A Travellerspoint blog

Epoca dorada

Barcelona, Spain

sunny 31 °C

Ah, Barcelona is a lurid and showy mistress. She demands your attention and awe, she refuses to sleep until she's had her fill. And such an enormous appetite this city has once she's poked in the side.
Barcelona snoozes while the sun is full, and rolls out of bed at 8pm. But then she wants you wide-eyed, she demands that you're dancing, forces drinks down your throat and music into your eardrums. We spent a wonderful week in Barca feeling like a mixed bag- locals in our sleeping and eating habits (both sloth-like), tourists in our rushing off to the city's killer list of attractions. It's much too difficult to detail the week in full so I've compiled my highlights! In no particular order (indicative of the Catalan culture, which has no real general order):

1) Our paella cooking class! We probably ate more than we learnt but I loved hearing about the history of paella from the chef. He told us that the word paella means 'cooking for her' because it is the dish traditionally made by local men at community events and public holidays. It absolutely blew mine out of the water and I can't wait to test the recipe when I get home. Except for the multitude of prawn heads.

2) The neighbourhood of Gracia. This is where we stayed and we were lucky enough to be there right in the middle of their annual festival. Each street has a nominated day to put on entertainment and decorations, and being crowned the winning street is a big honour for them. We went to watch a traditional Spanish band one night down our street. The locals LOVE to dance, it is definitely not just for girls. I really enjoyed the drumming troupes, until it was 4am and I wanted to sleep. It was really cool to go to sleep with the adjoining streets decorated one way, and waking to a new paper-mâché world the next morning.

3) La Barceloneta. This is the old fishing district which has been transformed into this seaside hub of bars, museums and a man-made beach. I loved laying on the albeit cigarette-littered sand and watching tourists base themselves in tanning oil and having seedy hawkers prowl past, muttering 'Mojito, cerveza, one euro, one euro mojito, cerveza'. I was also struck by the similarity to Bali when I offered hair-braiding and a massage about three times per hour. While it is definitely not a beach you'd visit for its natural accolades, it is a fascinating melting pot of hung-over tourists, Spanish institutions and all the good and bad that comes with being a global city.

4) The Nou Camp, and FC Barcelona in general. If there is ever a city that loves its team, it's Barca. Kids shriek and point at signs featuring Messi, wearing a FCB jersey is considered formal wear and the merchandise stores are teeming with people from morning till night. Supporting Barcelona has a this deep political context because of the oppression of Catalan culture during Franco's reign, and the club puts great effort and pride into bolstering the solidarity and independence of the Catalan people. I was really touched by their investment in educational initiatives and social inclusion programs when we visited the stadium. When I wasn't having to take 3,000 photos of Hodge.

5) The Sagrada Familia. It is daunting, unfinished but still ridiculous in size and detail, and looks like it has been melted by a laser beam. Put short, it is the most ludicrous and amazing building I have ever seen. Our photos will do it no justice but I really urge everyone to have a look online at its design and progress. It is scheduled for completion by 2026 but the local proclivity for siestas makes me doubt it.

6) Parque Guell. Another of Gaudi's bizarre masterpieces. This park was meant to be a housing estate but struggled with commercial viability, so Gaudi was commissioned to do what he liked with it. He essentially turned it into a huge public space for the people to use for events, socialising and recreation. But it is so much more than that. The Parque is like a demented fairytale, lined with gothic gingerbread houses and home to a very unique mosaic lizard. Gaudi based his work on nature, and never incorporated a straight line into his structures. Everything feels wonky, like you've stepped in front of a magic mirror at a circus.

7) We didn't get pickpocketed! Fifty points to Gryffindor! But seriously, Barca is the pickpocketing capital of Europe. There are more scams than you could come up with in a lifetime, ranging from 'how could you fall for that?' to 'wow that's genius'. But we were smart and live to fight another day (fist bumps all round).

8) The Magic Fountain. The fountain outside of the major arts and sports district goes haywire every night, putting on a spectacular show of colours and water projections. It's hard not to coo along with the kids in the crowd.

There's so much more I could say about Barcelona, but to put it simply: I would go back in a second.

Posted by gpontour 10:00 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Croissants and cobblestones

Avignon, France

semi-overcast 29 °C

Leaving Nice, we headed further along the South of France into the beautiful region of Provence to spend two nights in the little town of Avignon. Even though you could walk the entire town on a lazy morning, it is brimming with culture of every order- food, wine, art, dance, theatre. Avignon is so dedicated to its many passions that it is UNESCO listed for its contribution to the arts.

It was a gorgeous town to have a quick scintilla of. You know how you have those somewhat corny mental pictures of traditional French life, with families tottering off to the cinema, swooping into cafés to sip champagne and buy hard lollies for their children? Avignon may be the closest you can get if you are like me; deeply drawn to this culture but aware of the fact that your atrocious French skills pin a 'tourist' badge on your forehead. Hodge's elementary French is proving very useful while I am much more prone to the 'smile, point and hope for the best' manner of communication. The French are very particular about their language however so I am doing my best to be respectful and only speak English when I have to. I've managed to master the essentials:
"I want to go to this place", "A glass of red wine, please", and the always handy "Is there chocolate ice cream on my face?"
Hopefully I'll expand my portfolio beyond these but they are doing me well thus far. Well, except when we were attempting to communicate with the guy who we rented an apartment from, who kept telling us to enjoy Marseilles as we left, with us having no plans to visit there and less of a clue how he got that idea.

Avignon is actually a medieval town, completely encircled by thick stone walls and turrets. We had to walk through a crumbling marble archway each time we went into the town centre. The most fascinating feature of this design is the Pont d'Avignon bridge, which was seriously impressive in its heyday- it spanned nearly a kilometre and crossed two bodies of water. However, Hodge and I struggled to take in any history when we visited because of our mirth at its current state. After decades of war and decay, some important French guy ordered the bridge to be destroyed until the point of a chapel perched near its end; meaning that the bridge now leads about halfway across the Rhone river and abruptly stops. It is just so comical to look at a bridge that you can't cross, like some giant architectural paradox. Another cultural drawcard of the town is the old Palace of the Popes, the castle built for a Pope and his congregation who fled Italy to avoid the corruption of their age. Looking at the wealth of gold and gems encrusted in the cathedral made me wonder how genuine these concerns really were.

My favourite sight was from climbing the viewpoint over the Pont de Avignon, where we could see over the sandy walls and tile-thatched roofs to appreciate what a fertile and naturally rich part of the world we were in. There is something very calming about the sight of green fields rimming the lazy Rhone, like it has always looked that way and has no intention of changing. If we'd had a while longer I'd have liked to take a train out to the small villages nestled in those timeless valleys, to see the lavender fields and tiny estuaries. But it also made me think of home, of the God's Country that I love, so close to my own backyard but neglected in my time and priorities. That is the double-edged nature of travel; learning the wonders of the great beyond but also coming to terms with the majesty of our own space that we often underestimate as commonplace and pedestrian. I won't forsake things or take them for granted when I come home.

Posted by gpontour 09:55 Archived in France Comments (0)

Oh yeah, Noice

Nice, France & Monaco

sunny 28 °C

If someone gave me a lot of time, space and an open chequebook, tasked me with designing a city, and promised to look after it, I think I would come up with something very close to Nice. I just adored Nice. So sexy, but in a charismatic, friendly kind of way like. Like when you put on a dress, smile at yourself in the mirror and think, "Hmm, I am set for a good day". You are just set for a lovely day in Nice without even really trying. It's somewhat effortless to enjoy yourself.

We stayed in an apartment on the Avenue Jean Medicin, which is the shopping heart of town, consisting of flashy fashion brands and less reputable take-away stores. From our balcony we could sip espresso and watch people heading off to work, play and everything in between. You're never really sure, it's a place so full of promise and possibilities. The people there seem so comfortable with simply enjoying life. If you follow the street far enough, after ducking and weaving from buskers, bizarre art instalments and a very unpredictable fountain (it shoots water), you have two main outlets to dabble with.

You can wander over to the beach, which can be found by crossing the Promenade de Anglais. By dusk, the promenade is bustling with some very talented roller skaters, children enjoying ice cream as they retire from the beach, and the sound of music floating in from clubs and bars that are only just waking up from the night before. We braved the beach twice, and have the bruises to tell the tale. You basically need hiking shoes to cross the pebbled shore painlessly, but the water is worth it. The ocean is so salty that close to the shore it is hard not to float. It could possibly be the amount of food I'm consuming that helped the floating but I'm going to blame the salt.

If you aren't a sea-sider, you could instead venture into the Old Town, a maze of cobbled alleys and squares now home to countless eateries, drinkeries, ice-creameries, all things good by moonlight. A worthwhile tip for anyone visiting Nice is to find Fenocchio's, a glacier with 101 bizarre flavours, including beer, chilli-chocolate, red pepper, violet and cactus. Needless to say, I was a frequent customer over our three nights there.

We also made a day trip into Monaco, the second smallest country in the world. To become a citizen, a Monagasque, you have to pay a one-million Euro application fee, and the Prince can reject you without providing any reason why. So why does everyone keep trying to live there? It's completely tax-free, the revenue of the Monte Carlo Casino funds the public purse and all its needs. Yes, Robin Hood on a grand, glamorous and slightly revolting scale. Hodge was counting his pennies towards applying for citizenship after seeing the flashy boats lining the harbour, but was quickly deterred after learning that Monagasques are forbidden from gambling at the casino, mumbling under his breath that he didn't see the point.

Even if I wasn't responsible for Nice's design, I'd like to applaud whoever or whatever is. They have bestowed me with fresh fantasies of myself cruising along the French Riviera in a convertible, the air thick with the smell of Yves Saint Laurent, lavender and salt as I drop in upon the white-washed coastal towns. Nice est exquisite.

Posted by gpontour 09:52 Archived in France Comments (0)

Milan, with a chance of bedbugs

Milan, Italy

View 2014 European Busabout Adventure on Hodgeontour's travel map.

Milan is the fashion capital of the world. It's the sort of place where you imagine the Beckhams, Miranda Kerr etc rubbing shoulders with other high profile 'fashionistas' at the launch of the new Gucci range or something like that. Our bus drove down an adjoining street laden with sex workers before leaving us at a youth hostel on the edge of town. Brilliant. The check-in was relatively seamless, the highlight being examining old photos of the hostel whilst we were lining up. Yep, we were about to stay in a former psychiatric hospital. Double brilliant. It was less than desirable, however; it was only for two nights, how bad could it be?

Although the check-in went quickly, we still had to wait a few hours for our room. The hostel rooms were inaccessible between 10am and 3pm for cleaning. When we finally retired to our room both travel weary and excited at the prospect of a private room after a week of dorms, we were greeted with inspiration. I am not referring to the inspiration drawn from the dull and lifeless colours of a former psychiatric hospital, but the inspiration to change careers and become a cleaner. No, but I'm being serious here, how good would it be to get 5hrs pay to do absolutely nothing? The sheets were dirty, raising concerns of bed bugs (we somehow emerged unscathed), the room was full of mosquitoes (actually the entire hostel was) and a broken door handle laid haphazardly on the floor. I know what you're thinking... this is where you will stay when you visit Milan! But wait.... There's more! The aforementioned door handle belonged to a door which led out to a wrap-around balcony of the entire hostel. There were no barriers between each room which meant that not only could you walk around and see inside everyone's rooms, but with ours, people could enter from the outside and we were unable to lock it. To add to our heightened sense of privacy and security (the main reason we upgraded to the private room), the little square window in every single door of the former mental institution meant that at all times, we could be seen from the hallway.

I sincerely apologise for the sardonic nature of the previous paragraph, it really wasn't that bad once we laid on our beds in which the springs constantly creaked and were eaten alive by mosquitoes.

Now I must digress from my tangent about the 'Hilton Hotel' (my apologies, this place bought out the sarcastic worst in me). Milan, fashion capital of the world. The central streets of the city made you feel ill at the glance of a price tag. Every big gun in the world of fashion, watches, jewellery etc had a boutique on each of these streets. The modernised nature of the city gives it a more hustle and bustle business district feel in comparison to other European cities we have visited. There was something quite pleasant about it though, unable to escape the grasps of Italian history with monuments scattered throughout and of course, the compulsory duomo. This duomo put its Orvieto, Siena and Florence counterparts to shame, boasting gothic architecture at its finest. We spent both evenings in Milan devouring our final Italian gelatos and marvelling at the epic nature of the building.

Our final sight in Milan was the San Siro Stadium, home of AC Milan and Inter Milan. Prior to the trip, this was one of my 'big 4' stadiums which I wanted to visited. It didn't disappoint. The road toward the stadium was long and bordered on one side by a large cement wall. The street art along here reflected passion for football and horse racing which is also nearby. We arrived early and were second in line when the gentleman in front of us only had large notes and wasn't able to pay for he and his son to get in because they had no change. We chipped in €1 so that the woman didn't have to worry about coins. She then thanked us for our generosity and said she'd 'make a scam' for us, allowing us to pass through with heavily discounted tickets for children under 5. Winner winner chicken dinner! The stadium tour and museum were well worth it, ticking off another thing off my sporting bucket list.

Overall, don't let this blog discourage you from visiting Milan. It has it's own distinct charm which separates it from other concrete jungles around the world. It's a place you could probably lead a 'Melbourne lifestyle' and if we had time to further get under the skin of this global city then I am sure it would have been worth while.

All in a days work for a backpacker in Europe!

Posted by Hodgeontour 09:26 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Where are we again?

Lake Como, Italy (and three million other stops)

sunny 29 °C

Bonjour, I mean Grazie, I mean.. How do I even pronounce that Swisse word?!

We have covered a lot of ground this last week-and-a-bit, and both feel like we've been lost in some strange vacuum where the language, food and cityscape keeps randomly moulding. In order to link up with the second part of our travel loops, we had to essentially do a huge U-turn through France, Italy, Switzerland, to Italy again. Mix in two backpackers desperate to clean their clothes, themselves and find accommodation in the meantime, and you have a recipe for complete disorientation. Being able to cross several national borders in a matter of days is an experience I will never again underestimate, and has given me a much greater sense of the enormity and relative homogeneity of Australia.

Yet, somewhere in this travelling vortex we discovered some incredible places, especially Lake Como.

Como is a perfect illustration of this fluid sense of locality and culture, nestled just beneath the Swiss border and a favourite holiday spot for German, French and Dutch families. The Lombardy region of Italy is known for being 'un-Italian', almost an antithesis to the roots of Tuscany and Liguria; it has a high concentration of wealth and the people are much more genteel. Trooping through town with a backpack definitely earned some curious looks from older couples in their polo shirts and pearls. Many have been coming to the Lake for years and are a little confounded by its change in demographics. Our hostel definitely felt like home though, based right on the water in the town of Menaggio. They cooked us dinner every night for a small price and we spent our nights chatting to the hostel's many characters, drinking cheap wine and playing chess while watching the chateaus glint across the water. The hills and mountains surrounding the lake are so different from the high country I am used to. The Australian bush has always seemed so opaque, dense, malformed and rugged. The mountains here are grand, but clear and well-defined; you can make out pines and boulders from miles away and see the outlines of churches and isolated homes perched upon the hill tops.

We scouted Bellagio by taking the ferry, which is a very glamorous and refined little town. For those playing at home, it looks nothing like the casino and the locals are virtually unaware that millions has been made from their home's namesake.
The ferry showed us that like many other places, the towns of Lake Como are best seen from the water. The water of the lake is so turquoise that it stings your eyes when the sun beams onto it, like some strange ethereal halo. We rented a double-kayak on our last day and paddled along to spy on the incredible homes of the other half. By paddled, I mean that Hodge feverishly slugged along while I happily took in the scenery and dipped in my oar when it occasionally took my fancy. He obviously was not happy with this arrangement. After ending up soaked from a series of oncoming waves, I failed to see the rogue boat which had caused them until I turned around and saw Hodge rocking the boat in protest of my laziness. Spoil sport. George Clooney would never do such a thing, but he continued to evade me.

The thing that comes to mind when I close my eyes and think of Como are these brilliant red flowers that are just abundant in the area- weeping out from pot plants, manicured around the path that surrounds the water, even swaying in vases kept on the locals' boats. I do not know their name, nor stopped to smell one, but find great pleasure in picturing their small little stature, so full of flair and dispute to their aquamarine home.

Aside from my love for George going still unsaid, a wonderful haze was had in Como.

Posted by gpontour 13:21 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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