Sunday, 28 December 2014

A day in Belém - the best Lisbon has to offer

I can't believe how many tourists miss Belém, located 15-25 minutes away from the centre of Lisbon by tram. It is an area filled with important monuments - from renowned museums to religious buildings and gardens - and it's very nice if you just want to take a walk.  Here you can see one of the best things that Lisbon has to offer: a dive back to the time when Portugal led the way to the discoveries of other parts of the world. It was perhaps my favourite part of Lisbon, more than the Alfama or the Chiado, and this is why I want to write about it first. The weather helped me: even though it was December, the sky was blue and clear, those famous clear blue skies of Lisbon that poets write about.

I caught the tram - n.15 to be precise - from Cais do Sodre train station, near my hostel. The tram was crowded and the journey a bit uncomfortable, but I met an old Portuguese man who spoke perfect Italian, and taught me many things about Portugal and Lisbon. We passed the famous suspended bridge, Ponte 25 de Abril, which takes its name from the date of the Carnation Revolution and that looks so much like the Golden Gate Bridge. Just the day before I had enjoyed an amazing sunset involving the bridge, from the banks of the river Tagus.

Lisbon Sunset
As soon as I got to Belém, I found myself in front of the first of the many attractions of the area.  I know that I would love it, and I did: the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos was on my top three things to visit in Lisbon. Not only it has a distinctive architectural style not to be found in any other European country - the Manueline style - but it is also beautiful and elegant. The most striking element is the southern portal, so full of intricate decorations and almost blinding in its whiteness. Founded with the money coming from the trades with the colonies, the monastery was built in the 16th century to offer spiritual assistance to the navigators who left from the harbour nearby.

The western portal

Detail of the portal
Detail of the portal

The cloister of the monastery is all a game of shadows and decorations. I spent half an hour just admiring every nook and corner of it, especially the shadow and light on the walls.

The cloister of the monastery

From another angle

After visiting the monastery, I decided to enter the church adjoined. Here are buried famous Portuguese people, like the poet Camoes and the navigator Vasco da Gama. This church left an impression on me with its slender pillars, the ceiling high above, and its whiteness.

The church of Santa Maria de Belém
After visiting the monastery, I took a short walk to visit the Monument to the Discoveries, with all the statues of the explorers who left from this area. From here you have a magnificent view of the suspended bridge, but it's also a perfect area to walk around and enjoy the sun.

Monument to the Discoveries and Ponte 25 de Abril in the background
The Tower of Belém is maybe the most famous monument of all Lisbon and it's the jewel of Belém. Built as a defensive tower, it resembles a piece of the chessboard. The white of the limestone and the location, close to the riverside, makes it look almost unreal, as if you were in a fantasy movie or a fairy tale. It's a pleasure to visit it: there are so many intricate details and the view is amazing. José Saramago, in his book "Journey to Portugal", mentions Carlos Queirós, a Portuguese poet,  who in a moment of unbelievable humbleness wrote: "So isto fazemos bem, torres de Belém" ("There's only one thing we do well, build towers of Belem"). Saramago dismisses Queirós's humorous opinion, but he is one who dislikes and criticizes most Portuguese works of art in his travelogue about Portugal. Not the Tower of Belem, though, of which he writes: "the traveller cannot understand what military use this exquisite piece of jewellery could have had, with its wonderful lookout turrets facing the river Tagus, much more suited to watching naval regattas than for positioning cannon to help repel any invader" (p.330).  
In front of the Tower of Belém
Tower of Belem
View of the river fom the Tower
The tower in all its whiteness

After visiting the Tower of Belém I looked for a place to have lunch, as my stomach was beginning to groan. I decided to trust the Lonely Planet and I stopped at Floresta, where I had a plate of grilled sea bass with boiled vegetables, a simple but delicious meal al fresco (yes, it was warm enough!). It is a habit of Portuguese restaurants to bring you some bread, cheese and butter at the beginning of each meal. You will be charged for it, but don't worry, it won't break the bank! 
After lunch I decided to indulge myself and visit the Berardo Museum of Contemporary Art, situated just a short walk away. It's completely for free and it hosts masterpieces by Warhol - his Portrait of Judy Garland - and Dali, like a version of his famous lobster telephone.
Dali's lobster telephone
And of course a trip to Belém would not be complete without a stop to eat a pastel de nata, the simple but delicious Portuguese sweet that was born in this neighbourhood, in the kitchens of the monastery. I have eaten many pasteis de nata during my stay in Portugal, and I can assure you that the one from Fábrica de Pasteis de Belém was the best: crispy on the outside but creamy and tender inside. Even though this is an old and very famous pastry shop, with rooms decorated with azulejos, it was not at all expensive. One pastel de Belém costs around 1€. 

Pastel the nata with tea in Belém

Did you enjoy Belem? Would you make sure not to miss it when in Lisbon?

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Zaragoza - Offt the beaten track in Spain

On a random weekend in October I decided to take a last-minute bus to Zaragoza, because for as much as Barcelona is exciting and full of surprises, I also want to explore other parts of Spain. Zaragoza is the main town of Aragón, the region to the west of Catalonia. Situated halfway between Madrid and Barcelona, Zaragoza is not a touristic town, but it harbours great treasures, especially if you like architecture and history.
The bus ride went smoothly, also because I had the chance to admire the Catalan countryside and the desertic area between Lleida and Zaragoza. There were absolutely no villages, no trees, no signs of human life in this part of Spain, and I also enjoyed a sunset that seemed to come straight out of a Western movie. I was surprised because I did not expect a real desert just a couple of hours away from Barcelona. Sure, Castille - the area around Madrid - is arid but it is nothing compared to this.
When I finally arrived in Zaragoza, I found myself in the futuristic Delicias bus and train station, which seemed like a cathedral in the desert. Too impersonal and big for a medium-sized city like Zaragoza, I felt a bit intimidated. When I emerged from the tunnels of the station it was dusk, and the landscape around me was surreal: white ramps leading to nowhere and glass buildings, plus no hints of where the town centre was. The following day, before taking my bus back to Barcelona, I took a picture of this strange area of the town by daylight.

Futuristic buildings near the Delicia bus and train station

The main square of Zaragoza, Plaza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, is considered one of the most beautiful in Spain. By night it's magic, it's lit and the atmosphere is great. The cathedral, built on the site of an appearance of the Virgin Mary on top of a pillar (hence the name Señora del Pilar), is huge. Inside you can see people kissing the famous pillar.

Church of Nuestra Señora del Pilar

Zaragoza struck me as as a lively city: at dinner time everyone's out for a caña  (a beer) and a few tapas, while during the day flea markets make the atmosphere cheerful.  

Flea market next to the church of La Seo

The Catedral de la Seo seems like a regular church, until you turn around the corner and have the feeling that you just switched Spain for Morocco.

Detail of Catedral de La Seo

If there was one thing that I absolutely wanted to visit in Zaragoza was the Aljafería palace, the former siege of the Aragonese kings and an outstanding example of mudéjar architecture, which is the style that was born from the joint tastes of  the Muslim and Christian inhabitants of this part of Spain. I really enjoyed my visit to the palace: even though it is not as elaborate and beautiful as the Alhambra in Granada, it is well worth a visit. Moreover, I have always been fascinated by the Catholic kings, "los reyes católicos" as they call them here in Spain. Isabella and Ferdinand kept moving during their reign, but the Aljafería palace retains their crown room. The symbols of the joined kings of Castille and Aragon, a yoke and a bundle of arrows, is everywhere in the palace. Originally built in the 11th century when Zaragoza was part of the Muslim kingdom of Al-Andalus, in many parts it is a Moorish palace, not much different from the ones I visited in Marrakesh or Andalusia.

Door leading to the prayer room in the Aljafería Palace
The tourists here were mainly Spanish, even though the Aljafería Palace is, together with other buildings in Aragón, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Courtyard of the Aljafería Palace
Of course there are corners of Zaragoza that have nothing to do with mudéjar architecture or with religion. To be honest, I found it a rough town in some backstreets. It was there that I snapped some pictures of some cute graffiti that looked like it was made to cheer up and valorise this area of the town.
Graffiti in Zaragoza
Some more graffiti art in Zaragoza

My trip ended with a bag of "frutas de Aragón", which I put next to Catalan "panellets" in this picture. "Frutas de Aragón", the ones wrapped in paper, are a characteristic sweet made with fruit confit that is covered in chocolate. You can imagine the taste!

Frutas de Aragón vs. Panellets


Would you like to visit Zaragoza? Do you ever take random improvised trips just to explore new areas of a country?

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Introducing colourful Girona - a town with character

I'd like to introduce you to the colourful town of Girona, located a little bit more than an hour away from Barcelona. You can easily get there with the train (I paid 24€ for a return ticket), and you'll also enjoy views of the gorgeous Catalan countryside on the way. Girona is famous for the Ryanair airport, that's for sure, but also for these picturesque houses along the river Onyar, and for the charm of its cobbled streets.
The famous houses on the river Onyar

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Tackling poverty and tourist exploitation in Morocco

Morocco is technically the first third-world country I have visited. It's really true that even if you have watched documentaries, read books, and in general you know about the problems of this part of the world as much as you want, it's quite another thing to be there and see it with your own eyes.

Man sleeping under a cart in Essaouira

On the morning of the second day of our bus tour to the Sahara region, we stopped in the countryside near Todra Gorge. This part of central Morocco is truly beautiful, but also quite poor. We walked through irrigated fields where traditional herbs are grown. Here, old women still cut the grass with a sickle, and take the bunches on their heads, while donkeys are used instead of tractors. A child - perhaps six or seven year old - was begging for money: "un dirham pour favour, mademoiselle, pour manger, merci beaucoup". He spoke very little French, but had probably learned this sentence by heart. When he understood that we were not going to give him any money because he was supposed to be at school, he asked for "bon-bons", sweets. It has been estimated that around 28% percent of the population of Morocco is still illiterate.

Even though I was prepared for this, the encounter left a mark in me. This boy was waiting for groups of tourists - perhaps every day - just to ask them for some change. After that, an old lady who was cutting grass approached us. She spoke only Berber, but she said something to our guide, who explained that she was eager to have her picture taken with us while cutting the grass with a sickle. I felt a bit weird: was I really going to take a picture of myself together with an old Moroccan lady cutting grass? I took it as a chance to finally have a portrait of somebody. I am very shy about asking people for pictures. Two or three pictures were taken of the others on the tour smiling next to the old lady, but when my turn came - I don't know, perhaps she saw my awkwardness - she put the sickle in my hand and asked in a kind of French that was clearly learned by heart "vous pouvez me donner un stylo, mademoiselle?". "Do you have a pen to give to me, young lady?". I didn't have any, and I felt mortified, but also weird.

Woman and donkey in the countryside of Morocco
This attitude of making a tourist attraction of oneself for a little money is widespread in Morocco. Artists and performers in Jemaa el Fna, the main square of Marrakesh, often aggressively ask for money after seeing  that you snapped a picture of their traditional snake-charming or of their traditional costume. This is why I don't have many pictures of the performers in the square. Apart from the fact that I often found myself without small change, I don't want to take part in the exploitation of animals or in the "spectacularization" of oneself in a way that I find so fake. What is ironic is that some men, selling vegetables by the street or sitting at their doorstep, don't want their picture taken, and shout at you, even if your intention was not to take their picture but that of the door behind them, or the cat sleeping inside their cart. I was not prepared for this contrast.

Scared by the reaction of many Moroccan people and too shy to ask for portraits, I started taking pictures of people from behind, so that their faces are not recognizable. I feel that this does not intrude too much in their lives. I find the pictures to be beautiful, because Morocccan people, especially women, wear very colourful clothes. This didn't always work, however. When I tried to snap this picture, one of the two ladies turned around and gave me this look. I guess she wasn't happy about being photographed.

Women in the countryside of Morocco

Another thing that really concerned me during my trip to Morocco, and that I had never considered before a trip, are how animals are treated. Soon after my first night in Morocco, I figured out that animal rights are not really in the mind of most Moroccans, at least in the not in the touristic areas of Marrakesh. In Jemaa el Fna, a place that is incredible as much as it can become annoying, I saw monkeys on a leash, a vulture, and snakes being charmed. After learning that the mouth of some of the snakes are stitched to stop the poison, I refused to take part in any show on the square that involved animals. Sometimes I felt that us - Western tourists - were being fed touristic bites that involved things we were expecting from Marrakesh. I loved the city and I loved Morocco, but sometimes when I  stopped to think about certain things, I found lot of material for further thought.

Snake charmin in Jemaa el Fna
In the desert, we took a camel ride. I wonder how the camels were treated: sometimes they seemed to be annoyed, but perhaps it's just their in their nature to look as if they are pissed off all the time. After all, it mustn't be very funny to take giggling and Instagram-obsessed tourists up and down the dunes every day.

A camel in Merzouga, Sahara desert

I have also experienced what many people complain about: feeling like a walking ATM. Being a tourist in a country that's poorer than yours is not always easy. Some locals will take you for a dupe who will pay whatever sum of money they ask for the poorest quality service they can get away with. This is not unique to Morocco or to third-world countries, however, as it is unfortunately relatively common in Italy, too. Too often tourists are seen as someone who's there for one day only, or for a few days at the most, and then will never be seen again in that town.

Being offered tea in a Berber house/carpet shop

Managing to stay happy while travelling to difficult places isn't always easy. Morocco is a country of contrasts, where luxurious palaces with incredibly decorated interiors are juxtaposed with littered streets and beggars. Trying to be compassionate, and to understand people, what they go through, how they live, what they think is the key to have a happy stay in a country that sometimes get on your nerves. If it's true that there will always be people who consider tourists as a mere way to make a lot of money by selling poor-quality products,  I've also met many people who are genuinely committed to teach you about your country, that make you feel welcome and that  make you want to return to Morocco again and again. I think that the key is to stay positive and not be discouraged by the difficult situations you may encounter.  If I had more time in Marrakesh I would have loved to visit a charity institution. If I'm taking another trip to Morocco - I still want to visit Fez and Chefchaouen at least! - I'll make sure to do that.

Me in front of a door in Essaouira: looking happy!

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
01 09 10