Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Barcelona Experience?

Am writing this a while after my time in Barcelona, so a lot of it is from memory...

Arrived in Barcelona on the Monday, having taken a very nice fast train in from Valencia. Had an absolute panic attack when buying the train tickets in Valencia - I had said in my very best Spanish "Quisera dos bihlettes para Madrid de Manana, por favor". Then when he pointed at the screen and said "ferchardo, ferchado!", I panicked.

What? You mean the trains are closed tomorrow? After a few minutes of panicking, and trying to work out what was going on, he had someone wander over & tell us that it was actually the ticket booking system that was a bit broken at the moment. Phew.

Las Ramblas was long. We never had a chance to walk the entire length. It was oh so crowded! We walked from Catalunya Plaza to Placa Real. There were lots of street performers alongside, almost one every 10metres or so. There were two guys on stationary bikes all painted up in black and grey with two skeletons 'riding' sidecar. Once you dropped your money in the tin, they would start cycling, and so too would the two skeletons. There was another street performer that had a jumble of cloth and an upside down table as part of his act. It looked as though his two feet were sticking out from the underside of the upsidedown table. I didn't stay around long enough to witness his performance.

After checking in, we were taken via the metro to our shared apartment near Avenue de Parallel. We met some dirty dishes in the sink. Whilst finding our way back to Las Ramblas and the supermarket, we met the seedy red light district.

All the places we ate at in Barcelona were fantastic. Went to Candela Raval on L'Hospital twice, and liked the beef sirloin with a red wine reduced sauce so much, that I got it again the second time. Tried the degustation menu at Regina Raval as well. The food was good, and we
got to watch the makings of Howl's Moving Castle at the same time.

Went out and sampled the night life in Barca. Went to a club on their Erasamus night (international students night). I know that nightlife in Barca *doesn't* really start until after 1am, but this was pretty dead. It was free entry with a flyer, and I got a free drink out of it, so I won't complain too much. Some people in Barca dance in a way that suggests that they are on show, and hey, look at me.

Did lots and lots of Gaudi related visits.

Saw the outside of Casa Batlo, on the Block (Manzana) of Discord. The roof apparently represents the back of the slain dragon, and the chimney pot represents the victorious St George. I couldn't quite stomach the hour long wait or the 16.50 euro entry fee, so I bought my
own cardboard cut out copy, and have grand plans (amongst all my other projects), to build it when I get back.

Visited Parc Guell - which was amazing. Gaudi was commissioned to design this residential estate for the wealthy, but the project got pulled a few years down he track. What he did manage to build in that time was pretty specatular. The gatehouses, at the entrance to the Park look like fairy gingerbread cottages, the kind that got Hansel and Gretel into so much trouble. Unfortunately, didn't get to spend as much time there as I would have liked.

Visited Temple of La Sagrada Familia. Can't believe that this place is still under construction, but it is amazing. It would have to be some pretty open minded sort of priesty person who gets to run this place. We queued up for 40mins to get access to one of the towers on the passion facade, the newer side. The nativity facade is the one that Gaudi built, and is very ornate. Almost too much for me. I like the Passion Facade a lot better, which was designed by Josep Subirachs.

Walked past Palau Guell, but i was under renovation, so all I saw were some chimney pots that looked a bit like christmas trees. Went and had a look at the exterior of La Pedera (The Quarry), but didn't want to pay to enter. That one was 8euro, and also had an hour-long queue that went around the corner. Snuck a look in through the shop, there building wasn't solid as such, it had two lobbies with 'airwells' leading to the roof. Inside each airway was a winding staircase.

Went to my first proper 'football' game. It was FC Barcelona versus Huvela Recreativo. We were in side bits just off the goal (here I show my igorance), in the cheapest set of seats that we could get. There were soooo many people, and of course we were sitting in the local stand.

It was lots of fun. I can't believe how many people were there, they all stood up to sing the team song before the match. I haven't been to a Sydney FC match, so I don't know how it compares, but I don't think the SFS or the SCG have the capacity for 98 thousand.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Granada, Spain

Started our tour of Spain by catching a bus in from Faro, Southern
Portugal to Granada.

Except that you couldn´t catch a direct bus from Faro to Granada, and
we had to catch the bus to Sevilla first. Once we arrived in Sevilla,
we found that in order to get to Granada, we would have to head to
another smaller bus station before being able to catch a bus there.
Not having any guarantees of when, or if there even would a be a bus
available to go, we ended up catching the train to Grenada.

Dramas didn´t end there, also ended up walking 1.8km or so to the
backpackers hostel that we were staying it. It was raining. I wasn´t
particularily happy.

The backpackers hostel was situated in Albacyin, the muslim quarter of
Granada. Our walk into town involved walking down a twisting little
alleyway filled with brightly coloured morroccon inspired shops. Lots
of nepalese shoes, brightly coloured scarves and hookahs for smoking
the flavoured tobacco.

We booked to head to Alhambra (the red fortress) on the hill twice.
Didn´t realise that the tickets there would sell out so quickly. I
originally wanted an afternoon visit on the Friday. We ended up with a
night visit to the Palace Nazrid´s on the Friday night, and a late
afternoon visit on the Sunday afternoon. All tickets for Saturday for
purchasing over the internet had sold out completely.

I would definitely recommend the night visit. Even though it does cost
the same amount as a half day visit to the entire complex, the fact
that you don´t have enormous tour groups trooping throughout the place
behind and in front of you helps with th enjoyment of the place. I
wouldn´t call the night visit ´magical´as the Lonely Planet does.. but
it was way up there.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Evora, Spain

1 hour 45 minutes from Lisbon is Evora, a Unesco world heritage listed medieval walled city.

Skofia Loka is apparently Slovenia's 'best preserved' medieval city, so I was keen to seen how different it would be.

Evora was a lot larger than Skofia Loka, and because we weren't visiting on a Sunday, everything was open! We arrived around midday, and after visiting the tourist office where the person just circled the sites she thought would be worth visiting rather perfunctorily.

First stop, just before Siesta, was Capela dos Ossos at St Francis Church. Oh boy. Also known as the chapel of bones. Its a small 3 nave chapel, built entirely out of the bones of soldiers who have died fighting in wars. Not by anarchists, or someone who wanted to rebel against society, but by Franciscan monks. Not only that, they built it in secret to show that all men are equal in death. Of course when the general public found out about it, there was a huge outcry because they didn't know who was in there, or which bones belonged to which

The windows and domed ceiling have archways of skulls, and the window boxes have smashed bits of skull set into the wall. The archways around the doorways are built from stacked up femurs. It is really bizzare, imagining these monks heading & robbing graveyards of their inhabitants.

Visited the temple of Diana. Passed on the Evora Cathedral, despite it being recommended by the blase tourist office and the Lonley Planet. Revisted the interior of St Francis Church (the non bony bit) after Siesta, and then it was time to head back to Lisbon and try on more shoes...

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Milan in 1.5 days

I had meant to spend more of my time in Italy. Didn't quite pan out that way, and instead it turned into a transit stop.

So, arrive into Milano Centrale S about 1700. Switch using the confusing metro to Line 3, and get into Missori station. When we went out to actually eat though, we found that all the Metro stations had shut down - they had been on strike earlier in the day, and it looks like that they went back just for peak hour, so it was lucky for us that we arrived in peak hour.

So, I got to experience the Italian metro on strike.

Eat some okay pizza a few streets from the Duomo, just to avoid the Duomo-tourist-hiked prices. Gelato for dessert, Pistachio and Limone. Yummo, that was the good stuff, 2 euro.

On Saturday, visited the roof of the Duomo. Pretty amazing - cannot believe that it took 600 years to build. I mean it is enormous, so I can believe that it took a long time, rather I can't believe that the project didn't stall somewhere along the way during those years. If your family was a family of stone masons, or sculpturers, it would take 8 generations or so over those 600 years. Wow.

Walked up the road to Il Castello. The little v-shaped battlements meant that the family that owned the castle was loyal to the emperor, rather than the church. Saw the slightly inclined shallow steps that were built purposefully so that the King didn't have to get out of his horse and carriage to go upstairs. Now I thought *I* was lazy!

Having run out of sights to do, we then went shopping. After all Milan is supposed to be the shopping capital of Italy. Went all around the Duomo area, and down Vittorie Emmanual Street. Sister bought a pair of Diesel jeans, about half of the retail price in Australia. I got some bronze ballet flats from Zara.

Because everyone in Italy eats so late, you get hungry around 7pm, which is the time I would idealy eat dinner. So to solve this, you head out to get apertivo, before actually eating your main meal. Milan is the capital of apertivo, and based on several recommendations, we headed to the other side of the park from the castle, to Banghre Bar.

6pm-9pm is happy hour, where if you buy a drink for 6euro, you get an all you can eat buffet of pasta, rice and cous couse salads. Also pappadums, and some rich omlette kinds of things. I got an 'indian passion'. Can't remember all the ingredients, but passionfruit alcohol, passionfrut pulp, grapefruit juice and tonic water are what I can remember. Delicious!

Got Gelato. I like Pistachio. Browsed a set of aerial photos of Italy displayed along Via Dante. I think that was really my tour of Italy.

On our last day, got more gelato just before we left for the airport. Didn't get pistachio this time, although I think Pistachio & Chocolate Brasiliano would be a winning combo.

Spent 2 hours waiting at Malpensa Airport because the flight was delayed due to high winds at Naples.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Yay, Slovenia!

World-wide traveller of the well-worn Lonely Planet path in Slovenia
(TM), I have decided that Slovenia is my favourite country so far.

I *like* Slovenia. I like Ljubljana, with its flat and even
cobblestone streets based around the river. I like the river that runs
through Ljubljana. I like the fruit and vegetable markets that run
every Monday to Saturday, and I like the underground (well, mostly)
delis and butchers, fromagieres, bakers and olive sellers that lurk
nearby. I like the organic fruit and vegetable market that also turns
up nearby, and the guy who bakes fresh rolls in an oven on a trailer
in the square outside.

Bled, which I wasn't too sure about originally because of the ugliness
of its toursit hotels on the lake, I don't mind. Despite the
unfortunate name of its 5 star hotel on the water - Hotel Toplice.
When the mountain decide to unveil itself on our last day, I think
Bled won me over.

Bohinj Valley, the view was spectacular. It is the base area for all
those high adrenaline kind of activites that I like. It was incredibly
annoying then, that I had slammed my finger in the door of the
Ljblijana hostel, and I couldn't go mtb-ing, or canyoning or climbing.

I did have a bit of a clamber (soloing) on a bit of rock whilst
walking around Lake Bohinj, long fingernails, crushed finger and all.
But it wasn't quite the same.

Slovenia Rocks!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Bled, Bohinj Valley and the Julian Alps

I have been staying in Bled, which is about 30mins outside of Ljubljana. This is the area where the locals leave the city in droves every weekend, and come out to climb, canyon, paraglide, or adventure sport of some kind. I have to say - I like the Bohinj and Julian Alps area a lot more than I like Bled! I suppose Bled has more infrastructure, but the Alps *wow*.

(Of course, this morning, when I was about to leave Bled, the weather cleared, and the mountain behind the castle, which I have only ever been able to make out a faint bit of the slope turned on all its glory. I could actually see the summit. I like Bled now. I'm shallow like that.)

Went to Bohinj yesterday by bus, one of the accessways into the Julian Alps, and it was amazing. We were following the Lonely Planet guidebook, so from when the bus dropped us off, we walked up a local hill 'Peč', for what the book called a picture postcard view.

And the view was amazing, it was so beautiful; even the walk through a rainy damp forest was beautiful. Lots of limestone around, and little sinkholes in the ground. I think that kind of terrain is called 'Karst'?

So yesterday and the day before, I spent walking around lakes. Lake Bled two mornings ago, followed by a local speciality, a cream and custard slice - then to walk that one off, I walked up to the castle. There was a bit of a pergola there, so had lunch, then sat like a little old granny, with my pashmina wrapped around me and admired the view whilst listening to music.

So yesterday, I walked up Peč hill (about 2.5 hrs return), then around Lake Bohinj, with a pause to ride the cable car to the top, have lunch, and walk around. It cost 10 euro return, but the view up there was so amazing, I think it was worth it. Walked the pretty side of the lake after we came back down, and were walking really really fast near the end, because we were trying to make to 18.50 bus back to Bled. If we had missed that one, it would've meant an hour wait in the dark, and that would have sucked.

I want to come back to Vogel in the wintertime to ski! (I know, Japan is closer to Australia, and less of a time difference, but Japan doesn't have the Julian Alps!)

Of course, we ate off all the hard work of walking around the lakes, by having a big dinner at the end of it. I got the grilled trout 'trieste style' two nights ago, and it was so good, that I had it again last night. Plus a side dish of roast potatoes (so crunchy, I'm sure that there was some frying involved). Fantastic!

Monday, October 02, 2006

Dark Chocolate with Orange Pieces Index

I'm sure you've heard of The Economist's 'Big Mac index', where the cost of living between countries is compared by comparing the price of a homogenous product, that is pretty much prevalent everywhere.

So! I have a serious addiction to Lindt's 'intense orange' dark chocolate (100g), with crystalline orange bits, and almond slivers. About 55% Cocoa solids of heaven. Here is my chocolate tour of Europe...

Lindt's 'intense orange' dark chocolate (100g), approx 4AUD. The bar has been set!

Freia (made by Kraft), Dark Chocolate with Raspberry
(withdrawal symptoms hadn't set in yet, obviously). About 16 Kroner, I think the Orange version was 18 kroner. Div by 4, so equivalent to 4AUD. Chocolate was drier, less sugar (and less proper cacao?). Raspberry was so-so. Can't vouch for the orange one. Didn't seem to really melt in the hand.

Lindt Espresso dark chocolate. I was dying for caffiene. Very melty with instant coffee granules. Dare I say, 'yum'?

1. Kras brand (Croatian), Dark Chocolate with Orange. The orange bits weren't crystalline, and there was no almond. Disappointing. 17 Kuna.
2. Lindt has been spotted! Admittedly in Rovinj, in a small supermarket near the bus station. 26 Kuna, so 6.50AUD. Ouch.
3. Swiss Delice, Limon with black pepper. Has the low body temp melting point (Cocoa solids of 50%). Tastes like dark chocolate with lemon wizz fizz, with a sometimes mild pepper aftertaste. 23 kuna, just short of 6AUD.

1. Villars (Swiss) dark chocolate with coffee. Minimum 50% cocoa solids, with 8% coffee 'crispies', 14% of which is instant coffee. I'm awaiting the demise of the lemon wizz fizz before I start this one. (Later note: Chocolate isn't too bad. Reminds me of the Haigh's coffee block. Will be splurging the last of our tolar on a second block).
2. Lindt Intense Orange spotted in the largest supermarket in Ljubljana old town for 1.73 euro, 3.46AUD.

Italy (Milan):
Spotted some 70% dark chocolate for 1.37euro in the tiny supermarket near Missori.

1. Some dark chocolate in a Mini Preco near Caise Sodre, Lisbon, cocoa content unknown, spotted for 59 euro cents.
2. Dark chocolate, 76% cocoa fat, 1.49euro. Can't remember the brand. Me picking it up & putting it back on the shelf prompted someone to buy it. Oooh!