Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Montserrat: the perfect day trip from Barcelona

With monuments such as Sagrada Familia, the beach in Barceloneta and its incredible night life, day trips are not as popular in Barcelona as they are in other cities in Europe. Still, if you want to escape city life and fancy some great scenery and amazing nature, I strongly suggest that you go to Montserrat.

The monastery of Montserrat, perched up a rock

The Virgin of Montserrat is probably the most famous icon of the virgin, perhaps surpassed only by that of Guadalupe in Mexico. Its significance in the area is so strong that it gave the name - Montserrat, that is - to an island in the Caribbean discovered by Christopher Columbus and to many baby girls in Catalonia. Involved in Arthurian legends concerning the holy graal, the monastery of Santa María de Montserrat is a place of pilgrimage, but also a location for excursionists, because of its incredible location. Montserrat in Catalan means "handsawed mountain", and as soon as you'll see the shape of the rocks you'll understand why. It looks a bit like Meteora in Greece, with its monastery so close to the rock and the amazing view overlooking all the surrounding hills and plains.

Being only one hour away from Barcelona and easily accessible by public transport, you can decide to visit Montserrat on a whim from the city. Just make sure that the sky is clear!  They say that on a good day you can see until Mallorca! When I got there, I simply started to walk around for a little bit, taking in the beauty and spirituality of the place. Even though I am not religious, the significance of the place and the beauty of the location left an impression on me.

A peaceful cloister in Montserrat

The cathedral is definitely worth visiting and it's free of charge. I love the details of the façade and the fact that it's a bit hidden inside a courtyard. You'll probably need to cue if you also want to pay homage to the "moreneta", the famous black Madonna, but you can see it anyway from the main nave.

Montserrat, Cathedral
The cathedral in Montserrat

Another reason to visit  Montserrat is that the hiking trails are amazing: they zigzag through the mountain, passing by tiny churches almost carved into the rocks, or leading to viewpoints with crosses and small sanctuaries. I hiked two trails without two much effort enjoying spectacular spots. During our second hike, we hiked to the tiny church of Santa Cova, also a site of pilgrimage. Even though the church was closed, I enjoyed the walk very much. The rocks look so unreal that you think you're in a cartoon or something. At certain times they almost have a pink colour! Along the way (camí in Catalan) there are stops of the rosary, in the forms of shrines, designed by famous artists.

Montserrat, church
The church of Santa Cova in Montserrat

You can reach Montserrat with a train from Plaça de Espanya in the centre of Barcelona. The train takes one hour and then you can either take the cable car (funicolar) or the rack railway (cremallera). I suggest that you take the former, so that you can enjoy the beautiful view going up towards the monastery. The price for a return ticket (train + cable car) is 20€. I had my own sandwiches, and it was a good choice, because restaurants in Montserrat, at least around the main square near the monastery, seemed to be a bit expensive and unremarkable.

Looking happy, Montserrat
Looking happy!

I really think that this place should be as famous as Meteora. It is amazing how close it is to Barcelona, and how virtually unknown  it is by many tourists who visit Spain. If you want to see a place in Catalonia that is not Barcelona - and you have time only for one - I highly suggest that you organize a day trip to Montserrat. Even if you only have half a day it's still worth going: the trains run fairly often, and you'll get to see how Catalonia is outside of Barcelona: quaint, alive and full of history.

funicolar y montaña, Montserrat
Great scenery

Had you ever heard of Montserrat? Would you like to visit it? Do you think it can compare with Meteora?

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Tarragona & Sitges, two pearls of Catalonia

Maybe some of you already know this, but I am obsessed with ruins: whenever I can, I try to explore towns that offer an insight into ancient civilizations. Two weeks ago I went to Tarragona, a town one hour away from Barcelona that hosts amazing Roman ruins. You can get there with the train or the bus, for about 8€ one way.
I didn't know what to expect to be honest. I found the city more touristic than I thought it would be, but there is a reason why tourists go to a certain place. Tarragona has an attractive historical centre that is really pleasant to explore even for those who are not thrilled by the sight of Roman ruins.

Entertainment in Tarragona

The main attraction is of course the Roman amphitheatre, which boasts a great view over the sea. It must have been really thrilling to watch plays from this location. Nowadays, you can walk through the ruins of the theatre for an admission price, or admire the view from the gardens nearby. There are also other ruins to visit, like the "pretori", and they offer a good insight into the Roman settlement in Tarragona.

The amphitheatre of Tarragona

Catalan identity is very much felt in Tarragona, perhaps even more than in Barcelona. I saw a monument dedicated to human pyramids, a tradition in this region, and countless Catalan flags.

A street sign in Tarragona

Time for breakfast! In Tarragona I discovered ensaimada, a pastry typical of the island of Majorca, made with pork lard and topped with sugar. I can assure you that it is delicious!

My delicious ensaimada
Tarragona is also full of cute squares where people congregate to have a caña (beer) or some tapas. Sometimes Roman ruins appear in the middle of the square. Don't miss the trompe l'oeil painted house in Plaça dels Sedassos. It was painted in 1995 in the building where painter Carles Arola had a studio.

Trompe-l'oeil painted house in Tarragona

A detail of the house in Plaça dels Sedassos

The cathedral of the town is also quite nice, and so is the seaside. It's that kind of town where you can wander aimlessly and just take pictures of different things, without bothering too much about tourist attractions.

A detail of the cathedral
The seaside in Tarragona

Sitges is a completely different kind of town. Mostly frequented by beachgoers, and famous for being a gay-friendly resort, it didn't impress me as much. There isn't a proper historical centre, so if you don't intend to go to the overcrowded beach, you're left with nothing much to do but buy an ice-cream. As a matter of fact, I had never seen so many ice cream shops one after the other, not even in Italy.

A view of Sitges
A view of Sitges
Even though Sitges had some cute corners, I didn't find it that interesting, and after about one hour I took the train back to Barcelona. If your main purpose for visiting is beach life, though, this could be your destination.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Flamboyance and fancy: a visit to Palau de la Música Catalana

"Against the grey traditional houses all round it, the Palau de la Música Catalana, the city's concert hall, has all the appearances of an aberration, a dream building paid for by a mad king, or a capricious count, designed by an architect with more imagination than good sense. Somehow, it doesn't look serious."
"Homage to Barcelona", a half memoir half travelogue written by Irish writer Colm Tóibín, makes it clear that in order to understand Barcelona you need to understand Catalonia first. He explains  very well how the Modernist style associated to the city is also intrinsically linked to Catalan nationalism and politics, through the figures of a few important architects who were also influential politicians. Domènech i Montaner, the architect who designed this UNESCO-listed concert hall in the centre of Barcelona, is the political counterpart to Antoni Gaudí, who was notoriously more interested in religion. After reading this book, which is an excellent introduction to the city of Barcelona, to its identity and its history, I feel like I understand the city a lot better. Indeed, certain modernist architecture in the city, including Sagrada Familia, can give the impression of a capricious aberration that you learn to love as part of the extravagant fascinating identity of Barcelona.  

The main concert hall of the Palau de la Música

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Random reasons why Barcelona is so cool

Beth of "Besudesu Abroad", mentioned in a recent facebook status that Barcelona's city symbol is a dragon, and wrote "How badass is that?". She was expressing her feelings for this amazing city. In this post I'll try to write a few VERY RANDOM reasons why Barcelona is cool!

One of the dragons in Parc de la Ciutadella

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Game-changer: I just kind of relocated to Barcelona!

Surprise! Perhaps you have noticed that it has been quiet on the blog and in my social media channels in the last ten days. This is because I am in Barcelona right now and I intend to stay here for a few months! I was looking for a flat in the past few days, and now that I have one I'm trying to find a job - something to pay the rent, not my dream job, because that is hard to find.

A cycle has finished for me. I have finished my PhD, and at the same time I had to move out of my flat in Venice. Subsequently, I had to look for both a new flat and a job.
While Venice has been a great place to live in for a while, a good detox from chaotic London, where I used to live before that, I feel that I need a change in my life. In spite of the millions of tourists, Venice is a small town, with a small-town mentality. I miss the international dimension of a city, the possibility of doing something new every day, of exploring new neighbourhoods, of having a wide choices of bars and little ethnic restaurants. I need people that can inspire me, with innovative ideas and . Venice is gorgeous aesthetically, it has a great cultural offer especially concerning art exhibitions and theatre, but it can hardly be called a city.  

A cool bar in Barcelona

Why Barcelona?

Barcelona is a city I love, in a country that I adore and where I have been several times, but just on holiday. Barcelona has everything that I like about London (I also lived there for over a year): it's a vibrant city, multicultural, and with a lot of things going on at all times. At the same time, it doesn't have the disadvantages that I find about London: it's not as big, for one thing, and it doesn't have that crap depressing weather. Moreover, people actually speak to each other, and the food is awesome!
Yes, I know that Spain is not the best country to relocate to right now, because of the economic crisis, the unemployment, and so on. The truth is that I can't see myself living in Berlin, but I can easily image myself in Barcelona. At least for a few months.

The Barceloneta beach

This is not a definite move. I am not leaving Venice forever. As one of my wise friends say, Venice is the perfect place to return to. I intend to stay there a few months, and see what (or where) this experience takes me.

Selling fruit at La Boquería market

You can expect updates from Barcelona: its cool bars, its hidden gems, its world-famous night life and its culture. Let's see if I also mention to visit other pars of Catalonia and Spain!

Arc de Triomf

Do you like Barcelona? Have you been? What strikes you the most about this city?

Monday, 7 July 2014

Katzentempel, the first cat café in Munich

I had always dreamt of visiting a cat café, which is a regular coffee shop where you can pet cats and the ambience is built for the well-being of the animals, with parcours and pillows. Cat cafés were born in Asia: the first one opened in Taiwan back in 1998, and then spread to Japan, where they are still very popular.  In the past few years, cat cafés are opening all over the world, including one in Turin, so when I read that there was one in Munich - where I was headed for a weekend - I decided  to pay a visit, and perhaps cuddle a German cat or two.

Mascotte in front of the cashier

Monday, 30 June 2014

Tilework and intricate carvings: the astonishing architecture of Marrakesh

Marrakesh is famous for its souqs and for Jemaa el-Fna, the big square where every night performers show their talent and street food is at its best, but there are many other things to see in this magic city. If you know where to look, you'll find ancient palaces and buildings straight out of Arabian Nights, the classic collection of tales set in a harem. If you liked Granada's Alhambra, or Istanbul's Topkapi Palace, a visit to some of these treasures is almost compulsory.

Medersa Ali Ben Youssef

I fell in love with Islamic and Mudejar architecture during a visit to Andalusia, in southern Spain, a few years ago. The whole of Córdoba but also the Alcázar in Seville are excellent reminders of the Arabic domination of this region of Spain. Horseshoe arches, really impressive decorative tilework, peaceful and shady courtyards with pigeon fountains in the middle are the main features of this colourful traditional style.

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