Wednesday, 29 February 2012


It was my wife's birthday last week (I won't say which one....), and we recently celebrated 10 years together.  With my birthday coming too in a few weeks, it seemed a good time to go away for a long weekend somewhere.  The kids are older now and happy to stay with their granny, so that worked out pretty well too......apart from the odd night, we haven't been away from them at all and hence have never had a honeymoon.  So another good reason to do it, then.  We looked at a few destinations before Christmas, and finally settled on Barcelona......neither of us had been there before (apart from a 48 hour conference I had to attend about 6 years ago, during which I only saw the airport and the inside of the hotel - and of course the road between them), and Spain is nice at this time of year (certainly warmer than Poland...).  My son Pat has visited the place too, and raved about it - a good enough recommendation for me.  So I booked it in early January, blew a bunch of airmiles on the flights (still got plenty left though), and got a good deal on the hotel (internet booking, picked more or less at random) so we were all set.

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Strictly speaking, Barcelona calls itself a Catalan city rather than Spanish.  Catalunya was always an autonomous region of Spain with its own language and culture, right up until the Spanish Civil War and Franco's Republic from the 1930s.  During that war, Barcelona was a centre of resistance and heavily bombarded by Franco's republican forces until the Catalan forces eventually were forced to surrender or suffer annihilation.  But even after the end of the Civil War, there remained a bitterness and hatred of Franco's Spain, right up until the dictator's death in the early 70s and the restoration of the monarchy by Juan Carlos.  As soon as that process was complete, Catalunya declared itself an autonomous region again (a day celebrated by a public holiday every September).  The Catalan language, suppressed but never extinguished under Franco, was promoted again, taught in schools, and all road signs and so on included it as well as Spanish.  Now there are newspapers, radio and tv stations in Catalan alongside the Spanish outlets. 

As a side issue, Catalan sports, especially football, experienced a resurgence, spearheaded by FC Barcelona and city neighbours Espanyol.  In the 70s and 80s, Barcelona particularly enjoyed huge success, led by the Dutch genius Johan Cruyff (both as a player and subsequently manager).  Over time, he instilled a value system and culture within the club that survives to this day.  In many ways, the club is a model to be followed globally - they are now arguably the best club side in the world and quite possibly in the history of football - but their success has come at a price as far as Espanyol, once a significant side themselves but now eclipsed, like every other club in Spain with the exception of Real Madrid, are concerned.  There is a story there too.  There is a dislike bordering on hatred between Real and Barca, by far and away the biggest clubs in Spain and amongst the top half a dozen in the world, that goes back to Franco's time.  He was apparently a Madrid fan, and the perception is that during the 50s and 60s, when Barca and Catalunya were very much the poor relations in the country (and the sport), while Real won trophy after trophy, they were basically favoured by officials on and off the pitch to avoid upsetting  the dictator.  Corrupt?  Very probably, but unprovable now.  Since Barca's resurgence, they have set their stall out to eclipse Real on and off the field, and are doing a pretty fine job of it right now.

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Anyway, back to our weekend.

We flew out of Warsaw onThursday morning, in pouring rain and a cold wind.  We arrived three and a half hours later in Barcelona to a sunny and warm afternoon:  20C, not a cloud in the sky.  The taxi ride into town was diverted off the motorway due to heavy traffic, so our first view of the city came from the summit of Montjuic Park, as we left the Olympic park, and did not disappoint.    The port was quiet, only a couple of a sizable cruise ships and a container vessel or two, and beyond it the Med sparkled in the sunshine, blue and inviting.  I spotted the hotel straight away, but said nothing - I had not told Ania where we were staying as part of the surprise.  The expression on her face when we pulled up outside the Eurostars Grand Marina was a picture.  It's a five star hotel (I really pushed the boat out for this trip....) right on the waterfront in the new World Trade Centre development.  Its design, from distance, looks like the superstructure you see on some of the bigger cruise liners, curved in an elegant crecent 8 storeys high.  The top floor has a fitness centre, terrace and outdoor swimming pool with superb views over the city (we didn't use it).   It's a modern hotel, beautifully appointed throughout, with very good and efficient staff - the girl who checked us in noticed that it was Ania's birthday from her passport and greeted her accordingly.  Our room must have been one of the best (apart from the 8th floor suites) - an executive double on one side, overlooking the marina and city beyond, with high windows the length of the wall.  The bed was comfortable, the bathroom with jacuzzi and walk-in shower very good.  If I have a complaint it's against the tv service - the only English language channels were news channels (the usual CNN, BBC, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera and France 24), and no in-room movies......surprising in a 5 star hotel, but since we were out and about most of the time not a major issue.

We dumped our stuff and went for a stroll.  Across from the hotel was a new mall and cinema complex, reached by crossing a drawbridge that provides access to the sea for the yachts moored in the old marina.  We had a look in the souvenir shops and the first of many FC Barcelona club shops, but didn't buy anything.  Then we walked past the Imax cinema and adjoining aquarium along the Moll de la Fusta to the Cap de Barcelona.  Here there was a Catalan history museum in a converted warehouse, and several bistros and restaurants.  We chose one at random and enjoyed a local beer and fresh tuna salad, sitting in the sunshine watching the world go by.  After that, we mooched back along to the Columbus monument opposite the hotel, and from there into La Rambla, towards the Plac de Catalunya.  We diverted off into a little side street, narrow and rising up into the Gothic Quarter, full of pubs and Catalan restaurants and gift shops and local boutiques.  At the top we found a small church beside a surviving section of the Roman Wall (dating from the 4th centiry), and followed more winding streets back towards La Rambla, and thence back to the hotel.  In our room was a wonderful surprise: a bottle of champagne on ice, and dishes of fresh strawberries, some dipped in chocolate.  I hadn't ordered them, so can only assume they were compliments of the hotel, based on the receptionist spotting Ania's birthday.

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Friday and Saturday were devoted to the city sightseeing tours, on the top deck of the ubiquitous red double decker buses.  There are two routes, the Red, covering the southern half of the city (and picking up at the front door of the hotel) and the Blue, covering the northern part.  There is a third, Green route, covering the waterfront to the north of the city centre but that only runs during the summer season.   A number of stops around the city allow for transfers between the routes, and you can hop on and off as often as you like during the trips (each around 2 hours long).  A two day ticket, allowing unlimited travel on all three routes, costs EUR31 and represents good value - especially when the sun is shining and you can sit on the top deck with unrestricted views and take all the pictures you want.

And there is certainly much to see and snap.  The city is one of contrasts, and on every street there seems to be something worth photographing.  There is modern architecture, much of it dating from the re-development of the city prior to hosting the 1992 Olympic games - the athlete's village, close to the waterfront and marina, is now a select development of private apartments, much sought after and one of the most expensive residential areas.  Close to it, on one of the beaches, is a new marina where the Olympic sailing events were held and is now a bustling and cosmopolitan recreation area of shops and restaurants and clean sandy beaches.  The Olympic park itself is across the city in Monjuic Park, and is equally impressive.  Clearly the legacy so important these days in awarding Games to host cities has been delivered successfully in Barcelona, and I can't help wondering if London will be as successful - I fear it will be more like Athens, where many of the facilities expensively constructed for the 2004 Games now stand unused and in a state of disrepair, their development costs no doubt fuelling the country's current economic woes.

Then there is the Gothic quarter, off La Rambla, a lovely and fascinating area of narrow streets and old buildings and hidden courtyards.  We stumbled across a small cathedral there that had an enclosed courtyard housing a big pool, home to a lively and argumentative flock of geese, surrounded by trees and reeds.  A walkway around it contained several small chapels and shrines for prayer and contemplation.   It was lovely.

In contrast to this maze of small streets there are many wide boulevards with ornate wrought iron street lights, housing little parks and boules courts, and flanked by some quite extraordinary buildings.  At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries the architect Antoni Gaudi, a Catalan, introduced an incredible array of building and design innovation that has been copied but never matched.  There are many fine examples of his work scattered around the city: seven and eight storey blocks that are all subtly curved (not a straight line in sight) with ornate balconies and roof terraces and fantastically intricate chimney designs.  Some, although occupied and lived in, remain open to the public.  His masterpiece is the wonderful cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, possibly the most famous building in Spain.  We visited it, and were absolutely stunned by its beauty and complexity.  It has two different and, in their own way, extraordinary facades - the Nativity Facade, which within its incredibly intricate carved stonework displays scenes describing Christ's birth, and the Passion Facade, more modern but equally intricate and containing scenes from the Crucifixion (basically, the Stations of the Cross writ large).  Description here cannot do it justice: take a look at Wikipedia, where there are many photographs and details.  It's probably the most beautiful building I have seen in my life - and it isn't finished yet.  Work has been going on for the best part of 100 years (Gaudi started it and died in 1926) and will not be complete for another 12 years, and all by public donation - the admission charge goes straight to cover building costs.  Like all Gaudi's buildings, there seem to be no straight lines anywhere - wonderfully curved columns supporting a magnificent ceiling, spiral staircases taking you into the Choir stalls that hold 1500 singers, wonderful stained glass windows and others, clear glass, that let in the bright Mediterranean sunshine and between them illuminate the interior beautifully.  Two of the six spires contain lifts that take you up 65 metres to little viewing areas, reached finally after climbing a further 10 metres up a narrow and winding staircase.  The views out across the city are breathtaking - but you need a head for heights!  I loved the place.

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Like all modern cities, the shopping is to die for.  Local department stores, chain stores like Esprit and Benneton and of course Zara are everywhere.  We must have visited about 5 massive, multi-floored branches of Zara in one afternoon, all within a few yards of each other.  This raises a question for me: why on earth do none of these stores provide areas where people can sit for a while?  In my opinion, by law every store of this size should provide an area where we blokes can relax over a cup of coffee and a donut, or perhaps a four course meal with aperitifs and wine, and perhaps a cabaret for entertainment, while our partners shop.  It would make the entire experience so much more enjoyable.....

We found a fantastic market off La Rambla that sold the most wonderful array of fresh fruit and vegetables, laid out beautifully on the stalls - prepared cartons of fresh fruit salad for a euro, huge strawberries for a few euros per kilo, and more.  There were other stalls selling a wide range of sweets and chocolates.  Fishmongers were selling produce so fresh the gills were still moving on some of them, as were many of  the crabs and lobsters and crayfish.  There were butchers selling all the normal joints of beef and pork and sausages and whole smoked hams, and others specializing in offal - huge piles of hearts and livers and kidneys, ox tails and tongues, entire sheep's heads and pig's trotters, and stacks of white honeycombed tripe from cow's guts......God knows how people can eat all that stuff: looking at it raw and damp and fresh made my stomach turn.

And everywhere along La Rambla and other streets in the Gothic quarter are souvenir stands selling newspapers and cigarettes and soft drinks, postcards and tourist guidebooks in several languages, cheap jewelery, hippy beads and wristbands.  And every single stand also sold stacks of FC Barcelona stuff - replica kits (80% of which seemed to be Messi 10), scarves, hats, wallets, pens, footballs, posters - everything.  Most of them also sold Real Madrid stuff too, though not so much.  And Espanyol, the city's "other club", or any other Spanish club?  Hardly anything.  One shop we went to had some Espanyol gear - a couple of different style caps, a couple of scarf options and a coffee mug.  I didn't see any other replica shirts at all for any other club, and only a (relatively) few Spanish national team kits.   As well as the stalls, we saw at least 6 specialist FC Barcelona club shops, and we didn't actually visit their stadium (although the Camp Nou is on the Blue bus route - most people got off at that stop - : Espanyol's stadium is nowhere to be seen, situated as it is out of town close to the airport).  Clearly, the Barcelona marketing operation is second to none.

At the Camp Nou, as we waited for traffic lights to turn green, we saw one of the club's leading players - ex- Arsenal captain and Spanish international Cesc Fabregas.  He jogged across the road in front of us, as the lights changed, carrying a football (which he managed to drop) and wearing his full strip (that's how I recognised him, the name on the shirt a giveaway).  He was heading to the club's legendary training complex, La Masia, just across the street, presumably either going to or coming from yet another photo opportunity.  Car drivers and their passengers were tooting their horns and calling out to him - clearly, a popular guy.

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We flew home on Sunday, this time on Swiss via Zurich.  The connection was a bit tight and our bag didn't make the Warsaw flight (we got it back Monday morning).  The flight to Zurich was particularly good, the weather clear and sunny, so the views of the French and Swiss Alps, Geneva, Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn were terrific. 

It was a wonderful weekend and we want to go back sometime.  I'd like to do a proper tour of Montjuic Park, take the funicular railway up to it, and then the cable car to the summit.  Stroll around the Olympic park and visit the Olympic museum.  Do a tour of the Camp Nou.  Have a look around the new Olympic marina and chill out on the beach in the sunshine, maybe take a swim in the Med.  Visit the Catalan history museum on the Cap de Barcelona. 

And of course, return to the Sagrada Familia.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Relocation, relocation....

I've removed this post after some of its content caused a lot of pain and distress to some people.  For this I can only apologise to the people concerned.