So….Cruise vs DIY?

So did we do it better than taking a cruise?

Well, if you take out having to lug our suitcases everywhere, on and off trains, to and from airports and up and down all the steps we ended up having to navigate, then we obviously would have had a better time of it on a cruise.

BUT, we were able to immerse ourselves a lot more in the cities we stayed in and this, to me, is invaluable.  We were under no time constraints when it came to most of the things we wanted to see and do (unless it was those imposed by ourselves when we chose to do guided tours).  It was particularly lovely in spots like Venice and Capri to enjoy the place once all the day trippers had left.  We ate what we wanted, where we wanted and when we wanted.  We could stop when and where we wanted.  We got to use all sorts of public transport and we got out of the cities too.  We saw so many more countries and sights on our itinerary than if we had been on a cruise.  And there’s nothing like staying in a place for a few nights to get into its groove.

I loved the fresh markets we came across – being able to buy and cook with fresh local produce was a great experience, not to mention being able to interact with the locals.

I’m not saying don’t go on a cruise, they definitely have their place and there are people who absolutely adore cruising, but for us and the way we travel, d.i.y is the way to go.  Maybe just with less luggage next time….

The main thing I learnt out of this trip was that while it was great to tick off some of the major icons of the world, I actually much prefer going to a place that is quieter and where you can appreciate it for being itself.  I much preferred Barcelona and Lisbon over Paris and Florence.  Those flag carrying big tour groups were so annoying and I got so sick of being harrassed by people trying to hawk me stuff whenever I came near a popular sight.  I hated having to line up for everything, although to be honest, we didn’t have to do very much of that, we just moved on if there was a huge queue.

Where would I go back to?  Lisbon and Barcelona.  For sure.

I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to my Laos trip in November.  Even more so, because I know it will be a much more intimate experience.

If you’re interested in any of the facts from our trip, here they are:

We stayed with:

Parkroyal on Pickering, Chinatown/CBD, Singapore

Citadines La Ramblas, La Ramblas, Barcelona

Hotel Convento do Salvador, Alfama, Lisbon

Villa Montmartre, Montmartre, Paris

Citadines Lyon Presquile, Lyon

Chateau de Trigance, Trigance

Private Residence (AirBNB), Vieille Ville, Nice

Locanda Ca’Amadi, Cannaregio,Venice

Villa Il Mosaico, Florence

B&B Antico Monastero di Anacapri, Anacapri, Capri

Casa Di Eddy, Termini Station, Rome

We flew with:

Singapore Airlines Perth to Barcelona and from Rome to Perth

TAP Airlines from Barcelona to Lisbon and from Lisbon to Paris

HOP Airlines from Nice to Venice

We took trains between all other cities, a waterbus in Venice and the high speed ferry between Naples and Capri

We drove with:

Sixt (between Aix en Provence and Nice)

We bought these city cards to help save us money – they included free public transport:

Lyon City Card

Lisboa Card

Roma Pass

We used these tour companies (everything else we did ourselves):

Urban Adventures in Barcelona (Tapas Walking Tour)

France Tourisme in Paris (Versailles)

Tour Azur in Nice (Monaco Evening Trip)

Florencetown in Florence (Pizza and Gelato Making)

Dark Rome in Rome (Vatican Tour)

Coop Culture in Rome (Domus Aurea)

If you have any questions about our trip though, please ask me!

The Brilliant Madness of Mr Gaudi

I’ve wanted to see La Sagrada Familia from the moment I first saw photos, taken by an old boss of mine.  Of course, at the time, I had no idea that I would be doing so much travelling, or that I would ever in deed EVER make it to Spain.  So it feels wonderfully remarkable to be standing in front of this amazing piece of architecture, about to go inside, a piece of dream coming true.

I am posting only one photo here because La Sagrada deserves more than that, so a photo gallery will follow on the Facebook site afterwards.

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Every piece of this church design means something from the pinnacles covered in fruit which symbolize the seasons of the year, to the spires of the temple shaped like cypress trees – the cypress being the ancient symbol of eternity.  There is incredible detail everywhere you look, and you could look forever and probably still miss something.

Buiding of the original La Sagrada Familia – a building designed by architect Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano – began in 1882.  However after disagreements with the promoters, Francisco resigned and the task fell to Antoni Gaudi.  He continued work on the crypt, completed in 1889 and after receiving a substantial donation, Gaudi proposed a much grander design for the church.  Construction of the foundation for the nativity facade commenced in 1892 and further design concepts were continued after that.  Gaudi only lived to see construction of the first nativity tower, finished in 1925.  He died in 1926 after being knocked down by a tram.

This incredible church is expected to be finished by 2026.  My 10 year old niece, who thinks this church is every bit as amazing as I do, is already making plans to see it when it’s finished, where she proudly informed me that I would be only 50 years old then and definitely not too old to travel back to Barcelona with her to see it completed.  Thank you Lola.

Eighteen towers have been planned for the Basilica and of these, eight have been completed. – four on the Nativity façade and four on the Passion façade.  The facades are not joined and have separate access points, only accessible by lift.  We splurged on tickets to travel up inside one of them today to get, what is supposed to be an incredible view of the city of Barcelona – the tower on the Nativity side has views over the east of Barcelona and those on the Passion façade face the city centre.  If you are interested in seeing how they were built, check this out:

Yet another Gaudi creation, Casa Batllo, was built in the early 1900’s at the request of textile industrialist Josep Batllo.  It would appear Gaudi was given complete artistic freedom to transform a once sombre looking building, into the magical façade that stands on the site today.  The Batllo family’s main home was on the ground floor.

It’s unfortunate that they let too many people in to Casa Batllo at once.  You can’t take any decent photos, you can can’t get around properly and I have to say you can’t really enjoy the home which is a shame.  This is probably the first time I have said – enjoy the photos from home and visit another site instead.

In the evening we join an Urban Adventures tour for a tapas en el barrio tour.  We meet our guide Dago in front of the Art Centre Santa Monica at the bottom of the Ramblas, and as seems to be the way with me, we are lucky to be the only two guests on the tour.  He is quietly spoken with a broad grin that spreads across his face.

First up Dago shows us a relic that most people travelling along La Ramblas would easily overlook – one part of the old medieval city wall remaining inside a traffic underpass.  These are the great things you don’t see unless you have the guidance of a local and something that adds an extra dimension to your travels.

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Heading away from the touristy Ramblas, we head into some of the local neighbourhoods, like the once notorious no-go-area Raval.  These days the area features a mix of new architectural projects with the traditional, multi-ethnic life of the barrio.  This is where we have our first taste of tapas – battered zucchini straws with a honey sauce and a ham croquetta.

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The next tapas bar awaits us and we navigate our way through a labyrinth of small streets, past Palau Guell – another Gaudi/Guell creation, before moving on to our next few locations.  At each, we sample different tapas dishes washed down with wine, until we come to the final place – a Vermuteria, where we finish off with a nice vermut (vermouth).

 We pass through the neighbourhood of Poble Sec and cross Parallel (once known for its Montmartre-style entertainment and still cluttered with theatres, music venues, and cabarets, all the while discussing typical life in Barelona with Dago.  It’s a great way to end our time in Barcelona and something I would recommend anyone who visits to do.

Jamon and Flamenco

In our little apartment we have a two burner stove top and a microwave – it’s not a lot to work with but if Luke Nguyen can travel the world whipping up gourmet meals on a gas burner lit wok, then I’m sure we can make this work.  For our first breakfast we cook up an omelette using the fresh mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese and eggs we bought from the market and it tastes pretty damn good.  It’ll also keep us full for the morning ahead.

Antoni Gaudi was born a sickly child in 1852.  Perhaps it was this childhood that launched the creative thoughts that would inspire Gaudi to create some of the most fantastical buildings in his later life.

It is said that about 90% of visitors to Barcelona, come to visit Gaudi’s buildings, which of course he must have foreseen when he said “One day all of the world will travel to Barcelona to see my work”.  Not half modest then, this Gaudi fellow.  But of course, it’s exactly one of the main reasons why I wanted to come here too.  The trouble is choosing which of the master’s buildings to fit into a three day visit without going Gaudi mad and getting to see other things in Barcelona!  No idea.

To experience some of Gaudi’s handiwork, we jumped aboard local bus number 24 from Plaza Catalunya to visit Park Guell.  Eusebi Guell was a wealthy entrepreneur who had made his money from the industrial revolution.  He had met and befriended Gaudi and become a great fan of his talent.  So when Guell came up with plans to create an estate for the weathy in the Gracia district of Barcelona, he called on Gaudi to create it.

Park Guell housed an entrance and porter’s lodge a nature theatre (created to hold open air shows), magnificent entrance and an incredible hypostyle room which was a covered space that could be used as a market for the estate.

The location of Park Guell, with it’s views over Barcelona and across to the sea, was incredible but the estate was a commercial failure with only two homes being completed within its boundaries.  It was too far from the centre of Barcelona and people just weren’t willing to make the move.  Guell’s heirs offered it to the Barcelona City Council upon his death and it was opened as a public park in 1926.

As I said before, there’s not enough time to fit in all of Gaudi’s incredible works, so a great way to do so without, well, doing so, is to visit the Gaudi 4D experience.  4D basically means that you watch a 3D movie presentation but with added effects such as wind, rain, lighting or vibration to enhance the movie and give you a ‘just like you were there’ kind of feeling. The experience explains the inspiration behind designs of Gaudi’s most visited sites.

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Our so not cool 3D glasses

Back at our hotel for a simple lunch of toasted bread with chorizo, tomato and melted cheese, we discover that our hotel has a rooftop solarium.  So off we go to discover it.  The views of Barcelona from here are gorgeous.  You can see everything from the peaks of La Sagrada Familia to the treetops of the Ramblas and La Catedral nearby.

So, what’s to know about ham?  Lots apparently.  And that’s why we’ve ended up at the Jamon Experience.  Because you can never know too much about the finer things in life.  To be fair, jamon is not just ham.  Jamon comes from the black Iberian pig which is allowed to roam free in the fields during it’s fattening period.  The best jamon (Iberian Bellota) comes from those who feed on a diet of acorns (bellota).

We had come at the end of the day, last session in fact, because we were having such a great time enjoying the sun on our hotel rooftop that we totally forgot the time.  So it was clear they were ready to pack up.  We start with an multimedia display on how jamon is created.

Afterwards, we sit at a high table and go through the different types of jamon, tasting each along the way washed down with a couple of (small) glasses of wine.

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When in Rome….  Well, we aren’t in Rome.  We are in Barcelona, so the obvious thing that comes to mind when in Barcelona, or Spain in general, is a bit of flamenco.  We booked ourselves a table for a drink and a flamenco show at Flamenco Cordobes which, luckily for us, is right down the road (or should I say, the Ramblas?).

The tablao (place where the show is performed) is situated in the Ramblas.  Flamenco Cordrobes try to recreate the genuine atmosphere of a performance, meaning there is no more than 180 people gathered around the stage (just like a Flamenco family party), seated in simple wicker chairs in a room with a vaulted ceiling (like a cave) to let the sound reverberate around the room without the use of microphones.

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There is no script for the show, instead the music, singing and dance reflect life in general including stories of love and and loss.  It’s a lot more passionate than I expected and you can’t help but get into it. The guitarists are incredible.

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The star of the show would have to be the formidable Juan de Juan, who is considered one of the most important male dancers in recent years.  Although I don’t understand all his moves (there’s a lot of jacket holding and slapping very reminiscent of German dance), it’s clear the man has talent.  The show was incredible.

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Hola Barcelona!

Arriving in Barcelona, we board the Aerobus to Plaza de Catalunya (easy to find, easy to buy tickets, easy to get to your stop!), haul our luggage off and then take a short (4 minute) walk to our hotel for the next few nights. Our home in Barcelona is an apartment hotel where we can cook a little and get some washing done. Champagne lifestyle on a beer budget.

Situated right at the top of La Rambla, we couldn’t be any closer to the action.  This 1.2km stretch of road slash pedestrian walkway links Plaza de Catalunya with the Christopher Colombus Monument near the port.  Its filled with vendors selling souvenirs, plants and flowers and snacks – including tapas and sangria.

One benefit of staying on Las Ramblas, is that we are only a stone’s throw away from Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. And given we can’t check into our hotel room yet, what better way to spend the next couple of hours than to explore the Gothic Quarter.

The architecture in this quarter is just stunning – almost baroque styled stencilled tiles, elaborate balconies and shuttered windows – there are loads of little alleys just begging to be explored.

At the end of Calle de Portaferrissa is the square where La Catedral looms.

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The alleys surrounding the church are filled with beautiful nooks to explore.

Not far from our hotel, is the Mercado de la Boqueria, where you can find all sorts of  foods, fresh and cooked.  Here, we stocked up on  groceries for the next few days, but as well as fresh fruit, vegetables and meats, you can buy fresh juices and massive chocolate covered strawberries or stop  for a meal at one of the small pinxos or tapas bars that dot the grounds.

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The monument was the result of a design competition after the government decided to erect a tribute to Christopher Colombus in 1881.  Colombus disembarked here upon returning from his epic sail to the Americas.  The winning design was presented by Gaieta Buhiga.

Our ticket includes a ride to the top of the monument – yes you can actually ride that skinny looking column to the top – and a glass of wine. Inside the monument is a gift shop and information on Barcelona’s wine regions.

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 To get to the top of the monument you have to line up to wait your turn for the lift.  The space at the top of the monument is small, allowing only a handful of people at a time, but once you reach the top, you are afforded the best views in town.

Time to go home and cook up some of that gorgeous produce!