Sunday, January 4, 2015

-- A Catalonian Tale (Part 2) --

In the morning, shortly after refuelling with a strong black coffee and a serrano ham baguette by Universitat station, I take a short metro ride to Placa Espanya, located just besides the main arena, the Fira Barcelona and a dramatically wide avenue leading to one the largest water fountains I have ever seen.

A long set of steps and waterfalls is then challenged, whilst the view of a dominantly beige-coloured city is revealed with every step upstairs taken before reaching the top of the hill at the Catalonian National Museum of Art.
My attention is called by the name 'National', proving once again the proudly Catalonian nationalistic innuendo added to it. A busker loudly plays the mellow sounds of a Spanish guitar to add drama to the scenery.

I walk around the main building through greenery and small alleyways in order to make it to the Olympic Stadium.
Barcelona has always been an example of urban redevelopment, particularly observed during their bid for the 1992 Olympic Games which resulted in the reinvention of the port area, slums, public transport and sport infrastructure.

The Olympic stadium, almost crowning Montjuic and built in a style that resembles a bullring is then complemented with an open esplanade where torches and flags were once raised, and water fountains once served to refresh athletes in between competitions. 
1992 Olympics were the first ones I remember of, defined by the torch being lit by a skilled archer and the diving taking place with the silhouette of La Sagrada Familia as a backdrop.

A series of roads lead me to the Castell de Montjuic, almost hanging off a step cliff, creating the impression of flying over the port area.
Thick red bricked walls are crown by vigilance towers and Catalonian flags, a building sentineling the Mediterranean Sea, once protecting Catalonia from former invasions.  Free admissions on Sundays after 15:00pm.

I decide to enjoy a little picnic under the cable car station realising that I still have enough time to witness one of Barcelona's famous sunsets and, almost instantly I make use of the excellent network of public transport running across the city through buses, escalators, metro transfers, reaching Guinardo in as little as 35 minutes from Montjuic.

A rapid hike through a steep dirt road and I reach the top for the best view of an ever-transforming Barcelona underneath, brightly lit by the Agbar Tower in Diagonal, La Sagrada Familia in Eixample and Montjuic by the coast.
Fellow tourists are seen sitting in an abandoned terrace sipping on wine boxes and smoking weed.

I return to the Medieval Town and its narrow streets splashed by Halal shops, Filipino-Latino haircuts and small convenience stores.
Drunk locals are seen singing or playing guitar in the dark alleyways before I decide to enter one of the many small taverns and enjoy some house white wine and a heavenly combination of tapas until I can't even breathe properly.

The sounds of a heavy thunderstorm is heard whilst I sleep on my last night in Barcelona. An inclement weather condition which extends through the morning, adding wet shoes, sniffles and coughs to the Catalonian tale.

El Mercat de la Boqueria is on the cards, the perfect place to shelter from the rain whilst enjoying a refreshing freshly made smoothie and soaking up the aromas of freshly cooked seafood, the almost synchronised sound of loud merchants selling fresh fish and the festival of bright colours of carefully laid food stalls, everything framed by a steeled structure and a colourful glass arch, designed by the omnipresent Gaudi.

As hunger strikes, I meet up with a friend who I hadn't seen in over 12 years near the Port Olimpic area. Succulent (and cheap) dishes are served whilst the rain finally stops and an efficiently timed catch up over his lunch break takes place at the cozy restaurant.

My last hours in Barcelona are spent wandering around the old La Barceloneta, aggressively coexisting with the modern white steeled structures of Rambla del Mar and Port Vell.
I close the day with a last walk through the Mirador de Colom, a flamboyant roundabout honouring Columbus, and Las Ramblas before taking a combination of metro lines to Sants and finally to El Prat Airport.

I leave Barcelona at the sound of three loud drunk Mexican teenagers creating havoc during take off,  adding extra tensions between fellow passengers and thankfully extinguished by the alcohol an hour later.
The return flight takes a different path, extending for over three hours before turning South of Dublin and landing through a series of dramatic turns and crosswinds nearly at midnight.

Whilst driving back from the airport, I realise that comments I had heard about Barcelona coming from fellow travellers were entirely true. Affordable, vibrant, cult, historical, pretty and most importantly, an obvious sense of excellent quality of life being prioritised. Blame redevelopment, culinary or even the laid back Mediterranean lifestyle, Barcelona has definitely entered the list of the best places I have ever visited.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

-- A Catalonian Tale (Part 1) --

It starts with an early departure. A commute to Dublin Airport in the freezing early morning (or late night) previously shoveling a thick layer of ice from my windscreen.

Long queues have formed at the security screening area, mainly due to the busy Christmas period approaching and entire families leaving the wet island for a ski break or a family holiday visiting relatives across the Irish Sea.

My flight leaves in complete darkness, flying over the United Kingdom and over the Cantabric Sea before the sun finally rises over the thick layer of clouds, just in time for an onboard bagel and a cup of tea.
Only a couple of hours later, the plane starts descending over the snowy Pyrenees, following the Catalonian coast and landing at El Prat Airport.

We dock at Terminal 2. Large, well lit and easy to navigate with signs are in English , Spanish and Catalan, and it is just that Catalonians are very proud of their heritage, manifested particularly in their language, which resembles both French and Spanish and it's a language spoken by over 9 million people.

I buy a T10 pass, which at only 10 Euro offers amazing value for commuting within the efficient Barcelona Metro network.
A convenient and modern train takes me through the pseudo countryside of El Prat de Llobregat, slowly cruising through olive and artichoke fields and into the Southern suburbs before crossing over tall viaducts and deep tunnels to the station of Sants, from where I emerge into the streets of the neighbourhood of Eixample.

Eixample means enlargement, and basically this part of the city worked as an organised development of the Medieval Town through a large plateau which finds its limits at Mount Tibidabo.
Wide avenues, perfectly organised in grids form a region defined by art nouveau apartment buildings in which gracious glass balconies are decorated by Catalonian flags.
At street level, design stores, small supermarkets, bakeries and coffee shops provide with an energising buzz of what the city has to offer,  translated in its mix of locals and immigrants.

Once checked in and wearing comfortable shorts thanks to the brilliant weather, I follow a street line to a world icon: La Sagrada Familia.
Antonio Gaudi's masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia works as a beacon of both faith and beauty, rising over the Barcelonian skyline with its 170m towers, slightly resembling a sand castle.
More importantly, despite construction beginning in 1882, the cathedral still hasn't been finished, only promising a more complex structure in the future, adding magnitude to its grandness.

Tourists pile up and take hundreds of pictures, whilst some others queue under the refreshing sunshine.
I decide not to enter the church but silently contemplate it from the outside, trying to spot particular details in a discreet and obvious awe.

Continuing through the Royal Hospital , I decide to walk up the hills and eventually get lost in the narrow and windy streets of the neighbourhood of Gracia until finally reaching yet another of Barcelona's trademarks: Parc Guell.

Firstly thought as a private estate for the wealthy by both Guell and Gaudi, using the same lines and imaginative of some sort of naturalist phase, Gaudi transformed this hilly green space into a series of stoned terraces and secret passageways, with a main square defined by sinuous edges and colourful tiles from where privileged views of the city can be seen. Obviously better enjoyed with a bottle of Spanish wine, serrano ham, green olives and freshly baked bread.

The Metro takes me back into the heart of Barcelona at Urquinaona station. A perfect place for some churros con chocolate, whilst tourists and locals alike glance through several wooden stalls installed by the main Cathedral and selling Christmas goods, including small sculptures of El Caganer featuring different political or famous figures, which translates into 'the shitter', or 'the crapper' and no, I am not joking.

In the evening and unable to fall asleep early, I take a midnight walk through Eixample, fascinated at a tourist-empty La Rambla, visiting the Casa Batllo, buying a croissant at a 24-hour bakery and contemplating the colourful lights at Placa Catalunya before finally returning to the hotel for a good night sleep.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

- The Baltic Adventure: Lithuania --

I arrive in Vilnius an hour after crossing the border. Buildings are covered with a light layer of snow and for the first time in the duration of this overcast adventure, sunshine timidly shines through the clear blue sky.
A thermal shock is automatically felt as I step out of the warm coach. The mean temperature is -11 degrees Celsius and I am only wearing a winter jacket and a pair of chinos.

I walk down the street whilst my body shivers. The sunshine reflects in frozen puddles and in the white snow, sterile, almost blinding and somehow extremely uplifting.

Pointy medieval architecture has been left behind in Latvia and Estonia, giving way to colonial-style Catholic cathedrals, painted in pastel shades and sprawling through a slightly hilly old town, creating a sea of bell towers fading in the foggy sunshine.

I climb up the red bricked castle sitting on top of a round soft hill for a better view of a modern Vilnius, spanning around the River Neris with tall glass buildings forming the Business District, united by colorful bridges to the Old Town, closely guarded by the equestrian image of Duke Gediminas overlooking the main square and cathedral.

In the Old Town, cozy cafes share the cobblestone streets with colorful souvenir shops and signs displaying prices in both litas and Euros and it's just that Lithuania is about to change currencies from the first day of 2015, which makes visiting this country a steal for now.
And so, I found a warm cozy hostel for only a few Euros, friendly staff, WiFi, comfortable beds and amazing showers included.

I also found a full 'stone baked pizza + beer combo' for dinner in a nice restaurant for a few couple of Euros, just before walking around a Christmas market selling specialties from all over Europe.

Guests at the hostel and I decide to join forces, battling the now -15 degrees Celsius temperatures and walk around the Old Town in a modest attempt of pub crawling, enjoying cheap shots, pints and even an improvised mojito.

As the trip reaches its last day , I decide to relax and wander around the city, crossing the ice-covered Neris, through the neighborhood of Snipiskes, a part of the city which seems to have had some sort of identity crisis, with the Business District and its almost intimidating glass skyscrapers built only a few meters away from wooden old houses crowned by smoky chimneys and amalgamated into quiet villages.

I enter Kalvariju Market, also known as the Russian Market, for a better idea of Lithuania's scent.
This can be felt through a vast lineup of small stalls selling fur coats, clothing, fresh fish, Belorussian bicycles, cheap cigarettes and Russian electric appliances, everything sold at the sound of loud merchants, having a smoke or drinking hot beverages to alleviate the effects of the omnipresent freezing temperatures.

The bright sunshine makes for a perfect return walk by the river bank, spotting brave ducks playing in the floating icebergs and old Soviet-style buses rocketing down the main avenue.

Back in Old Town, I visit the Presidential Palace (or Lithuania's White House as some call it), the University built in a mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque style and opt for an out-of-ordinary and rich in saffron Uzbek lunch at the Christmas market.

Freezing temperatures only mean that the body can not stay outdoors for very long. In the end, the skin in my legs has been slightly burned due to constant cold trousers friction, sensitivity in my hands hands has been partially lost and my eyes feel sort of watery, forcing a truce and a few hours around cups of hot peppermint tea, laying in a comfortable bean bag.

Just at the city lights are turned on, I grab my backpack and walk to the cold train station where a cryptic voice announces the departure of old noisy trains to St. Petersburg, Moscow and Minsk, catching the attention of grumpy travelers carrying large shopping bags and suitcases in preparation for their overnight journeys.

The train ride to the airport takes only six minutes instead, checking in and boarding almost immediately.
For the first time, I have the first row seat, gently fighting for armrests with a tall 6'9 Lithuanian man and an old Irish business man.

Three hours later (and five beers for the Lithuanian man), I land in Dublin Airport, ending an adventure through five countries and defined by the cold temperatures and by an interesting contrast of cultures which are still present in the daily life of their citizens.

I have been invited to return in the summer, where a different picture of the Baltics can be seen.
A future adventure maybe? Somehow I believe the Baltics have to be seen in winter to better understand the cuisine and costumes, despite burned skin and loss of extremities sensitivity.

It is 10 degrees Celsius in Dublin and I return home wearing only a t-shirt and thin track bottoms.