (locals flatly refuse to support tabernas that offer no free tapas). There is an endless number of options so competition is stiff despite the café terrado (party til dawn) lifestyle and the bigger and better the tapas, the more customers they attract. Especially the student market since Leon is also a major university town.

It would seem that this combination of choice, economy, locale and air of festivity has made Leon Spain’s bachelor and bachelorette destination of choice and we encountered several groups in custom t-shirts with a comically-dressed guest of “honour”.

For such an old town, steeped in religious history as it is, even the churches are good sports and the churchbells mercifully only start their Sunday morning tolling at 11am!

Travelogue Iberia 3: Santander

SANTANDER
12-14 September 201

We negotiated our exit from San Sebastian Donostia like seasoned professionals and were soon on the tollroad heading for Santander. I’d downloaded free Learn to Speak Spanish tutorials onto my phone, so we plugged it into the car stereo and the 2 and a bit hour journey passed quickly.

We’d initially wanted to go via Bilbao to see the Guggenheim Museum and Guernika to see the war memorials, but with the horror stories we’d heard about parking, we decided to give it a skip. While I’m sure we would have enjoyed the planned sights, the drive alone was a pleasant one seeing as Cantabria (the province that Santander is in) is o
Continue reading Travelogue Iberia 3: Santander

Travelogue Iberia 1: Barcelona

BARCELONA 
5-9 September 2013

The trip started with a giggle  as an old dear struck up a conversation with us on the ramp to the plane as we had just cleared passport check at the boarding gate at ORT. She passed comment on how difficult it must be to travel with children prompted by a man distracting his sobbing son by pointing at planes on the runway through the bay windows on the ramp. We nodded and mumbled vague but agreeable response. 

When there was a second child further down the ramp *wailing*, the little old lady leaned in and told us proudly that her kids have never acted like that, not “to this day and they’re 59 and 54, mind.” She was quite conspiratorial when she shared the wisdom that in her day children were taught manners and “to be seen and not heard” and her kids were good as gold and always been complimented by people they’d visited. Just when we thought butter wouldn’t melt in the mouth of this sweet-as-sugar super-mom granny, she concluded the exchange with a “they need a bloody good klap, these little shits! And the shitty parents too!” You could have bowled me over with a feather!

The flights (from Joburg to Dubai for 8 hours and Dubai to Barcelona for 7) were easy, as they always are with Emirates – undoubtedly the best airline in the world at the moment. Their planes are all new, there’s more legroom, the entertainment is abundant and the food compares to real life meals. We had an excellent chicken fillet in creamy paprika sauce with baby potatoes on the first flight and shared a herby cajun chicken and a delicious creamy lamb curry on the second, with desserts like blueberry cheesecake and banana tart with apricot mousse. They do unnecessarily fussy concoctions of this and that, but still manage to please a limited list eater like me. Sadly, they do continental breakfasts, which really let down an otherwise flawless execution… especially when accidentally served the Arabic mese (olives, artichokes, hummus and tapanade) instead of the deli platter (ham and cheese with croissant and preserves), which still wasn’t very exciting… but much better!

Lixi and RoRo were at the gates and waiting when we landed at El Prat. They’d flown in from London Stansted and the hour delay on their side had worked in their favour as they’d ended up landing just before us.

We decided to grab a cab to take us to our digs rather than brave the public transport system with all our luggage. 30 Euros later we were deposited at our home for the weekend – “Kate’s Place” that we’d booked on www.airbnb.co.uk for a bargain price bearing in mind its view of the very famous Sagrada Familia. The special rate was offered so that Kate could vet her prospective tenants in their willingness and ability to look after her cat, Muffin. After some back and forthing – telling the story of who we are, why we’re coming to Barcelona and our views on flat life and pets – it was quite a sense of achievement to have passed the audition and been granted the reservation. 

Kate is an extremely gracious host and had even been so kind as to provide a bottle of Cava (sparkling wine), ice cold beers, plate of jamon (Iberian cured ham), bowl of olives and bag of kettle fried crisps for us to snack on while she inducted us to the flat, the cat and the sights of Barcelona, which she circled and highlighted on a city map she had for us. She really went above and beyond, spending well over an hour giving us advice, answering our questions and sharing her travel stories.

Armed with a plan and a map, we hit the streets of Barcelona. Kate chaperoned us to the corner, where we got to see Sagrada Familia up close, right there on our corner… with a Burger King and a KFC manning the opposites. Two major To Do items so close to home… oh yes, and that famous Gaudi churchy thing. 😉

Not often referred to by its full name, The Temple Expiatori de a Sagrada Familia is a massive privately-funded Roman Catholic church. Considered to be the master work of 19th century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, it is one of Barcelona’s top attractions with its interesting detail, Christian symbolism and 18 striking spindle towers.

There are 2 major roads that run inland vertical from the seafront – the beautiful Passeig de Sant Joan and the vibey Las Ramblas. Being about 4pm – middle of the day Barcelona time – we opted for a leisurely stroll down Passeig Sant de Joan. It’s so easy to find and, being a gentle downhill, so easy to do that the daunting length of it on the map doesn’t translate in real life. It’s a really lovely avenue, enjoyed by many on foot, bicycles and rollerblades, and dotted with interesting monuments along the way. 

The furthest inland is the Monument of Doctor Robert, which is open for children to climb and play on, which is far more laissez faire than most places where precious landmarks are kept arms’ length from appreciative eyes lest they be damaged or defaced. This open policy seems to have paid off as there appears to be a mutual respect from graffiti artists, who only tag on gates and grills and not on the beautiful brickwork. Very civilised indeed.

Next milestone down Passeig de Sant Joan is the Arc de Triomf, which is the same sort of archy thing as the one in Paris, but much smaller and it is pedestrians rather than cars that pass beneath it on the wide road, which winds all the way downhill to the Zoo at the t-junction at the bottom. In the Zoo Parc de.Ciutadella is a huge statue of a mammoth (called, rather uncreatively, ‘Mammuth’), whose curled hanging trunk makes a perfect nest for a photograph. Around the corner from that is the Cascada Fountains, with their enormous wishing pool and winding escalier on either side leading up to the enormous arches with gaudy chariot and charging horses orange-gold statues on top. It’s a bit much, to be frank, and would be easily and forgettably housed in the Lost City!

In desperate need of a rest from the long walk, Villa Olimpica glistened like an oasis! We grabbed a table sea-side at Vitaminus and settled in for a local cervesa and some of the tapas we’d been told needed most urgent attention – patatas bravas (fried potato wedges with spicy garlic cream) and  pa amb tomaquet (toasted bread rubbed with garlic and fresh tomato). Incredibly, the sun was still in full force even though it was well after 6pm and the beach was still full of people sunbathing and swimming. We left at about 8pm and the sun was only really then starting to set properly.

Our plan from there was to wind our way back to the apartment through Born, which is known for being Bohemian and teeming with restaurants and bars. This was no understatement and we were spoilt for choice as we wound our way through charming roads, alleyways and placas, stopping for a cava here and bits and pieces of tapas there (most notably jamon and nachos in La Ribera). Of course, when we got home our road was still quite lively so we had to stop in and support the local shopkeepers.

We washed down the jamon, pimento padron and calamari rings with ice cold cervesas and soaked in the lively atmosphere, with people eating dinner around us, as normal, at 11pm. All the while our holiday cat Muffin surveyed us from his spot on the balcony overlooking the central placa. Sadly, i had a headache from the cava (and likely the long day on top of a long journey) so headed to bed, but Lix and RoRo did us proud for a little while longer.

BARCELONETA
Day 2 began, as every day should, with a natural awakening and a gentle ease into the day with couch time and some laughs with good friends. High on the list of priorities was a breakfast forage (seeing as we technically hadn’t had dinner the night before… although we had had sooo much tapas). The day had been declared Beach Day, so the only requirement for breakfast spot was that it had to be en route to the sea. Super simple seeing as half of Barcelona seems to be restaurants and cafés! 

We took a turn past Sagrada Familia (already having to decided we’re not going to bother with the hours-long queues and hefty entry fee) and stopped at a pavement café to share a selection of bikini (toasties) and bocadilla (baguettes) at La Pedreta. The ice cold bottled choc milk stole the show though!

Kate had advised us that the smartest idea was to get a Metro T10 pass (10 trips for 10 Euros) seeing as we’ve got a Metro station on our corner and the whole of the inner city is comprehensively covered by the network of lines – and the ticket entitles access on busses and trains too. There are loads of other intricacies that add benefit too – like each journey being open for 1 hour 15, so if you’re doing a quick to and fro, you can get it count as a single click – but really the economy and convenience are a strong enough proposition on their own.

We took the yellow line down to Barceloneta and started our walking tour (downloaded from the internet, what did we do before it?!) with a visit to the Barceloneta Mercat (market). Quite uninspiring inside with all the fresh fruit, veg and seafood you’d expect, but quite impressive outside with its rooftop bank of solar panels that provide 40% of its power requirements. 

Barceloneta wasn’t given good recommendation anywhere -neither Internet nor personal references – so we were expecting cramped and dirty streets, smelly and noisy. This was actually what put us off staying in Barceloneta, when our original envision was a beachy weekend in Barcelona. It’s not like that at all. It’s charming, has broad pedestrian-only roads with trees and benches and is definitely a strong contender to house me on future visits.

The beach is also much better than it’s painted to be, with a perfect stretch of powdery (if not a bit chalky) sand and lovely shoreline… which we admired from one of the cafés dotted along the beach. Prime table right on the sand, the view was perfect… well, except for the people.  This part of the beach – Playa de Sant Miguel seems to be more touristy so the bodies were mostly white and dimpled, in stark contrast to the slim and trim orangey-brown Spanish ones. Heaven only knows how they all stay in such good shape with all the tapas being perpetually consumed, but their brazen victory over modesty (and more jean shorts hot pants than can be believed) leaves no doubt whatsoever.
 
In need of tapas top-up, we took a break from our beach-watching to pop into a gorgeous old taverna called Can Ramoneta (a traditional restaurant serving freshly-caught fish and seasonal local produce from its 250 year old house location) and indulged in some jamon, pimentoes fritos and deep and fried brie en route to the next beach, Playa de la Barceloneta, where we spent the rest of the afternoon frolicking and basking (under our 6 Euro beach brolly). 

Then it was time to eat. Again. We had planned to eat an early dinner at La Fonda on Moll de Gregal, which was recommended by Kate as having decent food and a reasonably priced set menu, so much so that it’s frequented by as many locals as tourists. We got ourselves a table, ordered a jug of sangria, but were put off by our table neighbours, a couple of Cockney girls who were so unimpressed by their food that they were paying up and leaving despite only picking on their meals. Sounds like they were ill-fated overall though since it was the one’s hen do and their third amigo had broken her collarbone, had stitches in her head and was covered in bruises from their misadventures the previous night. We counted ourselves lucky for the narrow escape (from poor food and these accident-magnets), bid them adieu and headed back to the Can Ramoneta to see if they had fideua (paella made with noodles instead of rice, which Catalunya is known for).

Sadly, the luck had rubbed off and Can Ramoneta was between meal settings so, while they could feed us, it would be amid waiters unlaying day settings and replacing them with night ones. Hardly optimal.

We decided instead to move in the direction of the famous Las Ramblas and seek supper along the way. We found instead an Irish pub called Paddy Lane. It was primely sited overlooking Passeig de Colom and Guinness and Cava were the order of the sundowners!

Wanting to maintain some sense of decorum, I negotiated a pizza from the Italian restaurant next door to be delivered to our pavement table at Paddy’s and we were soon chomping down on mozzarella and pepperoni in not-so-traditional Catalan (or Irish) style.

It did the trick though and spirits were high as we entered the Barri Gotic, stumbling upon a wonderful rock bar called Rock and Rolla. Christian was thrilled when the (at first) taciturn barlady allowed him several requests for his favourite band to be played on the bar’s sound system. The barlady took a shine to us when we upped our 3 shot order of Leche de Pantera (Pantera milk, similar to the milk tarts we have at home, creamy and topped with cinnamon) to a full litre jug and settled in, clearly enjoyjng ourselves.

We didn’t have much left in us thereafter to fully explore Las Ramblas, but we did crawl the length of it and caught the tube home at Diagonal.

PASSEIG DE GRACIA AND LAS RAMBLAS
Christian and I awoke, as always, starving. Since the others weren’t awake yet, we had a protein shake (in wildly romanticised “chocolate mousse dessert” flavour) to maintain good humour. Being Saturday there was, of course, rugby that needed watching and the prearrangement was to watch SA vs Australia ( being played in Brisbane, so televised at midday) at the Michael Collins Irish pub around the corner from the apartment. 

Unable to do this on an empty stomach, we had to go past Burger King en route for a cheese burger and chips. Worth every penny of the R200 fortune we paid for 2 medium combo meals!

While the boys watched the rugby, Lixi and I missioned to 
Europcar at Estacio de Barcelona -Sants to change my car booking (we were supposed to collect the car on Sunday, but at 20 Euros a day for parking, it didn’t make sense to collect the car a day before we really needed it!). Having mastered the Metro system it was child’s play there and back – and more fun for me than rugby anyway!

Then we hit the Passeig de Gracia – a veritable shopping mecca and just all round pretty place to be. Wide roads with broad pedestrian island in the middle, tree-lined, lots of pavement cafés, just more of the same awesome we’re getting used to seeing everywhere really! We did more atmosphere -soaking than shopping, but did pop into firm favourites like Mango and Zara.

Interspersed between the shops are some Gaudi gems. He’s the architect fella who is responsible for really putting Barcelona on the map. It would seem that he initiated a one-man decorating wave and transformed the city with the buildings, trimmings, parc and viaduct he imagined and realised. I say “realised” since those things he actually completed, unlike the Sagrada Familia which he designed and which is still being built today, with completion date unknown. He was a busy little bee in Barcelona, to be sure!

We oooed and aaaahed at La Pedrera, which added another tick to our UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Gaudi was very averse to straight lines and this building particularly has a wobbly quality from the wavy balconies that frame the outside of the building. He designed it this way because he wanted everyone in the building to get to know each other, so the exterior construction is such that residents can easily interact and communicate with each other. Obviously things were a little different in 1912 when the building was completed. 

We got down the Passeig and stopped for a wettie in the “heart of Barcelona”, Placa de Catalunya, when we got more wettie than we bargained for with the heavens opening. And when it rained, it poured! What a pity we’d chosen a poor spot, with overpriced uninspiring looking food… so we chanced it and finished our drinks when the rain seemed to ebb and dashed out into the road in the direction of Las Ramblas.

It was really only spitting so not terrible to get down the street to our next pit stop… yet another Irish pub! Called Cheers, the pub had the usual Irish charm decor and obligatory Guinness paraphernalia, but the music was so dire that we decided to rather brave the rain than suffer the earbashing. So we made a mad dash past the Colom (which, even as a famous landmark, wasn’t worth stopping in the rain for a photo) and across the bridge to the shopping centre “island” in Port Vell called Rambla de Mar,to seek asylum in a lovely tapas bar (no surprises there) overlooking the old port sipping on cava and nibbling on croquettes. 

Dinner had been predecided to be at El Chipirito downstairs in the same centre since it had been recommended to RoRo, so we proceeded forthwith and delighted on a seafood banquet, watching an enormous cruise ship parallel park in the port, which is indeed a sight to be beholden!

Luckily the rain had cleared (we’d been told it would, Barcelona not being one to dwell on inclement weather) so we headed back up to Las Ramblas to find the Fairy Bar, which Kate had told us about. Bosc de les Fades is a bar in the city’s wax museum, that had been decorated within an inch of its life in the theme of a fairy grotto. It is dark inside, with walls that are made to feel like those of a cave, trees with hanging branches and leaves, a pond with a little bridge and little twinkling lights everywhere giving a magical glow to the place. Really nice spot – and cheaper than the other pubs we’d been to, which defies logic.

We wound down the day with a walk up Las Ramblas, stopping only to forage for croquettes (definitely overtaking jamon as our tapas du jour) at Burger King of all places. Divine! They tasted like mini toasted bacon and cheese sandwiches!

PARC GUELL
Sunday began promisingly, with a delicious homemade breakfast courtesy of LoRo (name revised post revelation that he is in fact landed gentry with official title, Lord Robert Birkmyre Ross V) and we managed to avoid any vodka making its way into the OJ, as had been our downfall at breakfast in Venice 2010.

The day’s main attraction was to be a visit to Parc Guell, which is a garden complex designed by (none other than, you guessed it) Gaudi. Located in our home district, Gracia, the only mission to get there was the trek up El Carmen hill, although the built-in public escalators helped enormously. It was worth it though and highly recommendable as a “must do” in Barcelona. 

The focal point of the park is the main terrace, surrounded by a long bench in the form of a sea serpent. The curves of the serpent bench form a number of enclaves, creating a social atmosphere (which appears to be one of Gaudi’s big drivers). There are lots of good photo opps, including Gaudi’s house (now a museum), the lizard fountain, the mosaiced column hall that supports the terrace, the viaduct and of course the panoramic views of Barcelona and its bay from the large cross monument at the park’s highpoint.

Having only ever heard of Gaudi in passing (and even being artistically challenged, as I am), it’s hard not to admire the chap and all that he did. There was not a conventional bone in his body and his ideas were of epic scale, translated geniusly. 

All this trekking and gawking wore off breakfast pretty quickly and a lunch on Passeig de Sant Joan was the next order of business.

Christian and I each ordered a grill platter of sausages and steak, which seemed like a bargain at less than the steak sandwich and including a beer and bread! But, as with most things that seem too good to be true, it was too good to be true and the steak was a translation error and wasn’t supposed to be included. The waiter/chef/barman/cleaner that was serving us was quite flustered, but did bring us a steak anyway, which made for a lovely – if not slightly unconventional – rare beef dessert. 

Fed and watered, we were ready for the next round of adventure. Lix and LoRo were off to the Picasso Museum and we were going to take another turn past the Zoo, Cascades and Mammoth. The plan was to meet back at what we called The Antonio Banderas Monument, which is actually a monument to the martyrs of the 1714 revolution that happens to have the word Benderes inscribed on the main message. No matter, we knew what we meant.

Born is a gorgeous part of the city and Christian and I were quite happy to sit on the church steps at Placa Sant Maria and people-watch to pass the time until our meetback. Being an apartment lifestyle, there are always loads of people out, eating, drinking, socialising and walking dogs. Lots to see and do. Their clocks are obviously very different too since there are kids out playing in the placas until all hours – close to midnight from what we saw while we were out.

We met at a very cool bar/restaurant by the “Antonio Banderas Monument” called Bastaix. We had wanted to go there a few times, but it had always been full, having only 3 keg tables with low milking stools outside and 6 or so tables inside. Downstairs is a gorgeous bodega (cellar restaurant) with 8 or 10 small tables and a skylight onto the placa, which looks like it would make for a memorable meal.

The last thing on the To Do list was to find a bar called the Quiet Man which Christian had spotted in the Lonely Planet guide. Located at the far side of the bottom of Las Ramblas, it was an easy walk through the Barri Gotic to get to the general area, but then a bit more of a challenge to get to the exact location because the smaller side roads weren’t marked on our (tourist) map. We did find it and it turned out to be (yet another) Irish pub. Anyway, when in Rome and all that, so we ordered a Guinness and scoured the local mag for a suitable venue for our last night together. 

We decided on a rock bar called Bollocks in Barri Gotic and decided on a rest and refresh at the flat as the interim plan – easily done by nipping back and forth on the Metro.

Before Bollocks we tried a last attempt at getting in the elusive Fideua (paella with spaghetti instead of rice), stopping in at a little diner on the corner before the bar. The others ordered Cava, which seemed quite ambitious in such a down-to-earth eatery, but not only did they have it, but it came with free tapita too. This included a side plate of Russian salad (peas, egg, carrot, mayo), tuna salad (tuna,onions, potatoes, peppers) and a delicious warm Spanish tortilla (potato bake sort of thing).  In our second ordering mix-up of the day, the fideau never came, so we still haven’t had it!

We did enjoy Bollocks though. Possibly a little too much, which necessitated a taxi home and meant our evac morning started a little later than planned. 

We opted to have our farewell breakfast at the placa opposite the Sagrada Familia to take last advantage and feasted on enormous Club Sandwiches and fry-ups.

Then it was home to pack up the last few things and say (long) goodbyes to Muffin before lumbering to the Estacio de Barcelona-Sants (on our trusty Metro) to collect our rental car to begin the roadtrip part of our Iberian adventure.

We really had a good time in Barcelona and while a lot of it was having the ideal flat (and cat) and perfect company, I reckon there’s so much to love about Barcelona that anyone could enjoy it. It’s made my Top 3 places in the world, alongside Berlin and Bratislava.