Sunday, 25 January 2015

5 Pictures of an Untouristy Barcelona

If you're tired of the usual posts on Barcelona, featuring the Ramblas, a bunch of buildings designed by Gaudi, and a poorly-cooked paella served in a restaurant owned by Chinese people, read this. In the past six months I have had the opportunity to take long walks in this wonderful city. I came across all sorts of things: ugly, boring and dull neighbourhoods, but also incredibly vibrant places that tourists don't even know about. As any great  European city, Barcelona has enough things to keep you busy for a lifetime. Here are five pictures of a Barcelona that the tourist usually does not see.

Sarrià is a residential neighbourhood in the north of the city. It is a wealthy area close to the hills to the north, quiet and a bit posh. There are no tourists there, yet it is a charming place, with old buildings, churches and cafés. It still retains that pleasant and relaxed atmosphere of village life that has been lost in many other neighbourhoods. There was a small flea market in the main square when I visited, and I spent my time just looking at balconies full of plants and Catalan flags, passing by modernist villas whose name I had never heard of.

Old buildings in Sarriá
In Sarrià I  came across this shop of organic products by chance. For a second, I thought I was in London.
Is this London?

The neighbourhood where I'm currently living is called Clot. It has an urban feeling, it is popular but not sketchy, full of locals but no boring. The main park of the area, called simply Parc del Clot, has been redeveloped using parts of the old RENFE workshops.  I particularly like this piece of street art near the park: I think it encapsulates the atmosphere of this area of the city very well. This is not El Born, the trendiest part of the city where expats live and which they never seem to leave, it is quite different and it has its own vibe.

Barcelona: sometimes it's cute, sometimes it's badass!

The tiles are one of the most charming things in Barcelona for somebody with an eye for details. There are many different kinds of tiles in Barcelona, but they always have a design. These ones are probably the most famous: they were designed by Gaudi, and they are not all the same: being hexagonal, they form a complex pattern that is very nice to see. You can find them in Passeig the Gracia, if you manage to take your eyes off the shop windows!



The neighbourhood of Gràcia is often ignored by hasty tourists, too busy on visiting the Casa Battlò and the Park Guell. Yet Gràcia is stylish, charming and a damn good place to grab a bite. Whether you want Vietnamese food, an Italian gelato or just some tapas to share with your friends, to head there is always a good choice. There are cute little squares, nice cafés, charming modernist buildings and much more. In August there is a festival, Fiesta Major de Gràcia, that attracts crowds. I particularly like this tall green building is Plaça del Sol. What do you think, would you put Gràcia in your sightseeing list for Barcelona?

All of these pictures are deatured in my Instagram account. Follow me: The_Italian_Backpacker

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Lisbon: Sun, sky and poetry

Lisbon is a city famous for its blue skies, and indeed I found only blue skies when I was there in the middle of the winter. Still warm and welcoming in this season, I found Lisbon to be a manageable city: not too big, and not too chaotic, but charming in that Southern European way that I love so much.
It's a city of stone staircases (there are probably more here than I've seen in any other city!), with elevators - cable cars, some of them vertical - that can take you "up a level". For this reason, Lisbon can be a bit disorienting. It's full of viewpoints (miradouros in Portuguese), and built on top of seven hills, like Rome, with the river Tagus that could almost be mistaken for the sea.
View from the Castle of San Jorge
The castle of San Jorge is worth visiting mostly for the views, so I think the entrance fee should be abolished, and the castle grounds converted into a public park. Lisbon is a peculiar city in terms of sightseeing: neither the castle nor the Cathedral are anything special. The charm of Lisbon lies rather in walking around in search of  picturesque corners, admiring the views of the red roofs and the whitewashed houses, enjoying its paved squares, and of course taking many pictures of the photogenic yellow trams.

View of Lisbon from San Jorge Castle

You  hear the characteristic horn of the tram very often, while walking around Lisbon. When it will appear from behind a corner, it will always brings a smile to your face and it will become a familiar view. Of course the trams are not only yellow, but all colours, and some are of  the newer kind. Number 28 is the most famous among the old ones, because of its route: it allows you to see much of the old town from your window seat. I took it one morning, observing the mix of people - tourists, but also old Portuguese men and women  who just bought their groceries - and staring out of the window, enjoying the good weather and the views.  

The famous yellow tram

One of the most characteristic neighbourhoods  of Lisbon is the Alfama, in the old town. This is where the fado was born. It's a popular neighbourhood somehow reminiscent of Naples, with narrow streets, stone staircases and laundry out to dry. Every step hides a surprise in this part of Lisbon: here and there you will find a nice square, and even some ruins from the Islamic period with a spooky tree and  random - but amazing - street art.

A spooky tree grows in Alfama

The Alfama, whose names clearly comes from the Arabic, constituted the whole of the city during the period of the Moorish domination. Getting lost in this area of the city is a real pleasure, but not for your legs, who will have to tackle a lot of stone steps! A pastel de nata in a typical pastry shop might help you here: there are endless places in Lisbon where you can have something sweet, because apparently Lisboetas have a sweet tooth.

One of the many staircases of the Alfama

Streets of Alfama
A corner of Alfama

Street art in the streets of Lisbon

There are some names and events that I heard mentioned many times while I was in Lisbon, either in my guidebook or by locals: Henry the Navigator, the age of discoveries, and of course the terrible earthquake of 1755. The most fascinating monument connected with that tragic event that almost destroyed Lisbon is the Igreja do Carmo, a church which is now in ruins, with no roof. It has been converted into an archaeological museum, and I can assure you that it's very atmospheric to walk between its walls, because it's not everyday that you see ruins of a 18th century church. It's almost as if you time-travelled to a catastrophic future, when ruins don't only date back to the Greek or Roman times, but also to the more recent past.  

Igreja do Carmo

The archeological museum in the Igreja do Carmo

Lisbon is also the hometown of some of my favourite writers. I take great pride in this picture taken with the statue of Fernando Pessoa, one of my favourite poets. The statue is located  in the central neighbourhood of Chiado, in front of "A Brasileira", a café that he used to visit rather often. I really enjoy taking "literary side-trips", since I like reading. Poets are some of my favourites authors to track down, maybe because places are often important in their work. I've visited Keats' house in Rome, as well as  Oscar Wilde's grave in Paris, but I also giggled when I ran into a sign inside a bar in Madrid that read "Hemingway has not been here".  

With Fernando Pessoa

The famous Elevador da Santa Justa was being restored when I was there, so you couldn't see anything from the outside. You can either pay for a ride and for the terrace, or enter from behind the Igreja do Carmo and only pay for the terrace. I would advise you to skip the actual ride, as you don't see anything special, enter from behind the church and go straight to the rooftop terrace. Be warned: this is only one of the many viewpoints in Lisbon, and you have to pay to enjoy it. The Miradouro das Portas do Sol is equally beautiful, in my opinion, and completely free of charge. 

View from the top of the Elevador da Santa Justa

Oh, and if you're one of those people who chases sunsets wherever they're travelling, Lisbon is the place for you. From all along the river Tagus you can enjoy amazing sunsets over the red suspended bridge, with a view of the statue of the Christ redeemer on the other site of the river. As a matter of fact, if the suspended bridge is reminiscent of San Francisco, the statue of the Christ is similar to the one in Rio de Janeiro, except there is no Pão de Açúcar and no bay, but a wide river delta and some cool open-air bars where you can sip a drink while watching the sunset.

Sunset in Lisbon

What do you think about Lisbon? Is it a city that you would want to visit?

Saturday, 3 January 2015

My Most Exciting Travel Moments of 2014

Making it to Ait Benhaddou. It was one of my dreams to travel to this citadel at the edges of the desert. It is featured in so many movies that when you arrive there it induces a feeling of déjà-vu, and still you can't believe that you're actually there, staring at this most exotic of the exotic places in North Africa. Our young guide with a blue turban, the alleys of this ghost town made of sand and straw, not to mention the incredible light will be impossible to forget and are one the highlights of my trip to Morocco. 
In front of Ait Benhaddou, in Morocco
Trying new food and finding out unexpected gems. As I'm sure it is for you, food is always a big part of my travel experience. This year I tried food in Morocco, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Spain and, of course, Italy. Between finding out about the vibrant Asian food scene in Munich and trying out knoedels, gulash and Bauerngroestl in Austria, the German-speaking countries I visited this year were a real surprise in terms of taste buds, and not at all boring, as some people will make you believe. 

Asian food in Munich, Germany

Ticking off Neuschwanstein Castle from my bucket list. As cliché as it may sound, I have a bucket list of fascinating and enchanted places that I really want to visit, and this fairy-tale castle was at the very top, together with Lake Bled, which I visited in 2013. The trip I took to some of the jewels of the Bavarian Alps - Neuschwanstein Castle, Linderhof and Oberamerggau - revealed to be jam-packed with magic. I loved learning about Ludwig and his crazy romantic ideas!

Checking out Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany

Seeing the Sahara desert. I also have a bucket list of landscapes that I want to see at least once in my life: an ocean, a desert, a rainforest, a volcano up close, a canyon, a mighty rainfall, a geyser, and so on (it might be a never-ending bucket list!). Riding a camel, sleeping in a tent in the desert, eating a meal prepared by Bedouins, climbing a dune: I had the opportunity to do all of these when I was in Morocco earlier this year.

On top of a dune in Erg Chebbi

Riding tram n.28 in Lisbon. What would Lisbon be without its yellow trams? My last day in Lisbon started with a ride on this old tram. I managed to find a seat next to the window - not an easy thing these days, since the tram is one of the main tourist attractions of the city - and watched Lisbon unfold in front of me, as the tram went up and down the famous hills of the city. 

Women enjoying Lisbon and tram n.28

Moving to Barcelona. When I decided to move to Barcelona almost on a whim last July, I  didn't know what to expect. Will I find a job? Will I like the city? Will I have the time to explore more of Catalonia and Spain? Yes, yes and yes. Barcelona is pretty exciting by itself, but since I arrived, I have been to Tarragona, Sitges, MontserratZaragoza and Girona. My favourite place outside of Barcelona? Probably Montserrat, a breathtakingly beautiful mountain with a monastery tucked onto a rock - a place that should receive a lot more recognition from international tourism.

The mountains near Montserrat

What were your most exciting travel moments of 2014?
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