Friday, 16 May 2008

Barcelona Part I

Yah, it looks like blogger is back online so I do get to put up some of my Barcelona stuff after all, though I really should be going to bed as I'm going to have to get up at 5:30am tomorrow morning to catch my train. No sprinting through train stations for me this time!

I headed off to Barcelona for the May Day long weekend, along with half of France, so as you can appreciate a long weekend corresponds to a long blog entry. So instead I'm going to break this post up into a few entries, it's just too long for me to write all at once.

The photo to the left is the view over Barcelona from Mount Tibidabo.

I really loved Barcelona, it was my first trip to Spain and all I can say is if the rest of the country is like Barcelona why the hell aren't all Europeans living there! It's like the Australia of Europe, and you can't get a much bigger compliment than that :), except that you actually have a sense of history there, as opposed to Australia. The weather is fantastic, the people seem relaxed and friendly, they have a beach and all these massive parks, and wilderness too, not these fussy English gardens you get in Paris and you are allowed to sit on the grass in these fussy English gardens. What more can you want!

I found the Spanish weren't as freaky with their language either, I've had a few bad experiences recently with the French and them refusing to understand me. Yes I know I get my conjugations wrong sometimes and I have a bad accent but I find it hard to believe that that means you are completely incapable of understanding me at all. When I'm calling a hotel there are only a certain number of things I'll be asking so which one does my French sound closest too?

I think the only possible excuse or reason for that behaviour is that perhaps the French are not so used to hearing French spoken with an accent. I know that it can take a little while to get used to how different language speakers sound when they are speaking your language and granted English speakers probably are a lot more used to hearing English spoken with an accent then other countries. But still, it seems like the French want people to speak French, they are trying to protect their language after all.

The latest furore in France was that their Eurovision contestant's song was pretty much entirely in English, you have a better chance of winning if that's the case. So the French culture minister was talking about how the French need to protect their language and that this contestant shouldn't have been chosen to represent their country.

You would think that in this climate of wanting people to speak French that if someone was really trying to make a good go of speaking it you would try your best to encourage them. But no, some people prefer to grind your fledgling confidence into the ground rather than to bother trying to understand you.

The Spanish I found were fantastic with their language, they speak a lot less English than the French, but that never seemed to be a problem, they always seemed to want to communicate with you so you could find ways around it. Perhaps they don't get as many English-speaking tourists here and so are not yet completely jaded by our arrogance, I suppose give it time and they will roll their eyes with the best of the French. Sometimes I would try with French words just to try and have a guess, because their languages seemed to be so insanely similar, and instead of looking at me in a fit of incomprehension they would understand that I wanted a bag or a sandwich or something, point to it and say the word in Spanish. Now that's how you encourage foreigners to speak your language! It was totally awesome.

The other little language/culture point that I loved was how you were greeted everytime you walked into a shop. In France it is always bonjour (good day) which I think is nice that they take the time to greet you, but it is rather formal. Whilst in Spain it was always "hola", in a shop or out in the countryside. The Spanish also have a good day word but they use this instead. It always gave me the feeling of "I would love to get down and party with you, but I would just need to get to know you a little better first" rather than the more formal "bonjour" where you know everything is just a business transaction.

Their metros were pretty cool too, I'm certainly turning into a bit of a public transport connoisseur over here. The first thing that struck me was the train both to and from the airport was free! Yes, free. That's just crazy. Every city seems to have realised that the trip to and from the airport is both their first and last chances to stick it to the tourists, and usually they take full use of it with crazily inflated metro prices. In Paris for example it is usually about 4 euros to go from the centre of Paris to the furthest zone, zone 5. But if you happen to be travelling to the airport, also in zone 5 and not that much further than the last suburb on the line, than it is at least 8 euros. Orly airport is really awesome for that too, this is the second main airport and is actually closer to Paris than Charles de Gaulle. But the only way to connect with the suburban metro line is by taking their special Orlyval metro service. And I'm not kidding, for a 6 minute trip, one stop only, it's more than 7 euros! So when you get off the plane at Barcelona, expecting to pay at least 5 euros to get into town, and instead there is a conductor standing there giving out tickets, it's a pretty nice feeling. Even if you were going to buy the ticket it is only 2.60 euros, that's just insanely cheap for a trip to an airport. In fact the whole metro service was incredibly cheap, sure it's not as comprehensive as Paris, but for 0.76 euros for each trip I'm willing to walk a little further.

The other cool thing was their clocks they had on each station platform that would count down to the second when the next train was going to arrive, and it always came in about 20 seconds before the time, you then had 20 seconds to get on or off, and then it was off again, pretty much always on time.

They also have projectors and sound systems on their platforms, true they are only ever showing ads and have one of the biggest chains I have ever seen locking the thing down, but it still implies that they mustn't get too much trouble on the metros. Which is a bit funny, as before I left I did a bit of reading on Barcelona and I found all these web sites saying beware of the pickpockets and bag snatchers. And they all felt it necessary to give their top 10 tips on to how to avoid getting your stuff stolen. So that certainly freaked me out a little before I left. I had these visions of being on the metro and the only people are either tourists or bag snatchers, and that the bag snatchers would be all glancing shiftily around just waiting for their chance to grab your stuff and run. Or that they would slice your bag open and steal your stuff from inside. Seriously though, I never had even a hint of a problem.

Maybe it's because I travel alone, and most tourists travel in groups, plus I have cultivated a pretty good public transport, "don't come near me, I'm really not interested" face. Unfortunately because of all these horror stories I read I didn't take my iPod, which is normally a complete necessity, especially if the trip involves any sort of public transport, as I thought I really didn't want to get that stolen. But then it turned out it would have been completely normal and fine to take it. Oh well, I'll know for next time to take people's paranoia with a grain of salt. Obviously you have to be careful, but then I don't have any wealth to obviously flaunt, even my iPod, my one luxury, is about 3 years old, and is one of those massive minis, that really aren't so mini anymore. I mean it doesn't even have a colour screen.

What was obvious though of the other people around the place, was who were the tourists and in particular which ones had read the same websites as me. One of the number 1 tips was to wear your backpack on your front. So any one you saw doing that may as well have been carrying a massive sign saying "rob me, I'm most definitely a tourist".

My first task once I arrived in Barcelona and had dropped off my bag, which no I didn't wear strapped to my front, was to take advantage of the first glorious sunny day I had seen since I was last in Australia, seriously not a cloud in the sky, just that wonderful clear blue. I just had to spend it outdoors, so it was off to the north of the city to the Parc de Collserola, though it's not really a park, but more in line with the nature reserves they have in Canberra, massive areas of bush with tracks running through them. And it was real bush in Barcelona too, not forests, but good Aussie-style bush.

In the middle of this "park" is Mount Tibidabo which has an amusement park at the top (which is the strange castle-esque thing in the photo above) as well as a massive mobile phone/satellite dish, as shown in the photo above that (kind of like Telstra Tower in Canberra). It felt a bit strange to see these really obvious signs of humanity in what felt like nature. There were heaps of runners and mountain bikers around as well as just run-of-the-mill walkers like me, it would have been an awesome place to go for a really long ride, but I don't have a bike with me.

After wandering around this park for ages it was time to move on and so I crossed to the other side of the city to check out the Parc de Montjuic. This was another really big hill, on the south side of the city though, they held the Olympics here in 1992 and so there is the big stadium and some other weird pseudo-art stuff on the very top of the hill. The view in the photo to the left is Barcelona looking back towards Mount Tibidabo and in the foreground is the Magic Fountain of Montjuic, I didn't see any magic though.

The first thing you notice when you get to this place is the National Museum of Catalunya art which is housed in what looks like a massive palace. Unfortunately the day I went there was the 1st of May (May Day) and along with Christmas and New Years was one of the only days it is closed during the whole year. May Day is a very important holiday still in Europe, perhaps not so much in England, what with the union busting they've been doing over there. So I couldn't go into what is considered the "finest art museum in Spain". Instead I went for another wander around this massive park.

Yes those are escalators, they go all the way up from the street level, past the art gallery to the top of the hill where the Olympic stadium is. It's pretty funny that they built these escalators for the Olympic games (I'm assuming) so that the spectators wouldn't have to do any physical exertion in order to watch athletes at the peak of their physical fitness.

And here it is, the Olympic stadium!

This park was more of a formal garden, at least in parts, and overall it was certainly less wild than the Mount Tibidabo park, with a lot more roads all over the place here as well. There were a lot of really formal gardens with the obligatory European massive fences around them. Perhaps they have problems with gypsies setting up camps in Spain as well. These massive fences are really annoying, especially if you are a pedestrian, as there were only ever 2 entrances and so unless you knew where they were you were forced to walk along the road next to the park instead of inside it where you really wanted to be. All you could do was look through the fence at everyone else enjoying the flowers and grass and shade while you had the bitumen and the cars. I really don't understand why they can't change the law so that people can't just camp anywhere, I mean that right is surely not enshrined in their constitution is it?

I eventually came across the Barcelona botanical gardens, which really has to be one of the better botanical gardens I've been too. It had all the plants from the world which also had a Mediterranean climate, so there was Australia (yah!), South Africa, Chile, Spain, Canary Islands and a whole stack of others. I'm not sure if it was a Mediterranean climate or rather just semi-arid, or maybe that's what a Mediterranean climate is. It wasn't a very big garden, everything was really compact, but that meant there was no wasted grassy areas, but rather every plant in there was some freaky thing from somewhere round the world, and there were some pretty strange plants in there.

A little pond at the entrance to the botanic gardens.

Looking over the botanic gardens, which of course was also built on the hill, but it was nice and compact. Easy to see all the strange plants.

Like this freaky tree. What's this doing in Spain?

My obligatory single colour flower shot

These win the prize for strangest plant there. They were like sunflowers gone wrong, sunflowers in that their heads all followed the sun, gone wrong because they looked like a cross between an artichoke and a rose.

After the botanic gardens I continued my wander around this massive nature reserve, it was strange how much space they seemed to have in Barcelona for all this greenery. It has a population of almost 2 million people and instead of spreading out like they do in Australia, into these cities with some of the worst urban sprawl in the world, they all live in big apartment blocks and so have space for these nature reserves. Another bonus of them all living on top of each other is that they have effective public transport with metros leaving once every 3 or 4 minutes in the non-peak times.

After wandering around for a good while I eventually made it to the Castle Montjuic, this was not as impressive as what I thought it was going to be. The ramparts were not particularly big, but then I guess the fact that it is built on a 170m tall cliff probably helped in the defense aspect.

The not so big ramparts and some of Barcelona in the photo to the left.

View of Barcelona and the port from the castle.

The coolest thing about the castle is how you get down to the city from here, it's via cable car which gives you a fantastic view of Barcelona. It did freak me out a bit, it travels quite fast and is a looong way from the ground and as you are travelling down you are thinking about all the terrible cable car accidents you remember seeing in the news. Though looking at google now, the one recent accident I was remembering, in Austria, occured because a helicoptor dropped a massive concrete block onto the cable, so not really a fault of the cable car. But I've never liked the moment when the cable car has to travel over the poles when it makes that scary clunking sound. I knew that the next day I was going to Montserrat too, and was going to have a 15 minute cable car ride up the mountain and I was thinking "why didn't I choose the rack railway!". But I survived my brief 5 minute journey and enjoyed the view.

Check out this sandwich I got in Barcelona, pretty boring right, but how many slices of bread are there in what you think is two sandwiches? Pretty much all the sandwiches were made this way, a new take on the old tuna salad sandwich.

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