About Julie Sheridan
GuiriGirlinBarca is written by native Scot Julie Sheridan, who left Edinburgh’s haar-stricken hills for the slightly sunnier shores of Barcelona in April 2011. Armed with a big red emigrating suitcase (called La Roja) she arrived in the Catalan capital without knowing a soul, or indeed any Catalan. Her blog is an honest account of the ups and downs of life abroad as a single woman, including now not to get stalked by men and how to avoid unfortunate incidents with hamsters on bank holidays.
Latest Posts by Julie Sheridan
Mount Tibidabo is fast becoming my favourite place in Barcelona.
It’s a slow burner, granted. I’d lived here two full years before even setting foot on a single funicular to ferry me up to its pine-clad slopes, up, up and away from the anything-but-bucolic Barcelona below.
And once you peak, chances are your head is turned by the exigencies of expiation. The screams from the funfair’s roller coaster (they must be atoning for something), or the beguilingly beautiful lanterns of the summit-smug Sagrat Cor church.
Admit it, you’re beguiled.
But all the while, right under your nose – and indeed, in most postcards of Tibidabo – is a century-old site that most Barcelonans themselves have never discovered.
The fabulous Fabra Observatory.
Perched among pine trees at over 400 metres above sea level, the Observatory was originally conceived of as a site devoted not just to the study of astronomy, but of meteorology and seismology.
In fact, dating from 1904, it’s one of the most ancient bases of astronomical, meteorological and seismological study in the world.
The first team of staff took up their posts in April 1906 (it had taken two years to recruit them – bear in mind, the guide points out, there was no InfoJobs back then). And they didn’t mess about. A good 29 years before the Richter Scale was even introduced, the Barcelona team’s instruments predicted major seismic activity on the other side of the world.
Sure enough, on April 18, 1906, the devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was unleashed.
“The universe knew we were coming.”
The universe might have known we were coming, but I’m betting it hadn’t bargained on us coming by public transport.
The Observatory’s website helpfully counsels “we recommend you come by car”. Sadly lacking in the car department, I somewhat trepidatiously eyed up the public transport options. This involved a metro ride from Tarragona to Plaça Catalunya (20 minutes), then a connecting train from Plaça Catalunya to Peu de Funicular (15 minutes – make sure you sit in a middle carriage or you’ll alight straight onto a brick wall), then the funicular train from Peu de Funicular right up to Vallvidrera Superior.
Exiting the station, in the middle of nowhere up a mountain, I consulted the bus timetable from Vallvidrera, only to find out I had a good 25-minute wait in store. In what was probably not the wisest decision of my life (iPhone in handbag), I decided sod it, what’s a dark mountain top between friends on a Saturday night, and hiked it up the hill on foot till I reached the Observatory, pausing now and again to gasp in awe at the Sagrat Cor church lit up, up close. (The church is honestly spectacular, and well worth the trip.)
Reaching the Observatory, at last, it turned out I was 45 minutes early. Ushering me through the gates, the guide was magnanimous in the face of my quaintly British tendencies.
“Why don’t you wait at the look-out point?”, he suggested, as I nodded and obligingly circumnavigated the building in the dark.
Alone, early, feeling irksomely non-Spanish, I found myself stumbling towards a long bench of decking, flanked by trees, and then gasping at the sudden view of the whole Barcelona conurbation corruscating at my feet.
The photos, of course, don’t do it justice.
To the left stood the Torre Agbar, in all its contentious conflagrations. In the middle the W Hotel, punctuating the horizon, definitively marking the end of the beach. A little inland, the reasurringly blue rays beamed over MNAC, the Magic Fountain dancing and prancing in symmetrical synchronicity, commanding attention, the prettiest belle of the ville.
I thought of James Joyce and his epiphanies.
Half an hour later, I found myself, not for the first time in the last two and a half years, the only non-Catalan-speaking person in the room. The guide seemed a kind, friendly little man, who clearly knew his stuff. He quickly clocked the look of dismay/incomprehension/boredom on my face as he launched into his welcome speech to the audience, which I was surprised to see on a Saturday night were mostly made up of parents and young kids.
“I’m just going to switch into Spanish”, he smiled at everyone, much to my gratitude.
Owned by the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts of Barcelona, the southward-facing Observatory has an illustrious history. It’s the fourth-oldest observatory in the world that’s still going strong, and the building itself is the brainchild of reluctantly Modernista architect Josep Domenech i Estapà (the same designer behind the likes of CosmoCaixa and the city’s Law Courts).
The Observatory’s scientists began keeping records in 1914, and our guide takes pains to point out that not one day of data over the last 99 years – on the local weather, regional seismic activity and celestial shenanigans – has gone unrecorded. (He also mentions that this October has been the warmest since records began, confirming my deeply-held Scottish suspicions.)
Poignantly, this uninterrupted track record comes despite the devastation of the city during the Spanish Civil War. The Observatory then became a makeshift refugee camp for some members of the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts, and the systematic bombing of Barcelona from its viewing deck must have been a terrible sight to behold.
The dame in the dome – the Fabra Telescope
Holding court in the Observatory’s cupula, the telescope itself is a grand old dame. One of the largest and oldest telescopes in Europe, it loomed large in front of us as we climbed the narrow access ladder, momentarily silencing the overweening Spanish children.
Each person got to take their turn, for about 20 seconds, to eye up the in-focus planets. On clear nights, our guide explains, they zoom in on the moon, but on overcast evenings the planets provide a more satisfying voyeuristic experience.
Did the earth move for you?
I have to admit, what I saw through the lens wasn’t earth-shattering.
It could best be described as a nebulous white blob.
Later on, the young Spanish mother who I’d met in the museum and who had very kindly offered me a lift back down the mountain confessed to a similar sense of bemusement.
“What did you see?” she quizzed me as her husband took the Tibidabo bends expertly. “A white blob?” I ventured, and the three of us laughed in relief.
The Observatory is open to the public on Sundays from 11am to 12.30pm, and you’re fine to just show up without booking ahead (note that it’s closed all throughout August, though).
For night-time visits (and let’s face it, that’s what it comes into its own), you’ll pay a bargain 10€ entry fee for a welcome speech (in Spanish), followed by on-eyeball planet action through the telescope, and a stroll around the panoramic outdoor walkway.
Feel like splashing out? Or just hungry? From June till September each year the Observatory offers ‘Sopars amb estrelles’ (‘dinner under the stars’), where you get to dine in what must be one of the most privileged places in Barcelona. It’s not cheap (and I can’t vouch for the food), but having seen the look-out point/terrace where the supper takes place, I bet you’re in for a treat. Book ahead.
Whenever you go, bear in mind that Tibidabo tends to get a little on the frigid side (relatively speaking – I’m from Glasgow), and you’d be as well to bring a cardigan or light jacket for when that wind really starts to nip.
Of all Barcelona’s traditional myriad excuses for a knees-up (or ankles-up, in the case of the sedate little steps of the Catalan sardana), late September’s La Mercè festival is somewhat of a legend in these parts.
Sundry fabulous beasts of yore – giants, dwarfs, fire-breathing dragons – prance and parade in their finery, not to mention castles of quivering human loins and foes of fire and water reaching operatic heights in an awe-inspiring final farewell to summer.
The 4-day event is a compelling cacophony of Catalan culture, and, amazingly given the continuing Crisis, it’s completely free.
The festival is named in honour of Barcelona’s co-patron saint, the Virgin of La Mercè, who’s said to have intervened in a particularly pesky plague of locusts in the 17th century, thus bagging the ‘patron saint’ accolade. She shares the podium with Saint Eulàlia, who, peeved at having to share the limelight, is credited with tears of rage when it inevitably rains on La Mercè’s parade every year without fail.
Except this year, when the sun shone blithely throughout, making the spectacle on the streets all the more scintillating.
The circle dance of La Sardana – that’s what it’s all about!
Having somehow managed to be out of the city for most of it last year (following a baptism of fire in year one), this time round I wasn’t going to miss the chance to honour my closet pyro. With two somewhat wary Scottish relatives in tow, we donned our best fire-protective clothing, threw our handbags in the ring, and prepared to kick up our heels.
The ‘bastoners’ belt out the beat of Barcelona
The city is the stage when it comes to La Mercè – to enjoy the festival’s best moments, you need to be out on the streets. The festival even has its own soundtrack, in the form of 50-odd open-air concerts from both local talent and established international performers.
Anyone know the collective noun for giants?!
If you’re somewhere in the centre of town, you won’t need to wait too long for a passing procession of friendly giants, while circus acts and street performers do what they do best, enthralling kids up at Montjuïc Castle and thronging the main city park, Ciutadella.
The ‘correfoc‘, or firerun, takes place on the Sunday night, and is perhaps the most hotly anticipated event of the whole festival.
Forget running with the bulls – if you come to Barcelona for La Mercè, you better be ready to sprint with Satan himself. Plus his entourage of minor demons and aforementioned mythical beasts.
Throw caution to the wind in the non-BSI regulated correfoc
I’m no La Mercè virgin, but even I underestimated the strength of the tridents’ sparks. I emerged apparently unsinged from dancing with the devils under the umbrella of embers, but on the metro ride home, relative number 2 revealed she’d been burned right through three layers of clothing – as well as branded on her forearm.
Nessie gets really mad
With full potential to be cringingly kitsch, but in actual fact touchingly impressive, Tuesday evening’s ‘Pyromusical’ saw the grounds surrounding the Magic Fountain packed to the gunnels.
The crowd of thousands in front of Montjuïc was remarkably well behaved as they craned their necks to catch sight of the first flare to light up the Barcelona night sky. The spectacle that followed was worth the wait – fireworks and fountain jets synching and sinking in time to the music, in a sublimely choreographed and jaw-dropping display.
All in all, a festival to take your breath away. See you there next year?
The much-vaunted Mobile World Congress rolled into Barcelona a few months back. All across the self-proclaimed smart city, posters hung from lamp-posts (even the Gaudí-designed ones), radio adverts talked it up and, most annoyingly, taxis which normally battle it out for business (seriously, I saw the drivers almost come to blows on more than one occasion) were suddenly packed with passengers.
As the 80,000-strong tribe of suited and booted delegates debated the future of mobile technology – in, of all places, Hospitalet – it occurred to me that now might be a good time to mention the apps I find most useful, living in Barcelona.
So here we have attempt number two. I sincerely hope I’m not tempting fate.
In such a switched-on city, you would think it would be hard to pick only five apps. It wasn’t. There is a plethora of dross out there. Battling through the banal and bloody-difficult-to-use, here are the five best Barcelona apps I actually make use of on a regular basis.
1. Transport – myTaxi
One of my biggest bugbears about living in Barcelona is the “no of course you can’t pay by credit card, stupid young wench” mentality, which seems to abound anywhere and everywhere across the city. I’m not exactly a fan of stoating about laden with cash, given Barcelona’s rep as carterista central (not to mention the fact I’ve been pickpocketed and mugged twice) so anywhere offering the ability to pay by credit card has my vote.
Enter myTaxi. Just plug in your destination and desired method of payment (cash, card or even pay over your mobile), the app does its thing and a couple of seconds later you’re greeted with “we’ve found you a driver!” Lo and behold, his (or her) mug shot pops up and you can see who’s on their way to get you.
The first time I used myTaxi, I was slightly sceptical. The Mobile World Congress or other massive trade fair aside, cabs across the city are generally ten-a-penny, and I imagined the app would be yet another short-lived denizen of my dashboard.
However, a middle-aged gent rolled up at my doorway, and positively beamed enthusiasm and courtesy throughout the whole journey. Dropping me, my wayward Spaniel puppy and her massive metal crate off in a decidedly dodgy part of the Raval, he waited outside, unprompted, after I’d left the cab, and even rushed back to help me when he saw me struggling to get inside the building. I was impressed.
Passengers are encouraged to rate their driver after each journey, and you can store your ‘favourites’ for future trips. Needless to say, the monopolistic taxi companies of Barcelona, like those of the other European cities where myTaxi has launched, haven’t taken too kindly to the new pretender on the block. Until they get their act together and move into the 21st century, I’m sticking with the app.
Best bit: being able to pay by credit/debit card/through the app itself.
Cost of app: free.
Platforms: available on both iOS and Android.
2. Exploring the city conventionally – TimeOut Barcelona
“The app savvy travellers have been waiting for”. This is how TimeOut markets its series of city-licking apps. Pushing the ‘local’ aspect (“expert local knowledge in your pocket”), TimeOut points out that its content is put together by on-the-ground experts, which can never be bad.
This is a fairly full and fancy overview of what’s going on across the city. The ‘what’s nearby’ section lets you home in on stuff a stone’s throw away, while the ‘top 10’ and ‘editor’s picks’ within each category mean you can quickly compile your Barcelona bucket list.
Although I’ve seen most of Barcelona’s sights and attractions after two years of living in the city, I do find myself going back to this app pretty regularly. Its comprehensive coverage is especially handy for discovering different districts, especially if you’re at a loose end and need some inspiration.
Best bit: “inspire me”. Plus it’s really easy to navigate.
Cost of app: free.
Platforms: iOS only.
3. Exploring the city unconventionally – BCN Paisatge
This one’s a real favourite of mine. Much less mainstream than the info you’ll find in TimeOut, for example, this one serves up the city’s secrets, letting you really get under its skin.
Hit ‘landscapes’ and you’re confronted with a list of unique urban features, such as the shrapnel marks pitting the walls in the plaza of Sant Felip Neri, or, even more eerily, the hole in the wall where destitute parents passed their babies through to the orphanage on the other side (Carrer de les Ramalleres).
The ‘shops’ section name drops the weird and wonderful of Barcelona’s businesses, from where to go for authentic artesan bread to your options for Modernista pharmacies.
Best bit: the ‘near me’ section. Great if you’re bored and want to see something quirky that, given this is Barcelona, is likely just around the corner.
Cost of app: free.
Platforms: iOS only.
4. Shopping – decompring
With my Luddite-like tendencies, it took me a while to get my head around this one, but I’m now a firm fan.
Basically, the app gives you rewards for shopping. Not a bad concept.
These rewards come in the form of ‘compris’, virtual money, which you build up as you look at the offers available from the listed shops or actually go to the shops to scan the barcodes of the products on offer.
There’s quite a range of shops that take part in decompring, such as supermarket chains like Condis, shoe shops like Zapaterías Tino González or bookstores like the mighty La Casa del Llibre. (You can use the filter to find the specific type of product you’re interested in – food, sports, petrol, clothes, etc).
Once you’ve built up your ‘compris’ you redeem the virtual money for gift vouchers or for actual cash, which will eventually make its way to your bank account.
Best bit: you can do the honourable thing and donate the money to an NGO instead of cashing it in (although sadly, for the moment the list of charities is somewhat limited.)
Cost of app: free.
Platforms: both iOS and Android.
5. Running – Barcelona Corre
Developed by the ajuntament, Barcelona’s city council, this is a nifty wee app that only appeared a couple of months back. My early experiences attempting to go out for a run in Barcelona were less than successful (accompanied by constant catcalls and smutty gestures from the local males), but recently I’ve been adopting a ‘sod the lot of them’ mentality. Frankly, if I paid attention to the moronic male population here I would never leave the house.
The first screen you see is slightly intimidating, featuring a fit chick sprinting along Barcelona’s promenade, while the app immediately cuts to the chase (sorry) and demands your age, weight and height before we proceed. (It’s even more intimidating when it’s asking for the info in the metric form. No frigging idea.)
That hurdle over, you’re presented with 23 possible running routes grouped into three sections – different city districts, arranged thematically (parks and gardens, chilly days) and more challenging runs. There’s also a section dedicated to the most popular races that take place frequently across the city.
As an incentive, complete one of the 23 routes and you’re awarded a virtual medal stored in the app. Ideal for acquisitive souls.
Best bit: despite being developed by Barcelona’s Catalan-speaking city council, the app does offer the option of changing the text into either Spanish or English. (This isn’t as self-evident as it sounds, believe me.)
Cost of app: free.
Platforms: both iOS and Android.
She gets to live a life of sun, sea, sand, sandals and sangría – what has she got to complain about?
In contrast, what I’m thinking is – how can I shrink my myriad gripes and grievances, accumulated over more than two years in Spain, into a palatable baker’s dozen?
So – in a very particular order – here we go.
1. Machista men
Every single day, Spanish men stare at me, make sexual gestures at me, make sexual comments to me, and generally make me feel like a piece of walking prey. On more than one occasion they have followed me, called me a whore, and even snuck into the lift of my building to molest me.
It’s a constant barrage of sexist crap, and for me it is the singularly worst aspect of living in Spain. Machista men, you’re not impressing anyone.
2. Sunday opening for shops and supermarkets
As a Brit, I admit I’ve been spoiled by our 24-hour, tat-on-tap culture. In Edinburgh I celebrated the fact that my local supermarket was open 24 hours, so that if I needed paracetamol at 3am, or whatever, there it was.
I also took for granted that after working full-time all week, I had two (two!) full days at the weekend to get all my shopping done, whether for groceries or anything else.
Not so in Spain. Unless you live in Madrid, where restrictions on Sunday opening were lifted a year ago, you can forget about buying anything on the Sabbath. Most visitors to Spain assume this is because of the country’s religious bent, but in fact, this doesn’t really come into it.
The thinking goes that if large stores and supermarkets were allowed to trade on Sundays, this would disadvantage smaller retailers who can’t afford the staff.
Hmm. These are the same smaller retailers, often family-run, who gaily shut up shop in August and award themselves a month-long holiday?
3. The autónomo (self-employed/sole trader) laws
Next up in my major grievances category are the laws surrounding any poor sod who thinks, in a mad moment of entrepreneurial inspiration – I know, I’ll go freelance.
In the UK, I understand the logic and agree with the sentiment. Set yourself up as a sole trader and you will pay income tax and national insurance as a fixed percentage of the profits you make.
The annual tax return
In Spain, however, individuals working as sole traders are required to pay currently 256€ per month towards social security. Regardless of how much they’ve actually made in that month. Even if they’ve made nothing at all.
This fact is mind-blowing to most foreigners who arrive to settle in Spain. (It’s fair to say it’s not loved by the locals, either).
In practice, what this means is that most autónomos refuse to register as such, and either invoice illegally or else get a friend within a big company to do it for them. Thus doing the Spanish tax office out of much needed VAT.
Rather than reform the situation for the better, the Spanish government is currently talking about upping the fixed monthly social security contribution.
4. Customer service (atención al cliente)
It’s diabolical. Don’t even start me.
5. Bank holidays that fall on random weekdays
Spain, like several other European countries, sticks rigidly to its national holidays on the actual designated dates. (So if you go for a job and they say you’ll get 32 holidays a year, bear in mind that if one of the bank holidays fall on the weekend, you ‘lose’ that day. Not like in the UK, when you get the following Monday off in lieu.)
In December 2011, two bank holidays fell within the same week. It just so happened that the 6th was a Tuesday and the 8th a Thursday.
In faintly ludicrous fashion, we all went to work Monday, stayed home Tuesday, went to work Wednesday, stayed home Thursday, before heading back to the office on Friday. Genius.
I believe there’s talk of moving certain bank holidays to Mondays, but, you know, let’s not rush things.
6. Failure to accept responsibility
In what I’m well aware is a sweeping generalisation, my impression is that Spaniards are convinced they are never wrong. It’s never their fault. Forget humility – you better start searching your own soul to see how you screwed things up.
Neglected to read the small print and were mis-sold a mortgage? Bank’s fault.
Still living with your parents at 38? Society’s fault.
Could this phenomenon be the result of Spanish society surviving for years under dictatorship? Where individual citizens are lumped into one big lumpen mass, collectively tarred with the same brush, and subject always to the whim of a higher authority?
Blame the system, blame the politicians, blame your next-door neighbour, but don’t expect anyone to hold their hands up and admit to any shortcoming any time soon.
7. Attitude to dogs
Spain, unlike the UK, is not a nation of dog lovers. Don’t get me wrong – Barcelona has plenty of dogs (most of which seem to be French Bulldogs named Elvis, inexplicably).
And yet…they’re not exactly welcomed with open arms.
You can’t take your dog on the metro, on the buses, or on the funicular trains (up to Montjuïc or Tibidabo, for example – exactly the spots that are ideal for a walk). Nor you can venture down to the seaside without fear of a hefty fine.
So to go anywhere with your dog, it’s taxis a plenty (if you can get one to stop when they spy the canine, that is).
8. The all-encompassing Castilian compulsion
As an amante of all things Hispanic, even I have to balk on occasion at the unrelenting supremacy of the Spanish language here.
Spain is a composite nation, made up of 17 ‘autonomous communities’, several of which have their own languages (Catalan, Basque, Galician, Valencian, Asturian). A Spanish friend of mine, who speaks three of these languages herself, made a brilliant point in conversation the other day.
Why don’t residents of Spain have ready access to all of these languages on TV?
Here in Barcelona, TV channels are beamed out in Catalan and Castilian, but that’s it. Having exposure to all of Spain’s languages in this way would be a really positive step in encouraging a bit of cross-regional understanding.
9. Risible inability to cope with rain
The rain in Spain falls mainly in the metro, it would seem.
Fair enough, we Brits don’t exactly cover ourselves in glory any time we’re hit with adverse weather conditions.
But Barcelona seems particulaly ill-equipped to cope whenever one of its almighty downpours grips the city.
Sawdust strewn on the floor to tackle puddles – truly a 21st-century solution.
10. Mad motorists
I’m thinking of taking driving lessons here later on this year so include this point in the vague hope that the entire nation of drivers sorts itself out before I hit the road.
Red lights here are like red rags to a Spanish bull. They exist to be jumped. Hapless pedestrians attempting to cross the road are met with conspicuously ramped-up revs and the realisation that they’re risking their lives on a daily basis.
Road rage is such a part of life here that it puts most foreign drivers off ever getting behind the wheel. Which is a real pity, given that so much of the Costa Brava is accessible only by car.
11. Dubious dairy products
Why doesn’t Spain do cheddar? Why is it impossible to buy proper cream? Why does Manchego cheese taste consistently of cardboard? Why is ‘nun’s tit’ cheese so highly prized?
12. Refusing to pay for a round
To be fair, this may well be a Barcelona rather than Spain-wide issue.
Back in Scotland, if you’re out in a bar with a group of friends or workmates, it’s the done thing to ask everyone what they want to drink. You get your round in. Some people may leave the group before reciprocating, but no-one really cares. You assume they will return the favour at some point in the future (if you even think about it all).
Here, they’re having none of it. Whether you go for lunch or for a few drinks after work, the procedure is identical: everyone queues up afterwards to scrutinise the bill and then duly hand over their part – and not one cent more. For a Scot, this is a staggering display, and one I complain about vociferously as much as possible.
13. Dirty cutlery
Spanish restaurants, at least in Barcelona, expect you to use the same set of cutlery for your main course as you did for your starter. I know this is no earth-shattering issue, and yet it irks me regularly.
Even after two years I still automatically offer back my starter plate with fork and knife included, only to be rebuked or glared at and handed back the same manky set of cutlery ready for round two. I can’t quite fathom where this custom comes from – surely it can’t be to save on Fairy Liquid costs? Anyone out there who can shed any light, adelante.
The first thing I should say is, this isn’t a sponsored post. No-one has paid me, given me a reciprocal link – or, sadly, bought me a horse – in exchange for me bumping my gums to the world. (I should also say that I am open to the option of someone buying me a horse, however. I am particularly fond of palominos.)
Barcelona’s uncanny ability to land me in unforeseen situations that, on occasion, gift lifelong memories, surprised me again this weekend. Living here feels like being interred inside one of those folded paper fortune tellers, that, depending on your dexterity, yield up four different corners of fate on a regular basis. Whatever else it is, life here is never predictable.
In the lap of the gods
Sitting due north of the coastal town of Masnou, about 20km away from Barcelona, the Club Hípico Vallromanes is a riding school, livery yard, and hotel resort, complete with pool, gardens and the most amazing views you can imagine. I had been invited by the owner, Antonio, to come check out the facilities and see the flamenco horse show that takes place each week.
It had been a while since I’d been out of the city, and the first thing I noticed on stepping out the car was that even the air smelt different. The kind that makes you want to inhale deeply. Set in the midst of a national park, the whole area seems to have been carved out of the hillside, and Antonio tells me proudly that he planted many of the trees as saplings himself.
The next thing I noticed was that I couldn’t stop smiling. The sort of smiling I haven’t done since I wielded a blowtorch at some unsuspecting crema catalana in a Barcelona cooking class. In a sort of helpless, hapless, demented way. “¿Te gustan los caballos entonces?” asked Antonio, receiving an ear-to-ear grin in return.
Making old friends
Given my palpable enthusiasm for all things equestrian, Antonio obviously decided I was harmless enough to let loose around the yard. The show itself wasn’t due to kick off for another couple of hours, and Antonio seemed a bit concerned that I might be bored hanging around. When he clocked the fact that within the first three minutes I had actively taken photos of each horse in its box (there are around 70) and was starting to memorise their names, he quite wisely left me to it.
“You’re one of the family now” said Antonio gamely. And, true enough, my guides were Antonio’s granddaughters, aged from four to 12, who were the most polite, cheerful and knowledgeable kids I have met in Spain ever. Little Aitana, aged four, eagerly appropriated her role as profe, teaching me the essential Spanish vocab and doing a great job of disguising her disdain at my ignorance.
“Sudadero” for saddle-pad. “Tijerillas” for martingale. The sort of words that don’t appear in Word Reference, and which sizzle on your tongue as you savour them. “Crin” for mane, and I start remembering some poem or other of Lorca’s, and Córdoba, distant and alone, with the olives in the saddle-bag. A whole world of associations with Spain that always bring me back to horses, poetry, and even Saint John of the Cross.
The flamenco horse show
Anyway, I diverge. My point is, the whole day was almost otherworldly.
The show itself, in the massive competition arena, would have been impressive enough, as riders from all over the world took turns at showcasing their talents. Classic dressage moves combined with displays of gaucho daring, but the common denominator that I could see was the riders’ attitude to their horses.
I had hung out beforehand in the practice arena, watching the warm-up exercises agape, struck by the respect with which the riders treated their mounts. Many ‘horsey’ people in the UK are out-and-out swines, in my experience, so to see the genuine relationship between horse and rider was a revelation.
My favourite was the plucky little Argentinean, of course.
Learning to improvise
Given the setting, sunshine and equestrian derring-do, the day was already complete for me, but throw in some glasses of vino and a live salsa band in the gardens and we’re talking a whole other level.
Salsa oozed softly around us as Antonio’s granddaughters (there now seemed to be even more of them) combed through my handbag and looted my makeup. “What does this do?” they quizzed me, brandishing mascara wands into the afternoon sunshine as horses nearby failed to bat an eyelid.
Makeup perfectly pulchered, we followed the sound of the band, who seemed to segue effortlessly from one Latin standard to the next. A young woman, shoogling in her seat herself, thrust forward her one-year-old baby, who mimicked a few steps on the table. Seamlessly, the band entered on cue: “Un, dos, tres, un pasito pa’lante María, un, dos, tres, un pasito pa’tras”.
I laughed, sat back, and counted my blessings.
If you’re a rider, you will adore this place. There are two outdoor schools, both big and set against a cliff, a massive indoor arena, and an even larger outdoor show ground. The tack rooms are replete with every conceivable kind of kit, while the stalls, stables and yard are immaculate. Given the setting, as you might imagine, the club offers hacks as well as formal lessons.
While everyone was still tucking in to the barcebue, shouting out requests to the salsa band and generally having a great time, I snuck away, beckoned by a whispering Aitana in the corner of the garden.
She wanted to show me her moves. Aged four, armed with a riding hat, protective waistcoat and the fearlessness you only have at four years old, she showed off her agility, guided by her older sister on the lunge. “What do you want to do now?” asked older sis. “¡Galope!” was the unequivocal reply.
And not for the first time that day, I was transported back to a different time, remembering other ponies and other places, and Ayrshire skies of a more leaden nature.
What the smell of bales of hay can do.
Of all the reasons behind my move to Barcelona, being close to the coast was perhaps the most pressing. Having the sea on your doorstep is something I’d grown used to, having spent most of my life on one Scottish shore or the other. Like conches, many of the poems I write invoke the sea, and I suspect it will always be a legacy.
But somehow, having lived in Barcelona for the best part of two years, I have yet to really make friends with the Mediterranean. To be honest, at times the slick, spruced-up seafront – overhauled in the run-up to the ’92 Olympics – leaves me a little cold.
Plus, if you don’t happen to live close to the beach in Barcelona (and I don’t), it’s entirely possible to spend months without going anywhere near it. Which is a huge pity, really, when you think about it.
So when I was offered the opportunity to take part in a press trip around the Costa Brava, with a particular focus on the importance of the coastline to the Catalan sense of identity, I jumped at it.
From Barcelona to Girona and east to L’Estartit
Straddling the flood plain of the Ter estuary, L’Estartit is a small, seafaring town. A privileged wee place, its long beach and beautiful bay scintillate in the Catalan sunshine. The ace up its sleeve, though, is the enigmatic archipelago that sits about a kilometre off shore – the uninhabited Medes Islands.
Once patrolled by pirates, these seven little islets are something special.
Twenty years of protection have made the Medes Islands one of the most important marine flora and fauna reserves in western Europe. A mecca for divers from all around the world, the area boasts the largest red coral reef in the Mediterranean. I am not a diver, but listening to tales of tame rays, barracudas, groupers and scorpion fish (but no sharks – always a bonus) made me want to load up on Nitrox and delve the depths of the seabed.
As the schooner skulked around the periphery of the seven moody monoliths, I was reminded of Ailsa Craig, that hulking heft of rock that rises up out of the Ayrshire seabed. It, too, was plagued by pirates. Seeing the islands up close felt a bit like reading the region’s palm. Not for the first time, I reflected on the connections between Catalonia and Scotland…Caledonia.
If scuba and snorkelling are not your thing, there are other ways to explore these compelling crags. Companies in L’Estartit offer boat trips in glass-bottomed boats around the islands and right along the Montgrí coast.
The port of Palamós
My head still conniving with cunning plans to jump ship from Barcelona and move lock, stock and barrel to L’Estartit, it was time to head south, to the less pretty, more gritty, port of Palamós.
The Catalan coastline is 580km long and fish is a hugely important part of the local diet. Surprisingly, though, fewer than 100 of the 532 species found in the western Mediterranean are of interest to fishermen, and only 12 constitute the basis of the fishing sector (anchovies, sardines, blue fin tuna, tuna, hake, blue whiting, angler fish, sea bream, red mullet, octopus, Norway lobster and, of course, prawns).
In Palamós, the seafaring traditions of Catalonia turn into a spectacle in front of your eyes. Palamós smelled of my childhood. Watching the guys at the docks sort and unload the day’s catch, the stench of salt and nostalgia was in my nostrils.
Monday through Friday, by mid afternoon the fishermen start to arrive back at the port, and the unloading of the day’s catch begins. Shanties and shindigs don’t come into it – this is big business. Years ago anyone and their dog could fish from the coast, whereas today you have to be a professional fisherman with a bona fide licence.
For fish to carry the prestigious ‘Palamós’ label, strict criteria must be met. Staff check to make sure the fish aren’t from polluted waters before the produce can take its place on the conveyor belt, bound for the daily auction.
The auction itself, conducted in a building closed off to the general public, is a sight to behold.
The first auction kicks off at 7am (for ‘blue’ or oily fish, like sardines, mackerel and anchovies), while the second takes place late afternoon. The small auction room has a terse, no-nonsense atmosphere, with buyers (mostly restaurant and market stall owners) sitting glued to their handsets. Old sea dogs and their wifeys pack the pews.
Up until fairly recently, the prices were sung out, but modern technology means that things have moved on. Buyers are part of a sophisticated network, with their own Facebook groups and everything. Simultaneously, auctions are going on in Girona, L’Escala, Roses and Sant Feliu, and it’s all about getting the best price. Just to complicate matters (or facilitate them, depending on your point of view), prices are shown in pesetas as well as euros.
Although it’s an auction, there are no actual bids for the boxes of fish. The person who pushes the button first gets the lot. The price varies from day to day, with Friday being the most expensive. To give you an idea, a kilo of Palamós prawns will sell for 90€ in the market in the summer, but the fishermen only take home 27€ of this. Most of the time, all of the fish is sold by the end of the day – only flotsam and jetsam remain.
The Fishing Museum (Museu de la Pesca) in Palamós
Aside from the excitement of seeing the whole process up close – the smell, the a(u)ction, and yes, if I’m honest, the burly fisherman in yellow overalls – I think the highlight for me of the whole tour was the Fishing Museum in Palamós. This is a seriously well thought-out space, rivalling the best of the museums you will find in Barcelona.
Visitors are greeted by a suitably stirring 10-minute-long audiovisual presentation before being ushered through to the permanent exhibition itself.
In laying bare the relationship between humans and the sea, the Museum takes a modern, hands-on approach. I was struck most of all by the stories behind some of the characters whose voices echoed down throughout the centuries.
“I think if I was to be born anew, I’d choose again to be a fisherman. You do the the same thing every day but it’s never the same.” – Josep Mateu, Fisherman (1923)
“When I started, there were 50 women…We mended the nets on the beach. Ouch, the sand was burning! We sat on the ground all day.” – Joaquima Brull Vila, Net mender (1912)
If you’re planning a trip to Palamós and intend to take in the Museum, my advice would be to allow yourself plenty of time. In addition to the permanent exhibition, it offers guided tours, workshops, excursions and itineraries, and you’ll want time to enjoy it all.
I especially enjoyed the cooking workshop at the end of the tour. “A country’s cuisine is its landscape in a cooking pot,” said the Catalan writer Joseph Pla (1897-1981), and this seemed particularly apt as we chomped on fresh-caught tuna fillets. If there’s a recurrent theme throughout the various exhibits, it’s that of sustainability – and I certainly left with a new-found interest in the fish I consume and the way that it’s caught.
All in all, this taster tour of the Costa Brava left me desperately devising ways to spend more time there. If I can pluck up the guts to hire – and drive – a car in 2013 (the wrong side of the car, the wrong side of the road, the wrong side, no doubt, of the law) I will be hotfooting it north from Barcelona the first chance I get. See you there.
January in Barcelona has the ability to sidle its way innocuously into your life. There’s none of the wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanies the new year’s investiture in Scotland, largely thanks to the absence of egregious cold that tends to dominate day-to-day existence back home.
Here, the three wise men disembark at the docks and gift the city its second Christmas, at the very point when most people in the UK are packing away their tinsel and baubles. The troop of colour and chaos is a welcome, uplifting start to the year, defying grey Catalan skies.
Procrastination thy name is January
But apart from that, and the Sant Antoni district’s Tres Tombs festival (where Inca got rather unceremoniously baptised this year, along with some pet chickens), January sees the city in subdued, hunkered-down mode. There’s a prevailing sense of inertia about the place, mirrored in my own inability to get my finger out. God forbid I write a blog post, while poems are just getting started before they skite to a stuttering halt.
“This is the city where fickle folk flock.
Which suited me fine – it was time
to up-end the tenable.”
Right, and then what happened?!
I’m not a fan of new year’s resolutions (if you really want to do something, shouldn’t you have done it already?), and as for ‘bucket list’, that seemingly mandatory feature of any blogger’s online arsenal, the least said the better. But I admit there is something about the disconcerting shoosh of January that lends itself to reflection.
It has occurred to me that in almost two years of living in Barcelona, I have never:
- Climbed Mount Tibidabo (never mind hiked in its foothills)
- Ridden a motorbike, moped, vespa, scooter or anything else with two wheels and an engine
- Attended a concert at the whimsically Modernista Palau de la Música Catalana
- Gone swimming (I did try, but got booted out for not owning a shower cap)
- Heard opera sung at the world-famous Liceu Theatre (or indeed anywhere, for that matter)
- Scoffed supper at any one of Barcelona’s 20 Michelin-starred restaurants.
And fair deuce, these are some wrongs I intend to put right in 2013. I’m also looking forward to cantering around the Costa Brava and the reopening of the long-shut-for-renovation Maritime Museum (Feb 16th, it’s free – get it in your diaries).
Dodging through doorways
Then again, a creepy incident recently left me appreciating humdrum monotony as an underrated circumstance.
I’d been round at a friend’s flat for dinner, and seeing that it was quarter to two in the morning, decided to call a taxi to get home. The taxi duly dropped me off just one block from my flat, and I unlocked my building’s main door, no headphones on and to all intents and purposes pretty sober.
I got in the lift and punched in the code that would take me to the back door of my flat. Just at that moment, the lift door was wrenched open, and a tall (non-Spanish) guy jumped in beside me. I was taken off guard (I was sure he didn’t live in the building) and remember exclaiming mindlessly “¡qué susto!”
Frightful it turned out to be. In what felt like an eternity, but was doubtless only a matter of 30 seconds, he proceeded to try it on, hands everywhere and probing questions in pidgin Spanish…“Do you have a husband? Do you live alone? Qué guapa eres…”
Still fending him off, I stepped out onto the balcony of my flat, and as I exited the lift he made moves to follow me out.
Pure instinct kicks in at these moments. You know there will be time for hindsight, instants, days and weeks later, but at the vital interstice itself, you react. Or don’t. I learned that my voice falters when under threat. But by god I can kick like a mule.
Thankfully he retreated, apparently thinking better of the whole thing, and I was left shaking on my balcony, fumbling around for keys. The pup greeted me in a dervish-like dance, and I clasped her tight for the next X amount of hours it took me to get to sleep.
The flip side
But Barcelona is not a city so easily dismissed. Or pigeon-holed. Doorways work both ways.
As I was reeling, and swapping the tale Monday morning with a colleague whose visiting mother had been robbed the same day in broad daylight outside her rental apartment, resolve of a more gritty kind was making itself felt.
Do not give up so easily. Remember the bigger picture.
And half an hour later, I had an out-of-the-blue invite to a Barcelona Burns’ Supper. That Friday, reeling around for real to plangent bagpipes, haggi-a-plenty and with Fergus calling me out in the middle of Tam O’Shanter (just at the line that goes “Auld Ayr, wham ne’er a town surpassses/for honest men and bonnie lasses“), the breathtaking spontaneity of my life here was brought home to me.
It might have been the eye-watering effect of the whisky, but stripping the willow in the middle of the Ramblas, acompanied by bagpipe wails that wouldn’t have been out of place on the Royal Mile, everything settled back into place again.
‘To flit’ in Scotland means to move house.
I like the winsomeness of the word.
Its sound, its capriciousness, its way of conveying so many things at once.
It invokes a butterfly in full flight mode, flaking out in transit, a fledging fleeing, flailing, flotsam flouncing, flamenco-flaunting for a fleeting moment, full-on flux, failing outright to finally sit still. To flit is to flux, to toowit-toowoo, to flex your muscles, test your tether, flunk out and come up flippant.
It is to flock Elsewhere.
Moving on up
I have spent the last six weeks in the most protracted flat flit known to humanity. (Even the above description refused to get to the point in under 100 words.)
After a year and a half living in Poble Sec, it was time to crawl out from the protective underbelly of Montjuïc and venture forth…Elsewhere.
I cut a beleaguered figure every evening for those six weeks, dragging an outsized suitcase behind me in my right hand, bags stuffed with books, budgie feed, the odd porrón, incense sticks and toilet roll strapped over my shoulders, while out in front pranced Inca, enthralled with her new self-appointed mission as husky-esk guide to the official flitting process from one barrio to the next.
I doubt she knew its full significance. No longer would we be able to claim status as Poble Sec-ers…that downtrodden neighbourhood that most Barcelonans love to diss, not quite the Raval but precariously close to being the next pretender.
We had lost Rosa the pet shop owner, the one who hugged me (and Inca) when I finally got out of hospital, the one who spoke not a word of English but who went out and bought a Spanish/English dictionary with the specific purpose of being able to communicate with my poor mother when she came in to point plaintively at dog food and ask which brand, how much, please help.
We had lost a good friend and neighbour Eva, a Poble Sec-er de toda la vida, who was always on hand to help and offer insights into barrio life, including what the hell that noise was that sounded like metal being browbeaten into life every Saturday afternoon (the butanista banging on his metal drum, announcing the arrival of butane gas cylinders in much the same way as an ice cream van prowls the periphery of the poorest neighbourhoods in Glasgow).
God dammit, we had lost hard-won local knowledge.
Of where to buy the only edible gluten-free bread, the best place to get Canary Island salt-wrinkled potatoes, where to catch a sneak peek at the human castle volunteers limbering up before they took centre stage in their skyward corporal prayer.
Or whisper it, the secret spots, the ones that don’t feature in any published travel guides, where locals leave clandestine messages that give voice to community sentiment. The in-jokes you have to have earned the right to laugh at.
Settling in Sants
But we were moving on.
Poble Sec had played its part, had called itself home for longer than anyone had ever given it credit for. One rented flat had given way to another rented flat, prompting a glut of those well-intentioned questions that only ‘expats’ are ever subjected to: “How long do you plan to stay here for? Wouldn’t you rather buy somewhere? Have you thought what you’ll do if you have kids? When are you intending to move Home?”
Traipsing northwards to the beckoning barrio of Sants, where the new flat gleamed in all its new-year promise, I was ill-disposed to bother answering. There will be time for all of that.
For now, fluctuating between Here and There and and contemplating the flocks that fickle overhead was as much as we both could muster. Home is where you say it is. That will do for now.