Barcelona and the Brits abroad

Wednesday 6th May 2009 Continued, Blanes, Costa Brava
Yesterday evening we drove along to Lloret de Mar. We'd heard of it as brash, noisy and tacky and were looking forward to the experience. In fact the beach was stupendous. Just clean golden sand with a few small groups sunbathing or swimming. The sea, which we last saw in Portugal, was an iridescent deep blue and clear as crystal. Above the beach the headland was covered in shady pine trees and out on the horizon a large ferry boat was making its way up the Mediterranean. Nowhere was there any sign of the brash, coarse seaside experience we'd been lead to expect. Back from the sea in the town it was a bit better with shops selling seaside tat – buckets and spades, sunhats for Ian, red or pink polkadot flamenco dresses small enough to fit our tiny granddaughter, along with matching shoes, sunglasses and hairbands. Still not very bad though. Seaside cafes were selling all day breakfasts and before we leave we'll be real Brits and indulge in fried eggs, bacon, beans and hash browns with tomato sauce.

"I must down to the sea again", Lloret de Mar.

Lloret de Mar

Disappointed Lloret de Mar was so civilised we drove back to Blanes. We've no intention of repeating what we said of Blanes on our last visit. We enjoyed it so much then we've returned. You can read our original account on 22nd January and 23rd January 2006.

Actually there is more happening here than back in Lloret. The campsite has Karaoke until midnight and along the sea front last night the bars were crammed with eager drinkers watching the Barcelona versus Chelsea football match on the overhead screens. Judging by the noise of firecrackers and car horns later we assume Barcelona won. There are several overweight English families waddling happily around the campsite, their flesh bulging over their skimpy summer beachwear and their shaven heads shining brightly in the hot sunshine! What a different world we have found ourselves in!

Barcelona v. Chelsea, Blanes

Thursday 7th May 2009, Blanes, Costa Brava
We are fast becoming experts in the art of doing nothing! The sun was hot before we were even awake this morning and we've discovered a definite lack of shade on our pitch. Hinge and Bracket enjoyed their day as we cycled from end to end of the sea front where a slight breeze masked the heat of the sunshine. We've really just relaxed, visiting the town and refreshing our memories of our last visit. We ate a long, lazy and ample lunch in the theatre café, as on our first visit here, where we browsed the newspapers and ascertained that Barcelona did indeed draw the match last night in the 93rd minute. There is still great jubilation here as it is all a matter of Catalonian pride.
We discovered a few parts of the old town that had escaped us on our last visit including the medieval church, badly damaged during the Civil War, and the adjoining remains of the palace of the Counts. We also worked out a more agreeable way to reach the railway station by bike than the route we took last time on foot. This should enable us to get to Barcelona tomorrow without too much hassle.

Church and palace of the Counts, Blanes

Saturday 9th May 2009, Santa Pau, Garrotxa
Everyone should be entitled to a break and over the past couple of days I've been taking one from blogging. It can be extremely exhausting having no fixed abode and rarely knowing in the morning where we will be spending the night. Once we settle, sort out supper and photos I'm still left with all the experiences of the day to bring into some semblance of order for the blog, and sometimes lately I've felt just too weary to face it. We are always on a learning curve, discovering different countries, cultures, traditions, languages, histories and peoples. Ian may have no difficulty understanding the finer detail of church architecture and the dividing line between historical periods, but sometimes I find it all a little confusing! Yesterday for example, as part of my "holiday" he took me around an exhibition at the Archives of Aragon in Barcelona. Yes, I know Barcelona is in Catalonia but because of some quirk of history Aragon's archives are not where you'd expect them to be. The displayed mediaeval documents were quite illegible to me and the accompanying texts, in Catalonian, Aragonese and Latin did not inspire my little grey cells one bit, particularly when just nearby was Barcelona's famed Rambla, crowded not only with evil pick pockets, but also with "living statues" of headless men, vampires, dragons, skeletal cyclists and a host of other amusing diversions! Fortunately Ian came away enthralled and his joy was complete when during the rest of the day he accumulated at least five photos of new manhole covers for his blog!

Archives of Aragon, Barcelona

First things first. Yesterday we were up and away amazingly early for us and before 9am we were on the train into Barcelona, having left our bikes chained to the railway station railings. It took well over an hour for the 60 kilometre journey and many of the travellers were Brits picked up from the towns along the way. At Barcelona we were spewed out directly into the massive Plaça de Catalunya from where the Rambla runs down, in five different sections, to the harbour and beyond, where it now becomes the Rambla de Mar, a magnificent modern construction built out over the sea with cable cars overhead crossing the harbour, boardwalks, modernistic steel bridges and chic shopping complexes.

Along the seafront at the Rambla de Mar, Barcelona

Port Office, Barcelona

Customs Office, Barcelona

Christopher Columbus overlooking the port, Barcelona

Cable car across the harbour, Barcelona

School outing to see the Rambla de Mar, Barcelona

Each section of the Rambla has a different interest. There are flowers and plants for sale in one, canaries, hamsters and mice in another and the main Barcelona market in another. Everywhere too there are street entertainers and pavement cafes, and the thoroughfare is always crowded with happy families and couples. Very popular too now in Barcelona is cycling. There are racks everywhere where by sweeping your credit card across a beam the bike is released for you to use anywhere in the city. Once you've finished with it, just pop it back wherever you like and your credit card is debited for the time you've been using it! Simple and effective. We have not included photos of the Rambla here as we did so on our previous visit on 21st January 2005.

We spent a very pleasant, though rather hot, day around Barcelona, a city of over three million people. It has the feel of being a capital city without actually being one. In this respect it is similar to Munich. In both cases they are the capitals of very distinctive regions, Catalonia and Bavaria, which are markedly different from the rest of the countries to which they variously belong.

Around the Gothic quarter, Barcelona

Plaça Reál, Barcelona

Cathedral Square, Barcelona

With the reputation of Barcelona as the thieving capital of Europe we'd taken precautions before leaving Blanes, leaving passports, money and bank cards safely back at base, carrying only enough money for the day and photocopies of our passports. Nobody tried to pick our pockets but there are more ways than one of robbing tourists. Prices for food were high and ordinary bakers or sandwich vendors thin on the ground. The sandwiches we eventually bought were the most uninspiring we've tasted for a long while; mine was soggy and flaccid whilst Ian's was dry and hard.

Still hungry we later found a sandwich bar for a top up. A small ham baguette, seven inches of pizza stick and a couple of beers ended up setting us back 23 euros!!!! That's about £21 these days! One of the really difficult things about Spain is that, unlike Portugal, they are often reluctant to display prices. You only discover the cost once you've finished eating. Having only brought sufficient money for the day, we had to confine ourselves to anything that was free for the rest of our visit. Not a bad plan really. The escalator up to the top floor restaurant of Spain's only department store chain, El Corte Inglés, was free and gave us excellent views over the city. We did though have to sidle surreptitiously past the restaurant manager waiting to seat guests at the window seats with their spectacular views!

Plaça de Catalunya seen from the top floor of El Corte Inglés, Barcelona

Looking up the Passeig de Gracia where many modernist buildings are found, seen from the top floor of El Corte Inglés, Barcelona

We wandered the streets seeking out the eccentric, early 20th century architectural buildings designed by Barcelona's own Antoni Gaudí. Several people have told me I did him an injustice on our previous visit when I found his Sagrada Familia less than satisfying. Determined to reassess my opinion we walked across the city to see it again, though because of funds, only from the outside. I quite like other Gaudí buildings we've seen in Barcelona, but try as I might, I cannot feel inspired by the church which is bizarre at the least, and downright ugly in the main. It's chief architectural merit is that less than a hundred years on it is still standing. Why there are three cranes and lots of scaffolding is unclear. Is it still being built or are they holding it all up? Certainly it was incomplete at Gaudí's unexpected death when he was run over by a tram in 1926, and much of the lower decoration does not look in the least as if it were designed by Gaudí. [Ian does not agree with my verdict on the church, finding it strikingly innovative in design.]

Modernist façade on the Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona

Modernist façade on the Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona

Casa Battló on the Passeig de Gracia, designed by Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona

Casa Miro on the Passeig de Gracia, designed by Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona

Sagrada Familia originally designed by Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona

Seeking out areas we missed on our previous visit we walked for ever steeply uphill to the Parc Güell, a hilltop area overlooking the city. Gaudí was appointed as architect for its design and development. Originally he planned an entire curious housing development but money soon ran out and eventually the site was purchased by the city as a free park for its residents and visitors. It certainly offers spectacular views across the city, right down to the port and the sea. The Gaudí buildings, walkways and seating certainly justified the walk up there in the heat and the park was crowded with coach parties who'd come up the easy way. The curious houses, caves and arcades were all covered in patterns built up from broken tiles. They look quite bizarre but we are now inspired to attempt something similar on our patio when we return to Exeter! There was even a mosaic fountain with a giant lizard – very popular with the children. Cashing in on the idea, a young man had painted his cycle helmet and clothing in exactly the same design and colours, added a pair of huge, painted lizard hands and was earning a small fortune having his photo taken with the kids!

Sepentine mosaic bench designed by Antoni Gaudi in the Parc Güell, Barcelona

View down to the city from the Parc Güell with houses designed by Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona

Archade designed by Antoni Gaudi in the Parc Güell, Barcelona

Mosaic tiled entrance to the Parc Güell designed by Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona

Mosaic lizard fountain the Parc Güell designed by Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona

We then had to walk all the way back down into the city. Long before we reached it our legs were arguing with each other – "no, I went first last time. It's your turn now!" Thus they squabbled at each set of traffic lights where we waited ages to cross the roads. Eventually though we returned to the station and managed to grab separate seats on the train for the long, slow ride back to Blanes. The entire route was nothing but urban sprawl that eventually gave way to blocks of uninspiring seaside flats and brash streets full of cheap cafes and bars all the way along the seafront for mile after mile. For anyone interested we first visited Barcelona on 21st January 2005.

Jill selects a chicken to cook in the remoska, Barcelona

We gratefully collected our bikes and pedalled back home to Modestine where we were fit only to get supper and go to bed. Ian did rake up the courage to cross to the bar around midnight where he found about twenty Brits from the campsite with their beers, busy taking part in the karaoke! One of then we'd seen earlier with a hangover. He'd told us he thought he'd had a hell of a night previously but couldn't quite remember and had simply been sitting around the campsite all day in a daze! Obviously he'd perked up again for the night life!

This morning, purely with a view to research you understand, we skipped breakfast in Modestine, packed up and headed back to Lloret de Mar for one of the All Day British Breakfasts we'd seen advertised! We can now report that it really is Little Britain writ large! The waitress was English as were all the customers – well, Geordie most of them but that's almost British! There were tomato sauce bottles on the tables and a choice of fried bread or toast with our "Full Monty" breakfast of fried eggs, British sausages, bacon, beans and tomato with a couple of coffees. The breakfast really was a delicious treat for Brits far from home and the atmosphere completely off the wall considering we were in a foreign land. At the next table someone was reading about yet another major sex scandal in the Sun while by the window the six Geordies, who appeared to be on a stag night weekend, were noisily enjoying large beers with their cooked breakfasts. It got even better though when an Englishman with "Made in Britain" neatly tattooed around his navel waltzed in from the street for a beer and black-pudding buttie. He wore a purple bikini top and the briefest lady's thong he could get away with without being arrested. So that's what they meant by a "Full Monty" breakfast! The waitress however never batted an eyelid. Perhaps it happens all the time!

Little Britain, Lloret de Mar

Breakfast time in Lloret de Mar

How can you top that? Impossible. Instead we drove along the coast to the beautiful resort of Tossa de Mar. This is where the older and more genteel clientele spend their package vacation. Beautiful as it was, it was a lot less fun. The old town climbs up the hillside from a little bay of clear blue water where pleasure boats with glass bottoms take visitors along the stunning, rocky coast to observe the wild life, before dropping them at the neighbouring bay of Lloret - to observe a rather different wild life. Tossa's streets are clean, narrow, cobbled and filled with quality souvenir shops and pleasant cafes. English is spoken more frequently than Spanish and many of the shop assistants are British. They even sell seaside rock with Lloret and Tossa written right through the middle. They are all made in England – Yarmouth we think!

Pleasure boat, Tossa de Mar

Old town, Tossa de Mar

We climbed up to the walled area of the town and the lighthouse, both offering lovely vistas of the sea and the sun-bleached pink/red/orange/yellow roofs of the houses of the old town. On the seaward side were the steep rocks where gulls nested, the sea breaking gently against their base and cactuses and flowering agaves clinging tenaciously wherever they could. On the landward side were steps and alleyways lined with aspidistras and geraniums leading down between stone cottages where washing hung from the upstairs windows. Anywhere there was sufficient space restaurant tables had been set up and waiters stood around hopefully though there were few diners. We walked right around the old town on the castle ramparts, leaving it to return to sea level through a tiny park shaded by flowering orange blossom.

Along the coast, Tossa de Mar

Flowering cactuses on the cliffs, Tossa de Mar

From the castle walls, Tossa de Mar

Ian on the castle walls, Tossa de Mar

Climbing up to the lighthouse, Tossa de Mar

Pretty street in the old town, Tossa de Mar

Castle walls, Tossa de Mar

Roof tiles, Tossa de Mar

Ready for lunch, old town, Tossa de Mar

Yet another pretty corner, Tossa de Mar

Beside the path up to the lighthouse stands a statue of the actress Ava Gardner who brought fame to the town with her role in the 1950 film "Pandora and the flying Dutchman".

Ava Gardner, Tossa de Mar

Returning to the very pleasant and slightly more modern part of the town we found the 18th century baroque church which confessed itself to be rather plain. We found it charming and such a delight not to have the overwhelming ostentation I at least have come to dread from Spanish baroque churches. In the cool, dark interior we sat alone listening to Bach organ music that seemed to cascade like rain down the walls of the church, filling every corner with sound. What a contrast with earlier in the day!

Votive candles in the church, Tossa de Mar