Barcelona


August 2012

Authors: Chris Cameron and Julie Dawson

 

 

15th August 2012

 

We've been attending the Festa Major of Barcelona , La Merce, almost annually for the last decade and have said many times that we should try one of the more local festivals in the city. The Festa Major de Gracia is amongst the best known of these and takes place in the middle of August. Estimates suggest that it is visited each year by about 1.5 million people! By early July this year we’d got fed up of the constant dreary weather in the UK and worked out that we had leave to use up because we’d abandoned plans to go to Peru because of the price of flights so we booked Ryanair flights from East Midlands and five nights at the Silken San Gervasi hotel, which is a short distance from the Gracia district and started to research the festival.

Julie's Hackney Colliery Band t-shirt attracted comment again - this time from the driver of the shuttle bus that took us from the car park to EMA.

 

There was a fair bit of coal mining in this area up until the 1980s and the driver observed that there weren't many collieries in London but when we explained what it was about he became quite animated and told us that he had been in a brass band in the RAF and was definitely going to look them up.

The flight into East Midlands was rather late due to strong headwinds and we took off about 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time. A little time was made up en route which allowed Ryanair to play their fanfare and celebrate another flight on time, though they were certainly more than 15 minutes late. On time for them, perhaps but 15 minutes off our holiday.

A bit of useful (?) information:

When the programme is released, it should be found here ...

http://www.festamajordegracia.cat/ 

Technology changes, of course but for this year at least it was available in PDF format so relatively easy to print off and not too difficult to copy to you e-reader, Kindle etc.


It's in Catalan, not Spanish which might be not be a language that many readers familiar with. If you have some French or Spanish you might be alright. You could try an on-line translator but bear in mind that a fair amount of the content will be idiomatic and might not make sense when directly translated. It should be possible to find help with specific words/events on an on-line forum like, say, Tripadvisor where local people are regular contributors.

The programme for the Gracia festival is packed with events, some of them quite large scale and others, like neighbourhood lunches and suppers or street table-tennis or suduko competitions very local. We had selected several things that we wanted to attend and also noted that there is a large element of decorated streets (and balconies) that sounded unmissable but our first priority had been to get some 'lunch’ and a return to El Mon de Tapas (see September 2011) near Sants Station had been on the cards. As it is close to the station it had been our intention to buy one of the T-10 tickets at the airport station (10 journeys for less than €10) which can be used by several people at the same time if necessary and get the train but even though we were through the airport quickly (hand luggage only) we ditched this plan in favour of taking a taxi straight to the hotel.

Having unpacked we started the walk (downhill) to Gracia, via Casa Vicens, often described as the first major work by the architect who is inextricably linked with Barcelona, Antoni Gaudi. It’s a private house so only the exterior can be admired and even though it lacks the audacity of many of Gaudi’s later and more famous works it is still an exceptional building.

From Casa Vicens we made our way towards Placa del Sol and found the first of Gracia’s decorated balconies, a remarkable tribute to the sea with a large purple octopus, jellyfish and numerous other aquatic items. Almost everything used to make the decorated streets and balconies is made from recycled rubbish.

Placa del Sol looked lively and was set up to be Placa del Folk in the evenings, with a large stage in the middle but nearby Placa de la Vila de Gracia was where the afternoon’s and evening’s action promised to be and before long it was where we were too.

There were lots of people about. Placa de la Vila de Gracia is the Placa of the Castellers de la Vila de Gracia and they had taken responsibility for decorating the square using a circus theme, with a big top, a large elephant, acrobats, a ringmaster and may other touches. It was rather good.

With a little while to go before anything happened we grabbed a table from a departing Spanish couple outside the Café Euras.

 

A pair of Israeli tourists had the same idea so we came to a compromise and shared the table, there being plenty of chairs. We tried to order some food, it being late afternoon and us having had nothing for about 7 hours but were told that there wasn’t any. There clearly was and so we tried again to discover that there were tapas and sandwiches available, but no food. Good enough for us.

As we sat and took in the surroundings it became clear that preparations were being made for early evening activities. A space was cleared in the centre of the square and temporary barriers were put up to prevent people filling the space up again and more and more people started to arrive. The space between the cafes and restaurants around the square filled up rapidly. A PDF of the festival programme had been available on line for a couple of weeks but we had bought one from the Casteller's stand in the middle of the square and knew that a cercavila was due to arrive in Placa de la Vila de Gracia at 19:00 and evidence that this arade was getting underway was manifest because a variety of unusual object kept emerging from the councul offices (Seu de la Districte) on the south-east side of the square. We recognised a few including the Gegants and the Drac of Gracia and Gaudiamus, the huge representation of the lizard fountain near the main entrance to Parc Guell.

Carrer Mozart (there are a fair few 'arty' names in Gracia) leads off Placa de la Vila de Gracia and we could see from the cafe that it was heavily decorated so we risked losing our seats (we probably weren't going to get a view from the cafe anyway) and went for a look

 

There seemed to be a Tod Browning / circus theme going on, possibly based on the controversial 1932 movie "Freaks" with perhaps some elements of the lost film from 1927, "London after Midnight" and the street was very well dressed indeed. There were human cannonballs, a sinister individual by the ticket office, a gigantic bearded lady and all sorts of strangeness, combining to make a surreal environment that was getting a lot of attention from the hordes of visitors. There was a stage as well and any number of temporary bars offering beer and mojitos.

There were Trabucaires in the cercavila (Google them) and we'd started to hear loud bangs suggesting that they were mobile, so we made our way back to the square and found a reasonable place to stand with a good view of the cleared area. We didn't have long to wait before there was a bit of a commotion and we could see movement on Carrer de Diluvi. The crowds parted to reveal several riders on horseback who were distributing handfuls of sweets to anybody quick enough to catch them or collect them from the ground. This was quite popular with the littl'uns.

After the horses, the local castellers team, Castellers de la Vila de Gracia arrived, resplendent in their blue and white costumes and treated us to several different structures and moving towers. Although they didn't attempt any of their more challenging towers they did allow some members of the crowd to assist as they effortlessly reached for the sky.

There was an exciting performance from a group of drummers called, appropriately enough, KaBum and there were bastoners from several different districts, doing their complex dances involving hitting wooden batons together - hard - at great risk to fingers and probably more.

There were dances from the various gegants and cap grossos of Gracia and other areas that had been invited to participate, more drummers, more bastoners and for those who like it really noisy and scary, there were trabucaires, diables and bestjes.

Trabucaires are bad for the hearing. They wear traditional costumes and carry large muskets which they repeatedly charge with powder and discharge. The noise from one can be thunderous; from a group it can be painful. A lot of trabucaires were attending this cercavila. They arrived in small groups and each group entered the square and let of a round of shots into the air, causing shrieks from the smaller children (and some of the adults) and mini-stampedes in places where onlookers felt they were too close. Of course when they had all gathered they formed a big circle and did several rounds of single shots. The finished of by building a pile of gunpowder (I kid you not) in the middle of the square and everybody loading up and firing into the air at the same time, with a small group aiming their muskets at the gunpowder on the ground which of course went off with a huge flash and a massive ball of smoke. Splendid stuff. I was worried for the integrity of some of the older buildings around the square.

Next came the diables and the bestjes, specifically the Drac de Gracia and Gaudiamus, a monster that we have seen many times before and who is known for spectacular displays during the Correfoc of La Merce. Diables are local people dressed up as demons who take part in the various festivals of fire, such as correfocs that are so popular in Catalunya and as they filed into the square we knew we were in for a treat that would assail all the senses.

One interesting effect is that the firecrackers that the beasts and demons use are so bright that they trick cameras into thinking it is night time. Despite their appearance, all the photos linked to above were taken in broad daylight.

The demons and monsters parading or dancing around the square had the expected effect and pushed people further back - the sparks are hot and many of them do get into the crowd - which meant that our view point which was already quite good got even better as other people scattered to hide behind us.

When the cercavila had finished and all of the beasts and gegants had been safely housed in the municipal building for the night we remembered that it had been a very warm day and we were still wearing the clothes that we had flown out in so we nipped back to the hotel to freshen up and change before stepping out into our first Feste Major de Gracia night. We picked up a bottle of cheap vodka in the supermarket opposite the hotel as well, in case we ended up in a big crowd with limited access to a bar.

There were more decorated streets to see so we had a look at a few before realising that we were both very hungry. The streets were thronged and the bars and restaurants were all doing good business. We didn't want a long wait so we kept walking until we finally found somewhere serving food with space at some tables. This was the Bar Electric on Travessera de Gracia. The owner said that they didn't have much but said we could have some 'bravas' and some pork skewers. He then conjured up some chicken wings from somewhere and altogether it was more than enough and a reasonable price too, with a few beers for company. They were doing a brisk trade in mojitos too, which smelled heavenly because of the amount of fresh mint being used.

Our next stop was Placa del Sol, or Placa de Folk to use its temporary name and we arrived just as the last concert of the night was finishing, having spent a few minutes finding and queueing for a reasonably priced mojito (prices ranged from €3.5 to €5.0 at various temporary bars)

 

The music on Placa de la Vila de Gracia was scheduled to last much later into the night so we walked down there and found a space in the big crowd who were listening to a rather good local band. Their set finished quite soon and we then waited for the next band who were called Trast and who belted out an excellent set which lots of rock-tinged ska and reggae in the mix. They also brought on the previous band and at one point a number of coloured flares went off in the crowd to help make way for the grallers of the Castellers of Vila de Gracia to get through.

For an idea of what they're about, their website is here ... http://www.trastmusica.com/ and the photo currently (early September 2012) was taken at the Gracia gig. We're somewhere in that crowd. Their song "Camina" is on Myspace and is quite representative.

The gig went on until after 2 a.m. and we got the chance to see how vodka went with the left-over ice and mint from our mojotos (quite well, as it turned out) before finally limping out of the virtually traffic free streets of Gracia to find a taxi to take us 'home'

 

16th August 2012

 

There were not likely to be many early starts during this holiday with entertainment starting late in so many streets and squares but it was still morning when we left the hotel in search of breakfast. We found it in the Café Ru-en on Carrer de Balmes which was to become our regular stop over the next few days, except for the day it was closed when we had to make alternative arrangements. We had coffees, fruit juices and flautas (small baguette-style sandwiches) of bacon and cheese, fuet or tortilla, depending on our mood in a restaurant that probably sees few tourists.

Whilst researching the Festa Major de Gracia, Julie had come across another, smaller festival that was taking place in the city, the Festa Major de Sant Roc. We'd had no plans to visit the city centre on this trip until we found out about Sant Roc which was taking place in the Barri Gotic on the southwest side of Avinguda de la Catedral. Flights and other consideration meant that we would have to fly back on the day of the Gracia Correfoc, but Sant Roc was having one too and we were going to be around for it so we thought that we would take in a bit more of the festival as well.

Padua FGC station is a short walk from Café Ru-en and goes straight to Placa de Catalunya from where it was a few minutes to Avinguda de la Catedral. Although there were several signs that a festival was taking place there was nothing much going on but we stopped for a while to get some photos of the cathedral, which was, for the first time since Julie first visited in 2002, almost clear of scaffolding and obstructions. We thought we'd have a walk around some of the pretty streets around the cathedral and maybe have a look at Placa del Rei when we heard a few loud bands that sounded familiar. Looking around we saw some smoke and shortly afterwards the Aliga de Barcelona (the eagle) and then Lleo (the Lion of Barcelona) appeared, accompanied by the amusing Cu-cut character, a couple of gegants, various bastoners and a diable (who was responsible for the explosions).

The group (including several musicians) made their way to the top of the steps in front of the cathedral where they stopped to allow the bastoners to go through their bone-threatening paces and then, having attracted more than a few curious onlookers paraded into lovely Carrer del Bisbe and into the courtyard of one of the archdiocesian buildings linked to the cathedral where they assembled in front of one of the senior churchmen and put on a brief performance, with Aliga, Lleo, gegants and Cu-cut all dancing, bastoners bastoning and the diable terrifying a few unsuspecting people with the sparks from his pitchfork

 

 

Good job there weren’t any trabucaires! Incidentally, the festival of Sant Roc seems to be Barcelona’s oldest festival, this being only the 423rd annual event, although I think a few years were missed here and there because of prevailing political and religious conditions.

 

After this we had a little stroll around Barri Gotic and then walked down to harbour and Barceloneta. We found Bar Jai-ca on Carrer de Ginebre some years ago and paid a call there every time we came to Barcelona . Their Patatas Bravas are particularly fine and they serve their house red wine chilled in glasses that have come straight out of the freezer which might be frowned on by traditionalists but which works for us. However in recent years it has been 'discovered’ a bit and we have not been able to get a table either outside or in. We went on spec and spotted a corner of the bar that wasn’t taken so squeezed on. The couple who were nearest to us (Spanish-speaking tourists, I think) shuffled up and found us a bar stool and we ordered some red wine, some bravas and some pescaditos fritos. The atmosphere is lively without being rowdy and the interior remains mainly local, with most tourists occupying the exterior tables and we ended up staying for more wine and more bravas and admiring the continuous stream of dishes, many of them fresh seafood, that were being delivered to the tables inside and out. The couple next to us had octopus and prawns, both of which looked and smelled delicious and we were sorry that we weren’t hungrier. Next time …

 

We were thirsty though and it was very hot again. There’s a fruit and veg shop just across the road from Jai-Ca and we bought ourselves a couple of large and juicy peaches and a bottle of grapefruit juice and wandered down a couple of roads to the promenade above the Barceloneta beach. It was packed with sunbathers and swimmers and the like. We found a bench with a bit of shade and enjoyed our refreshments. I was also grateful for the chance to sit down as I had not managed to secure a chair in the bar.

Sant Roc, we were told, is always pictured with a dog and so there was a small dog show in Placa Nova which was just being set up as we got back there having failed to find any shops selling Chartreuse to help with DIY mamadetas. The show was in two halves. The first part was on the stage and involved dogs of all shapes and sizes being introduced to the spectators and being paraded around the judging table, after which all dogs and all owners received a prize. This was very inclusive and a couple passing by with a beautiful Shiba Inu (a Japanese breed related to Huskies) were invited to display their pet despite clearly having no idea what was going on.

Next there was an agility section with several fences, tubes and hoops set up in a fenced off area to put both dogs and trainers to the test. There were set ups for small, medium and big dogs and most of the participants seemed to be enjoying themselves, especially the dog that barked continuously as it negotiated the obstacles.

Enough of this folly! The Castellers de la Vila de Gracia had been advertising an open air assaig (practice) in the Placa de la Vila de Gracia and we wanted to at least see this. The more I see of castellers, the more I enjoy them and if you're reading this and still don't know what I'm on about, pop across to youtube and type "res es impossible" into the search box and hopefully you'll find a marvellous short film about the Castellers de Vilafranca. And there are lots more.

After a longish hot day it didn't seem fair to go to a practice without first having a shower, so we went back to the hotel first where we also found time to sort the vodka out for the night.

Placa de la Vila de Gracia was getting quite full by the time we arrived and various practice activities were taking place but before long the serious business of putting a pinya (the lowest and naturally the biggest level of a tower) began and I was pleased to be asked to add some bulk to the outside of the construction. Being in the pinya is strange. It is, as you might guess, quite warm and you are surrounded by and in contact with lots of strangers. The techniques are not entirely what you might think but in general just do what you're told and push with your chest against the person in front. Definitely not for claustrophobics or the painfully shy, but a rewarding experience, nonetheless. I was asked to take part in a second tower, when I was placed a little closer to the middle in what was apparently a complex structure involving two columns rising from the pinya and a second pinya (a folre, I think) rising from the first one.

By now we were quite hungry and we headed off in a different direction to last night and eventually found a place with seats on Carrer Gran de Gracia. The Cafe Nico is not particularly glamorous or traditional but was offering a pasta dish, a couple of pizza slices and a drink for, I think, just over €7. The food was fine for the price and we didn't quite finish everything so for someone on a tight budget this would be a pretty good choice in the area.

Next we had another try at Placa del Folk but we arrived just as the performers were playing their last few bars. Sounded as though it would have been quite good (again). I think we need to sort this out.

Mamadetas (lemon granita/limon granizat and Chartreuse) are the cocktails of choice of Tarragona ’s Santa Tecla festival and although we hadn't found any Chartreuse in our half-hearted searching, vodka felt like a good replacement so after a couple of mojitos we found a place selling granizats on Placa de Sol. We weren't sure how much to use, so used quite a lot, which seemed to be a good idea. As with the previous evening we gravitated to Placa de la Vila de Gracia where a large crowd was enjoying some more local rock music. There was an interlude when the grallers of the Gracia Castellers came on stage to play a medley of well know pop tunes (ABBA, Village People and so on) to great approval from the audience. I think we made it back to the hotel at about 3 a.m.

 

17th August 2012

 

Despite all the exciting things on offer in the Festas Major, we thought we'd try and get a bit of birdwatching in. We used to visit the Las Filipinas reserve just southwest of the airport but it seems to have become almost unreachable by public transport since a spate of road building in the area but we were aware of some similar habitat just northeast of the airport with better access options.

An early start is best, of course, for birding but there was no enthusiasm for that, especially given two very late nights and more expected and 'breakfast' at Ru-en was too tempting to miss so it was heading for lunch time before we really thought about getting started. Research before we set off for Barcelona had identified the #21 bus as being the one we needed but we weren't 100% about where to catch it so we started out in the tourist information office on Placa de Sant Jaume where they did a quick check and told us where to go.

The 21 bus leaves from Paral.lel towards the port/coast - I think there are about 3 an hour during working hours. The route is mostly dreary unless you are keen on municipal buses (it passes what is presumably the car park for all the buses in Europe!). It crosses the Llobregat River and when you get to the south side of the river, press the button and get off at the first stop. We weren't confident that it was the right place and stayed on for a while so ended up with further to walk.

A check of Google maps will show you that after crossing the bridge the bus runs for a few hundred metres down Ronda de Levante (B-250) before turning left onto Avinguda de l'Onze de Setembre. Carretera Marina reaches this road and becomes Cami de la Marina. It is Cami de la Marina that takes you, after about 1.5 kms, to the entrance of the nature reserve.

It took a little while for us to get our bearings in the centre of El Prat de Llobregat but we eventually worked it out, popped into a fruiteria to get some juicy grapes, then gave in to the heat and found a bar for some shade and refreshments. Suitably energised we then set off down the Cami de la Marina. This is a rural road and carries little traffic. There are birds right from the start, with lots of parakeets, starlings (some where probably Spotless Starlings) and small birds around the first farm/small holding that you pass. We noted a possible Hippolais type warbler in a roadside bush but it was gone before we got a look at it.

There were a couple of Hoopoes in the fields and it took us several attempts before we worked out that the calls we were hearing regularly were coming from tiny Fan-tailed Warblers (or more correctly, Zitting Cisticolas) which were numerous.

Dragonflies abounded in the ditch that ran along the side of the road after we'd walked a few hundred metres and we started to look for frogs and terrapins as well as birds as we progressed. Next to a small bridge I saw some movement in the water and this resolved itself into a small snake which quickly disappeared under the bridge. Julie managed to get a couple of photos of it at the other side and then she found another one a little further along. We subsequently identified these as Viperine Snakes, a non-venomous species related to the Grass Snakes and a new species for us.

After 1.5 kilometres we reached the entrance to the reserve to discover that it closed at 15:00 - it was 15:05. Spanish nature reserves seem to have strange opening hours. Common Waxbills, an African species that has been introduced to the Iberian peninsular were abundant in the reeds near the entrance and we saw more later on.

A path stretched off towards the coast along the edge of the reserve so we followed this and eventually found a mirador that gave us a view of part of the reserve. Sadly there were no flamingoes or Purple Swamphens visible although a couple of ducks might have been Ferruginous Ducks, but we would have needed a telescope to identify them and I really would not fancy carrying a scope all this way.

Continuing down the track we came to a bridge where a chap was feeding terrapins in the stream with bread. They were mainly Red-eared Terrapins which were quite common in the area. Further on a pair of Common Kingfishers kept pace with us for a while and we reached the coast at a tower mirador with views over the reserve and out to sea. There were a few waders on a small lagoon with the highlight being a Black-winged Stilt and numerous gulls where the stream entered the Mediterranean.


By this time we had been out in the sun for several hours with little shade so we started back. We had drinks and the grapes were a welcome addition but we started to worry a little about sun burn so we got a move on. There were Bee-eaters around and high overhead a Goshawk was being harassed by swallows and Alpine Swifts.

As soon as we got back to El Prat de Llobregat we were straight back into the cafe and ordering cold drinks that were very welcome, as was the opportunity to be out of the sun for a while. Finding the bus stop to get back was harder than it needed to be, because it was a little counter intuitive and we wasted about 30 minutes before giving up and just waiting at the first stop we found, on the basis that we were near the terminus anyway so at worst we could get on and stay on when it turned around. As luck would have it, we were at a stop in the right direction, although we must have missed a bus by about a minute but we were soon back on Paral.lel from where we caught the metro from Drassanes to Placa de Catalunya and then the FGC L7 to Padua, for the hotel, all one one validation of out T-10 ticket, which at the applicable exchange rate meant that it cost us about £0.72.

After getting freshened up we were soon back on the streets of Gracia and following the pattern of previous nights, exploring decorated streets and watching people and bands - except this time we actually made it to Placa del Folk whilst there was still something happening, after a splendid meal in the Antic Cafe, like last night's venue on Carrer Gran de Gracia. There wasn't much 'antic' about the place but the food was excellent. I had cannelloni as a starter followed by some sort of hash based on lots of superbly cooked potatoes and various leftovers and Julie's meals were equally wholesome and very welcome, seeing as we'd had nothing much except grapes after or breakfast. Prices again were extremely reasonable so yet another option for people on a budget.

Placa del Folk was featuring music of the Pyrenees and the band was playing familiar and traditional instruments very competently. There were lots of people dancing of just about all ages including lads in their teens and 20s, which is something you probably wouldn't see in the UK. Some of the dancers knew the moves but most just made it up as they went along in what was an infectious atmosphere. And for those of us who had been walking all day there was even some seating.

Another late night, but for once I think we were back to the Silken Sant Gervasi before 2 a.m.

 

 

18th August 2012

 

The owner of Ru-en had told us yesterday that he was going to be closed today "because of the festas" so we had to find somewhere else for breakfast. There was a packed day ahead – or at least a packed evening and night, so we wanted a reasonable start.

Our first experience of the upmarket neighbourhood of Sarria was a few years ago (2007, actually) when we went one morning to have a look around which coincided with the re-opening of the local market hall a couple of days earlier. We'd had a pleasant morning there and so thought we would head that way to find something to get the day started. We took the metro to Sarria station, found a place to cross the broad Via Augusta and walked through to the pretty little square not far from the market where we secured an outside table at the Forn de la Vila café and bakery and ordered coffees. Sarria was very quiet on this Saturday morning with few people about and not much happening at all. A little boy played ball with his mum on the square and a dozen or so other people sat and drank coffees and read newspapers. From memory, the cakes at the bakery were very good but we weren't really ready for anything sweet yet so when we'd had enough of sitting around doing nothing we walked around the corner and crossed the busy Passeig de la Bonanova to the Mercat de Sarria.

The market was almost as quiet as the rest of Sarria with only a minority of stalls open but the café we’d used last time was open and doing a steady trade. There was just space at the bar to sit so we sat and ordered a couple of flautas which were freshly prepared in front of us.

The Pedralbes Monastery (Monastir de Pedralbes) is an attraction of Barcelona that neither of us had experienced before. It’s a short-ish walk up the Passeig de la Bonanova from the Mercat de Sarria. We debated getting a bus there but didn’t consider it worth the wait so we set off walking. Yet again it was a hot day with cloudless skies and although the walk was easy we soon started to feel thirsty. We passed near to the entrance to the Parc de l’Oreneta and a sign indicated the presence of one and possibly two cafes within the park. The layout and aspect of the park was somewhat reminiscent of Parc Guell.

 

Overall it was a little less formalised and of course there were no works of Gaudi to admire but on the plus side there were not the huge crowds that Parc Guell attracts. In fact there was nobody at all. The park seemed empty.

After taking a wrong turn that took us to a dead-end we decided that there was no chance that the cafes would be open so we headed in the general direction of the Pedralbes monastery, which we assumed was where the tower that we could see a short way down the hill was (we were right). There were few birds active in the park, it being rather to hot for much activity and well after the breeding season. We did hear a few Sardinian Warblers calling and eventually picked up on the call of what we thought was probably a Firecrest. After several minutes of searching we located it in the branches of a pine tree and were able eventually to get good views of this exquisite, tiny bird. To be honest, it was showing a fair amount of wear, having presumably just come through an exhausting breeding season.

A Crested Tit was calling from the top of another pine tree from time to time, although we couldn’t get a view of it, but slightly more interestingly a warbler hopping about in bushes alongside the path turned out to be a Melodious Warbler, a species that neither of us had seen since 2004. That looked to be about it for this area of the park and we really were getting parched by now so we continued towards the monastery, eventually getting to it through the back (uphill) entrance).

The Monastir de Pedralbes was founded in 1326 by James II of Aragon for his wife Elisenda de Montcada and the queen moved there to join a community of Poor Clares after her husband’s death the following year, although she actually lived in a palace annexed to the monastery.

The monastery was declared a national monument in the early 1990s and is now also a part of the city history museum of Barcelona.

Our first priority upon arrival at the entrance was to quench our thirsts and the staff directed us to the locker room just inside the door were there was a drinks machine and a snack machine. Suitable refreshed we paid the entrance fee and went inside. Incidentally it seems that the fee covers several museums in the group and lasts for a year. We’re quite keen to see the City History Museum in Placa del Rei so might see if it works on our next visit in September 2012.

There are probably several good reasons to make the trip to the monastery whilst in Barcelona. It houses a fairly extensive collection of, in some cases, very old devotional art and it offers a peaceful alternative to the hustle and bustle of much of the city but for us I think it was the beauty of the buildings and the design of the central gardens that features fountains, palm and citrus trees and an apothecary’s garden that we found most appealing. In particular the three-storey cloisters that surround the gardens are pleasing to the eye and a pleasure to walk around. Photographic opportunities abound and if you get tired of the architecture there are fish in the pond, parakeets in the trees, lizards on the tiles and, whilst we were there at least, tadpoles in the well.

As well as the areas housing artworks there are plenty of nooks and crannies to explore, including some of the underground areas (sadly no access to the cisterns) and the kitchen. Wikipedia notes that there are still a small number of nuns still resident but we didn’t see any. They probably keep well away from tourists most of the time and who can blame them?

If you’re considering going to the Monastir de Pedralbes when in Barcelona, plan to make it a half day, taking travelling time into account and allowing for adequate time to appreciate the site. A sunny day is almost certainly best to appreciate the buildings and to get some eye-catching photographs but fortunately Barcelona has a lot of those.


There was a bus waiting at the bus-stop back on the main road (I think it was a number 64) and we had another full agenda for the late afternoon and evening so we returned to the hotel briefly to replenish our vodka supplies and to freshen up and change.

With a little time to spare before the programme items that we wanted to see we decided to have a look at some more of the decorated streets. There was also a concert scheduled in Placa Rovira I Trias. Carrer Verdi had been getting some good reviews and we were very taken with the Wild West theme that they had used. One end of the street was almost completely blocked by a representation of the front and gates of a typical US Cavalry fort (Fort Verdi, of course), there was a Verdi saloon, cacti, wanted posters, vultures, teepees and pretty much everything you might expect. I particularly liked the can-can dancers embedded in the saloon walls.

The theme for Placa Rovira i Trias was computer games and the square looked bright and colourful with hundreds of PacMen (PacMans?) and ghosts along with other well known games characters suspended from wires. The Tetris wall was rather good too.

There was seating in the square and we sat down for half an hour to enjoy the low key concert (a lady playing an electronic keyboard and singing) and watch the dancing over a couple of beers, then it was down to Placa de la Vila de Gracia where the Castellers were not practising, they we doing it for real, which meant that everybody was dressed up for the occasion.

We wound our way through the already large crowd on the square until we were quite close to the front and we ended up in a spot between two groups of Castellers, Vila de Gracia and the Joves de Sitges. We thought that this was the first time we had seen the Sitges group.

Pillars, towers and complex castles were constructed in rapid succession to the acclaim of an appreciative crowd. We started talking to an Anglo-Japanese couple who were frequent visitors to Barcelona but who had not really seen much of the local festivals before and were able to tell them a little bit about Castellers skills and other aspects of the festival. They were planning to come to the Castellers day tomorrow which unlike today’s event was taking place at noon and therefore almost certainly in direct sunlight so we reminded them to bring hats, drinks and high SPF cream. We also encouraged them to go to the Gracia Correfoc in a couple of days time, that we knew we would miss because of the timing of our flights.

I was hoping, after my practice session, to be asked to help with a Pinya by one of the groups but the different colles help each other whenever possible and it seemed that there were enough experienced Castellers so they did not need extra assistance.

The festa Major de Sant Roc was drawing to a close this evening in the city centre and the highlight of the day was a Correfoc which we thought would be fine consolation for missing the Gracia one. We had sort of planned our exit and the timing thereof from Placa de la Vila de Gracia and pretty much left on time, working our way through the crowd and then through the streets to the top of Passeig de Gracia from where we easily found a taxi that took us down Via Laietana to Avinguda de la Catedral which we had decided would be a simple approach to Placa Nova where the Correfoc was due to start.

It's only a minute's walk from Laietana to Placa Nova, especially if you're in a hurry and when we got there it was obvious that something was about to happen. An area in front of the cathedral had been cordoned off and a crowd of expectant locals and mostly puzzled tourists started to gather. Thirst had caught up with us and we needed something to cool our vodka down so we decamped to the nearby Pans & Co fast food outlet to buy a couple of ice-cold Fanta Limons or equivalents which were greatly improved by the addition of some strong spirit.

Back at Placa Nova, things seemed ready to start with various demons wandering around with menacing looking pitchforks and several dragons and vibrias as well.a couple of samba bands warming up and then a flare went up with a loud bang and a short time later, we were off. Demons and beasts moved around in an area of Placa Nova which had somehow remained fairly clear of onlookers and some of the assembled crowd, especially the tourists, cowered back when any of the fire spitting monsters or men came close to them. The samba rhythms added to the feeling of menace.

Compared to the main Correfoc at Barcelona's La Merce festival, from which all our previous Correfoc experience is derived, the one for Sant Roc is quite a small affair, which was why it held out considerable appeal to us. And unlike the September parade which is based on the wide Via Laietana, this one was due to process down several narrow Barri Gotic alleys and through the renowned Placa de Sant Felip Neri before returning to Placa Nova, so we expected a rather different feel to this one.

The dilemma in a Correfoc, for us at least, is when to move. The different groups set off and you ask yourself "shall we follow them or should we wait and watch some more". In the event we tagged ourselves on at the end behind the samba group, Percudium who were bashing out some infectious rhythms as the parade set off along the narrow alleys of Barri Gotic leading to Sant Felip Neri.

Apart from the size, the main difference between this Correfoc and the ones we've seen before was the noise. The narrow canyons of Barri Gotic concentrate the sound of the drumming and the exploding firecrackers even more than than the wider expenses of Via Laietana. Also it is more difficult to move around because people are much more closely packed together, so you really have to go with the flow.

As we had guessed, when the parade arrived at Placa de Sant Felip Neri there was a pause filled with lots of demonic dancing and fireworks. It was at this point that we decided to turn back because we were quite near the back of the crowd and we wanted to see the end of the Correfoc as it arrived back in Placa Nova. The walk back was a surprise because several businesses and restaurants that had put their shutters down for the parade had opened up again so we saw things that we hadn't noticed despite passing by very slowly.

We got back to Placa Nova just as the head of the Correfoc was arriving and the demons and beasts started to enter the cleared space where they entertained the by now quite large crowd of onlookers for quite a while, with fireworks going off all over the place. We had found a good place to stand and suddenly found ourselves quite isolated because almost all the other people near us had backed off in fear of getting burned. I must admit I felt quite exposed because in the September Correfoc I take sensible precautions like wearing a canvas jacket and a big hat but it really was far too hot for that so I only had a t-shirt on. At least we got one or two decent photos and bits of video.

The Correfoc finished with a fireworks display that lit up the cathedral and then that was the end of the Festa Major de Sant Roc. We were ravenous by now so we stuck to one of our Correfoc traditions and made our way to the Vendimia tapas bar down by the Post Office on Placa d'Antonio Lopez. It is distinctly untouristy and unglamorous and it is not even that cheap but we like it and have been going there for years and the food is consistently good. We ordered some plates of tapas and some glasses of wine which didn't sound like quite enough but we still didn't really finish everything.

From here it was a taxi back to Gracia where we followed a similar patter to previous nights, taking in decorated streets and outdoor concerts until tiredness overtook us and we went back to the hotel to pass out

19th August


Ru-en was open again today so after buying some bottles of cold water and cold pop we bagged our usual table, nodded to the lady who was at her usual table (she didn't nod back and we didn't expect her to) and ordered our usual coffees and flautas. Well set up for the morning we then walked down to Placa del Sol where today's colles de castellers were forming up prior to a long and arduous session in Placa de la Vila de Gracia.

The street along the lower edge of the square was thronged with castellers of just about all ages, shapes and sizes and we spent some time as they prepared themselves, wrapping themselves up tightly in the long cummerbunds that are used by the people going to the next levels as useful places to get hand and foot-holds.

The numbers continued to swell and I don't think I've ever seen so many castellers in one place before and eventually everyone set off on the short walk to Placa de la Vila de Gracia where each group formed a pilar caminant (a moving pillar) so that they could enter the square in typical casteller style.

We managed to find a way into the interior of the large crowd and were soon joined by the Anglo-Japanese couple that we had met the night before who had taken our advice re drinks and hats which was a good job because the sun was pretty fierce by now and of course you spend a lot of time looking up when people are building human towers as big as tall houses.

As expected, the spectacle was fantastic with bravery, skill and strength on show in equal measure. We stayed for a couple of hours and saw numerous successful towers but yet again there seemed to be enough participants for the teams not to require help from the on-lookers, which is perhaps a good thing because it really was hot and being in the pinya might have been a very sweaty affair.

There wasn't much in the programme that appealed to us for the next few hours so we started walking down into the centre of Barcelona, winding our way through the narrow streets of lower Gracia until we eventually came out on Passeig de Gracia by the wonderful Casa Mila.

By this time we were feeling parched and after admiring the Gaudi work from across the street we went into the first place we found for soft drinks, La Baguetina Catalana. Now the chance that you will feel over-charged if you eat or drink on Las Ramblas is fairly well known, though it doesn't seem to put some people off (after paying €6 for a slice of tepid pizza some years back we have been very reluctant to spend money on Barcelona’s best known thoroughfare) and of course elegant Passeig de Gracia is never going to be the cheapest place either but the price of two soft drinks taken inside in the frankly inelegant interior of La Baguetina Catalana took us a little by surprise, to the extent that we were very pleased that we didn’t order a sandwich as well. The toilets were below par, too, so we will be avoiding this one in future.

Continuing towards the city centre we passed Casa Battlo and its equally incredible neighbours and crossed Placa de Catalunya into the upper section of Barri Gotic. Over the years, when passing by Barcelona’s cathedral via Carrer del Comtes we’ve often peeped through the window into the courtyard of the Frederic Mares museum and thought that it looked rather charming so with time on our hands we stepped inside and found a spare table.

The café here is probably what is often termed 'an oasis of calm’ in the middle of a vibrant city. It backs on to the buildings of the Barcelona Museum of History and the gorgeous buildings of Placa de Rei and from the courtyard it is possible to see some of the exposed Roman brickwork below the current ground level of the city.

 

The mojitos here were a little more expensive than the norm in Gracia but nonetheless quite good and we chatted for a while with one of the waiters who on hearing that we were enjoying the Festa Major de Gracia suggested that we should also go and have a look at the Sants district where their Festa Major was about to begin.

We had been looking for an excuse to go to Sants to return to El Mon de la Tapas, where we had eaten in September 2011 so after a quick look at Placa del Rei we hopped on a train and were soon sitting outside a Café Sants near the Placa de Sants metro station. The waiter there gave us some ideas about where to go to see the decorated streets and we set off for a walk trying to take a number of them in before tea-time. It appears that there might be some rivalry between Sants and Gracia in terms of the standard of street decorations and it was a case of 'the same, but different’ with yet again entire streets dressed up impressively with different themes and of course stages set up in numerous locations.

After quite a long walk and the purchase of a few t-shirts we found our way back to Carrer Riego and El Mon de la Tapas where we ordered ourselves a generous allocation of dishes, all of which, with the exception of the calamari that were a bit too chewy, were rather good.

Re-energised by dinner we were back on the streets again and exploring south of Carrer de Sants where we found a street being ‘spring cleaned’ for the festival with detergent bubbles flowing down the middle of the road like a glacier and then came to Carrer de Rosseno Arus which was a revelation. The theme was coal mining and incredibly, one end of the street had been converted into a mine, covered over and with bends so that you could not see all the way through and tracks laid down for the mine carts. We later found out that this street was the eventual prize winner which is probably fair because an enormous amount of effort had gone into it.

One street began at the South Pole and ended at the North Pole, dependent upon which way you walked, however, my favourite was almost certainly Carrer Sagunt where a Catalan children’s’ song had been converted into street art. "Oh! Benvinguts, passeu passeu" it said over the door of the adult-sized reproduction dolls house at the entrance to the street and you were certainly made to feel welcome. There were upside down tables on the ceiling with settings for many famous characters from children’s literature and we amused ourselves for quite a while trying to work out who was who (Snow White was easy, the Three Little Pigs less so); there were stars and a bar where we stopped for a beer and all sorts of intriguing and amusing artwork. It was entirely charming and very well done indeed. There was even a screen set up at the far end of the street with an animated film scheduled for long after bed time. Well done Carrer Sagunt.

It's often rude to laugh at strangers but on the way back to the station we saw something that was so funny that we couldn't help ourselves. Fortunately, we weren't the only one laughing. As we walked up one decorated street we noticed that the man walking in front of us was lurching from side to side a bit and appeared quite drunk. There was a group of pensionable age Spanish people sitting outside one of the cafes and we got the impression that they had seen him in this state before. Just after he passed them one of his flip-flops came off in front of a shop that was closed and had its shutters down. He walked several paces before realising that something was wrong and returning to retrieve it. His first attempt to slip his foot back into it was a miserable failure - he had got the angle all wrong and missed completely. His second attempt was equally unsuccessful so he threw caution to the wind and really went for it on the third occasion, taking a wild swing at it like a bad footballer taking a penalty. The immediate result was obvious, the sandal went flying across the pavement and bounced of the shop wall, but the side effect was less predictable because carried by his own momentum, the drunk went stumbling after it, colliding with the window shutters with an almighty bang that had the seated diners roaring with laughter. We had to walk away at this point because we couldn't see a satisfactory outcome that didn't involve somebody helping him on with his footwear - and we really didn't fancy that. There's a useful moral to this though - think what you're wearing before you go out and get leathered.

It was getting fairly late when we got of the train on the way back to the hotel and we had agreed that we didn’t have much energy for another very late night, especially with a flight back to England the following day and work the day after so for once we managed to get to sleep at a reasonably civilised time..

It was getting fairly late when we got of the train on the way back to the hotel and we had agreed that we didn’t have much energy for another very late night, especially with a flight back to England the following day and work the day after so for once we managed to get to sleep at a reasonably civilised time


It was getting fairly late when we got of the train on the way back to the hotel and we had agreed that we didn’t have much energy for another very late night, especially with a flight back to England the following day and work the day after so for once we managed to get to sleep at a reasonably civilised time.

We had been looking for an excuse to go to Sants to return to El Mon de la Tapas, where we had eaten in September 2011 so after a quick look at Placa del Rei we hopped on a train and were soon sitting outside a Café Sants near the Placa de Sants metro station. The waiter there gave us some ideas about where to go to see the decorated streets and we set off for a walk trying to take a number of them in before tea-time. It appears that there might be some rivalry between Sants and Gracia in terms of the standard of street decorations and it was a case of 'the same, but different’ with yet again entire streets dressed up impressively with different themes and of course stages set up in numerous locations.

After quite a long walk and the purchase of a few t-shirts we found our way back to Carrer Riego and El Mon de la Tapas where we ordered ourselves a generous allocation of dishes, all of which, with the exception of the calamari that were a bit too chewy, were rather good.

Re-energised by dinner we were back on the streets again and exploring south of Carrer de Sants where we found a street being ‘spring cleaned’ for the festival with detergent bubbles flowing down the middle of the road like a glacier and then came to Carrer de Rosseno Arus which was a revelation. The theme was coal mining and incredibly, one end of the street had been converted into a mine, covered over and with bends so that you could not see all the way through and tracks laid down for the mine carts. We later found out that this street was the eventual prize winner which is probably fair because an enormous amount of effort had gone into it.

One street began at the South Pole and ended at the North Pole, dependent upon which way you walked, however, my favourite was almost certainly Carrer Sagunt where a Catalan children’s’ song had been converted into street art. "Oh! Benvinguts, passeu passeu" it said over the door of the adult-sized reproduction dolls house at the entrance to the street and you were certainly made to feel welcome. There were upside down tables on the ceiling with settings for many famous characters from children’s literature and we amused ourselves for quite a while trying to work out who was who (Snow White was easy, the Three Little Pigs less so); there were stars and a bar where we stopped for a beer and all sorts of intriguing and amusing artwork. It was entirely charming and very well done indeed. There was even a screen set up at the far end of the street with an animated film scheduled for long after bed time. Well done Carrer Sagunt.

It's often rude to laugh at strangers but on the way back to the station we saw something that was so funny that we couldn't help ourselves. Fortunately, we weren't the only one laughing. As we walked up one decorated street we noticed that the man walking in front of us was lurching from side to side a bit and appeared quite drunk. There was a group of pensionable age Spanish people sitting outside one of the cafes and we got the impression that they had seen him in this state before. Just after he passed them one of his flip-flops came off in front of a shop that was closed and had its shutters down. He walked several paces before realising that something was wrong and returning to retrieve it. His first attempt to slip his foot back into it was a miserable failure - he had got the angle all wrong and missed completely. His second attempt was equally unsuccessful so he threw caution to the wind and really went for it on the third occasion, taking a wild swing at it like a bad footballer taking a penalty. The immediate result was obvious, the sandal went flying across the pavement and bounced of the shop wall, but the side effect was less predictable because carried by his own momentum, the drunk went stumbling after it, colliding with the window shutters with an almighty bang that had the seated diners roaring with laughter. We had to walk away at this point because we couldn't see a satisfactory outcome that didn't involve somebody helping him on with his footwear - and we really didn't fancy that. There's a useful moral to this though - think what you're wearing before you go out and get leathered.

It was getting fairly late when we got of the train on the way back to the hotel and we had agreed that we didn’t have much energy for another very late night, especially with a flight back to England the following day and work the day after so for once we managed to get to sleep at a reasonably civilised time..

 

 

20th August

 

Our flight was late afternoon and we managed a bit of a lie in to catch up on some of the missed sleep from the preceding few days which made the decision to find our way to Sants and the left-luggage office quite simple. We usually get a taxi to/from Barcelona airport because of the hassle of public transport with luggage but as we only had a small hold-all and a day sack we decided that we might just as well buy another T-10 and use that instead, as we would be back in the city within the month.

Although small, our bags were quite heavy so we were pleased to leave them in the left-luggage (consignia) office for a few hours. Both bags fitted into one of the small lockers, charged at €3.50 per day. Outside the station and next to the Parc Industrial there was something going on and we soon realised that it was a display of police dog handling, which we stood and watched for a while as a search dog was put through its paces, locating illegal substances from an assortment of lost luggage.

We then went for a short walk around this part of Sants, passing a leisurely hour or so on the small square off Carrer de Riego where there are a few small and untouristy cafes and restaurants. After this it was onto the train for the 20 minute trip to the airport, which was surprisingly difficult for some people. The train was crowded, mostly with people with backpacks and suitcases and it nly stops twice before the airport but there was minor panic at both stops with people getting off who were obviously bound for flights and then getting called back by folk more tolerant than us.

There is a new buffet style restaurant in departures with food that seemed a bit better than European airport standard and the flight back to the UK was on time