Friday, 25 July 2008

A Pilgrimage to Palma

A few months ago during mum's house move, I came across a large packet of air mail letters, mostly typed, sent over a period of about four years from my grandmother, in Cala Mayor, Mallorca, to my parents, her son and daughter-in-law. All but a very few of them typed, and all on featherweight air mail paper, the letters painted a vivid picture of a life lived joyfully, animatedly, frugally at times but always well, and brought back many memories, fallen into abeyance in the 20-odd years since her death, of a woman who I remember as being beautiful, loving, forthright, awkward at times but more often than not very sympathetic and who above all else loved her two sons and their four children intensely.

Christened Helena, her letters were always signed 'Fritz', the nickname by which all the family knew her, coined (by herself, if I recall) on account of her having a strong Eastern European accent - she was Czechoslovakian by birth - which most people mistook for being German. In Spain, she came to be known as Elena, or more specifically, Señora Elena, and it was from Elena Wright that she would meticulously mark the back of each envelope as having been sent. She also naturally put the address of her apartment, and so when I initially decided that my first trip would be to Spain, I considered including a visit to Mallorca, and to 279 Avenida Joan Miró, in my itinerary. A little online research found that there were quick and convenient flights from Granada to Palma and then on from Palma to Valencia, which although expensive were sufficiently affordable to make the decision final. I booked a cheap hotel which looked, from the website, to be near the apartment (or rather, near where the apartment was - it could easily have been redeveloped since the 1980s) and packed a couple of my favourite letters, ones which gave the most detail about Fritz's day-to-day routine, the things she liked to do, eat or see and with whom, so that once there I would be able better to visualize what her life on Mallorca might have been like.

I arrived early afternoon, after a short and punctual flight from Granada, and my first observation was how huge the airport was for a relatively small island. I quickly realised that of course it would be this big, and busy; even in 1980, Fritz wrote of the island's dependence on tourism and how a bad season for tourist income could affect prices for residents in the shops as businesses sought to recoup their losses, and this vital visitor income has obviously been nurtured in the intervening decades. She wrote too, in a letter from 1982, of how the flight options to and from the island were improving; sadly it was only in the very last couple of years of her life that a new charter airline commenced flights from Palma to Bournemouth which would have vastly eased her journey to our house in a remote village in Dorset. As it was, she would fly from Palma to Gatwick, and make her way from there, her suitcase crammed with cigarettes for my dad (always the wrong brand, always!), cuttings from her beloved spider plants to give to all and sundry, and gifts for my sister - who carries her name - and me. Today she could fly, or at least connect with flights, to pretty much anwhere in the world from Palma de Mallorca, with every budget and charter airline under the sun.

Finding a total dearth of public transport information at the airport, I got into a cab (perhaps recklessly given that I had no idea how far Cala Mayor was from the airport and what the fare therefore might be!) and about twenty minutes later pulled up at the hotel. It was quite old and a little unloved, but I noted that it did at least have a pool, and air-conditioning, and best of all was very close to 279 Avenida Joan Miró. After a quick shower, I headed out to see if Edificio Delfin, as the block was called, was still there; as I walked along the winding road, past the royal family's summer palace, Marivent (her proximity to which I'm surprised Fritz never mentioned in her letters), a luxury hotel, a few private houses and a parade of shops, I was disproportionately nervous, not sure what I would find, or how I would feel. I needn't have worried: Edificio Delfin at 279 Avenida Joan Miró, Cala Mayor, is still very much there, and I felt elated.

I started off by taking a walk round the outside to take a look at the building. The paint's a bit flaky in places, and it's certainly not the most modern block on this particular strip, but it's neat and tidy and fabulously located, just up a path to the beautiful beach of Cala Mayor. Fritz was for two years the president of the residents' committee for Delfin, and I liked to think that the building's current good condition might still in some small part be due to her diligence and vigour in the role. At the foot of the building there's a parade of shops and cafés and, catering to the tastes of Brits abroad, a kebab shop (just up the road there's an Irish pub too). Fritz's apartment was on the 6th floor, and counting up from street level that would have been the top floor. No wonder then that she was able to indulge, as she wrote to my mum in one letter, in what she called 'free sunbathing', safe from neighbours' prying eyes. (Both Fritz and her late husband were keen naturists and she never lost her enthusiasm for it).

I identified the back door to the building which Fritz wrote of as being her shortcut to the beach; to avoid the tourist rush she would swim first thing in the morning, "Just sling over my bathrobe and grab a towel and grab the lift to the 2nd piso [floor] and out of the back entrance de Delfin and [in] 2 minutes run into the water. Then, I swim like a mad satellite or pescado [fish] and back again to my pad..." I would dearly have liked to go inside the building, just to see what it was like - maybe 'grab the lift' from the 6th floor to the 2nd - but alas repeated attempts to get hold of the portero came to nothing so I had to content myself with the exterior. Wanting to live a little of Fritz's life - and hell, wanting some respite from the heat - I went back to the hotel, grabbed my swimmers and returned to the beach, where for the next hour or so I too swam 'like a mad satellite' and reflected on what bliss it must have been to be able to do so every day. I had dinner at the nearest 'proper' restaurant to the flat and on enquiring found that it had been in business for over thirty years, so may well have been frequented by Fritz when she wasn't dining at friends or hosting a dinner herself as was very often the case.

The next day, after watching Hugo Chavez's one hour late arrival in a motorcade at Marivent from my balcony, I did as Fritz used to and hopped on the bus into Palma, the island's capital. While Cala Mayor was as well served by small shops and the like then as it is now, for serious shopping, window or otherwise, Palma's where it's at. On the way we passed the cinema at Terreno where Fritz used to go with her 80-something friend Nessie: "Only 10 mins on the bus and it [shows] English films as well as foreign, sometimes quite good. Sometimes!" This wasn't one of those times, the only English-language offering being Kung Fu Panda, but I was nonetheless pleased to see where Fritz used occasionally to enjoy going of an evening. I found Palma to be an absolutely beautiful city, rich in architecture, blessed with wide, shady streets and full of all sorts of interesting shops large and small, cafés, galleries, restaurants and bars. The port area is très chic; Palma actually feels unspoilt by tourism, rather it thrives on it and values its visitors.

That afternoon, I enacted the most enjoyable part of my 'pilgrimage' - lunch. Above everything else, be it her socialising, her spider plants or the business and scandals of the Delfin Residents' Committee, Fritz loved to write about food, and her love-hate relationship with it. She was - not unlike a certain grandson of hers, you might say! - on the one hand obsessed with her weight, watching every pound, but on the other hand singularly unable to resist the many foodie delights that Mallorca had to offer. In almost every letter she makes reference to a lunch she's given, or a dinner she's been invited to; the best hosts (or worst offenders, depending on how Fritz saw it at the time), were Hubert and Jacques, her gay neighbours. Always referred as The Gays - capital T, capital G - Fritz adored them with a liberalism very rare for a woman of her background and generation and indeed, for the time. The Gays were Dutch and spent half of each year in the Netherlands and half in Mallorca, and would always return bearing edible gifts and especially the smoked mackerel Fritz loved. The particular meal I chose to recreate, however, was one that she described in a letter as being typical of any encounter with 'the natives': "A chunk of Mallorceen [sic] bread with half a kilometre of sobrasada, and ensaimada full of nata (cream)." I had no idea what sobrasada or ensaimada were but soon found out; the former is a spicy sausage/paté hybrid rather like squishy chorizo, and the latter a very light pastry resembling a cross between a Danish and a choux bun dusted with icing sugar. I found a café which had both on the menu and for full authenticity ensured that their sandwiches were made with Mallorcan bread, a very light, very crusty slim baguette. As I ate my delicious meal, I wrote postcards to the family, reviving if only as a one-off the tradition of an 'H Wright' writing from Mallorca.

With just a couple of hours remaining before my flight to Valencia, I returned to Cala Mayor for a last stroll around Fritz's streets and a final look at Edificio Delfin. I tried the porter's bell a couple more times to see if I could get inside but it was obviously not meant to be; instead I ordered a beer at the bar across the road and watched the world go by like Señora Elena used to do. This little corner of an island that she loved, indeed from what I saw, the whole island, is thriving and vibrant and I can see why she would have been so happy here. Exiled from her country of birth, Fritz settled as a refugee in England, met, fell in love with and married my grandfather, had two sons - one my daddy - and had a few years of happiness before being prematurely widowed, after which she sought, and found, some comfort in sunnier climes. Halfway between my hotel and Fritz's flat, there was an old people's home, or Casa de la Tercera Edad. I couldn't stop myself from wondering whether, had cancer not taken her life in only her late sixties, Fritz might today be one of the elderly ladies sitting on the terrace in the shade, having tea brought to her by white-uniformed nurses. Then I got to thinking whether, if she had lived, she would ever have been able to recover from her adored eldest son's own terrible, premature death which came only a decade after hers.

And then I snapped out of it and realised that this is the danger of revisiting the past; we start to wish that it was the present. I'm so pleased and proud that I made the trip I did, and I will always cherish Fritz's beautiful, funny, eloquent and at times salacious letters. But wondering what might have been...that way only sadness lies. The past is history; the present, well that's for living, and my present is taking me to my next stop - Valencia!

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

I've Andalusian Enough

I'm tiled. Not just a little bit tiled, but really, really tiled out. I couldn't be any more tiled. And no, sharp-eyed readers, that's not a repeated typo; I'm referring to the fact that after a week in Andalusia I have seen more mosaics, Moorish azulejo tiling and marble floors than anyone needs to see in a lifetime.

To put this into a historical context: Andalusia, Spain's Southern-most region (and fuck me its hottest region too, but more of that in a while) was over a period of roughly seven centuries, from the 8th to the 15th AD, fought over in the most brutal fashion possible by Moors (Muslims) and Catholics and conquered, reconquered and then conquered again by each religion until the Catholics finally triumphed, for good, in 1492. As a result, the architecture of the region is an at times fascinating mish-mash of styles, not just typical of the two cultures' constant efforts to assert their supremacy through building, but also of the various centuries they span. Add to this already heady mix the architectural legacy of the significant Jewish communities which existed in the region until their expulsion by the Catholic conquerors at the end of the 15th Century, and you have quite a melting pot of styles. But, there's so much of it, with seemingly every city, town and village boasting its own 'spectacular' site, that one can have too much of a good thing - as I found.

Things started well, in Cordoba, just an hour and forty minutes from Madrid on the high-speed AVE train (a great way to travel, fast, spacious, spotless and punctual - Virgin Trains, look and learn...). Although initially shocked at the scorching 43º heat on the afternoon I arrived, I wanted to make the most of my time so after a siesta and a cool shower in my lovely room at the Tryp Gallos Hotel, I slathered myself in factor 40 and headed out into the old town. One of Cordoba's must see sights (according to my 'Top 25 Sights in Andalusia' book) is the Juderia or old Jewish quarter, and this attractive jumble of winding, cobbled streets lined with whitewashed houses is certainly very pretty and, because of the shade afforded by the narrowness of the roads, comparatively cool. There's much adornment with azulejo (blue-enamelled) tiling, and the old synagogue is one of very few still existing in this region and thus a poignant sight (and site). There isn't however a very great deal to do in Juderia once one's seen it, and so I moved on to Cordoba's real crowd-pleaser and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mezquita.

This was one of the most spectacular things I've ever seen. There can be no starker example of the religious conflict I referred to than this: the Mezquita is, essentially, an enormous, elaborate cathedral built bang slap in the middle of an enormous, elaborate mosque, as if somehow the cathedral fell out of the sky. The sheer scale of both structures, which come together, incongruously, to form one, takes your breath away (and indeed triggers expletives - at various points I muttered a 'Fuck me!' with sheer astonishment only to remember that I was in a house of God/Allah and really ought not to swear). There's also the visual splendour of it; the ceiling of the mosque section is supported by well over a thousand pillars which in turn support red and white striped arches (Wally would have a field day hiding here) and then the cathedral ceiling soars up into the sky like a rocket launch pad amidst it all. Finally - and of course - there's tiling, of incredibly intricacy, in the mirhab, marking the direction of Mecca, adorning the walls, ceilings and floors; it's spectacular craftsmanship and it saddened me that the Catholics had to go and build the treasury, holding their undeniably impressive stash of cathedral gold and processional gew-gaws, right next to it.

After lunch I went out to explore the newer part of Cordoba, to the north of the city, but found nothing to excite apart from the occasional pretty church, square or civic building. I did however discover something very important for anyone travelling in Spain in the heat: El Corte Ingles, the department store chain (Spain's Debenhams) has the best air conditioning of anywhere at the entrance to their stores, so if you're about to drop from heat or just need to cool off, head for there and pretend to be browsing. This took me up to dinner time and, wanting to put Cordoba's reputation for fine tapas to the test with minimal walking, headed back to the restaurant-lined streets of Juderia. There, in a very attractive taberna, and for only €15, I enjoyed a fantastic six-course menú de tapas which among other treats included salmorejo, an Andalucian speciality consisting of a sort of thick, creamy gazpacho topped with crispy bacon bits and diced onion, and fritos de la huerta, Spanish tempura, gorgeous, salty little strips of battered peppers and onions that frankly, I could live on if it wouldn't make me fat(ter).

The next day I got up early-ish and headed for Cordoba's other big tourist draw, the Alcazar (no, not they of Crying At The Discotheque fame, it's a place). This former palace and prison has a history both illustrious and dubious: while on the one hand it can claim to be the palace from where the discovery of America was planned, it was also the seat of the Spanish Inquisition (which nobody expected). Although largely empty, there are some impressive tapestries and original furnishings to be seen, in addition to which there are - you guessed it - mosaics aplenty both inside, in Roman form, and outside, in the beautiful gardens where azulejo abounds. Fancying a spot of lunch before my late-afternoon train to Seville, I picked a little restaurant with an interesting and reasonable lunch menu and ordered consommé to start and callos con chorizo y patatas to follow. I wasn't exactly sure what callos was, but I like chorizo and potatoes so figured I'd like callos too, but this was to be my first culinary bum note of the trip. For while many of you may feel that I talk a lot of tripe, until my main course arrived I'd never eaten tripe, which is what callos turned out to be. Still, I soldiered on - I was ravenous - and it wasn't actively unpleasant; slithery, chewy, rather like the fat on pork belly but tasting of not very much at all. A lesson learned and one word of Spanish I'll never forget!

My stomach full - albeit of, er, stomach - I boarded the train to Seville and forty five minutes later disembarked in Andalucia's capital city where it was a positively wintery 38º. I hopped in a cab to the hotel, the Tryp Macarena, and was delighted to pull up a few minutes later at a beautiful, palatial building in the Moorish mudejar style where I was very warmly welcomed by a receptionist who complemented me on my Spanish! Whether he'd taken a shine to me or whether it was simple good luck I don't know, but my bargain room, booked online, turned out to be vast, practically a suite, with a separate lounge area, marble bathroom and - best of the best - a balcony overlooking the old city walls and the minor basilica across the road. I could cheerfully have holed up there for the next two days but that not being the point of travelling, headed out on foot to the Barrio Santa Cruz, about twenty minutes along narrow cobbled streets with a huge church seemingly at the end of every one. The Barrio is, like the Juderia, Seville's old Jewish quarter and while certainly very attractive to look at I didn't find it to be especially different to the Juderia. Still, it was a 'must see' ticked off the list and after a couple of beers I headed happily back to the hotel to consider what to do for the evening.

This question resolved itself when I popped out of the hotel for a stroll and to phone mum. Remember that minor basilica I mentioned? Well, it's designated a basilica because it houses a particularly magnificent and ostensibly mystical image of the Virgin (Our Lady of The Macarena since you're wondering, and no, I didn't ask if she knows all the dance moves) which, on certain Sundays in the year, the devoted like to parade through the streets of Seville, dressed in all their finery, carrying processional staffs and crosses, wafting incense and cheering, all accompanied by a brass band. One of those Sundays, you've guessed it, happened to be this one, and so I crossed over the road and joined the crowds to watch the parade - and the band of the 2nd Seville Sea Cadets, *sigh* - go by. This was enormous fun, as well as quite moving, and best of all the next evening when it was on the TV news I saw that I'd been caught on camera!

Monday morning I headed to Seville Cathedral, considered one of the most impressive in the world and its third largest after St Peter's in Rome and St Paul's in London (the Londoner in me loved discovering this fact). It really is magnificent, housing some 40-odd chapels of varying degrees of opulence, an unfeasibly intricate and immense gilded high altar, the tomb - putatively, there's much debate about this - of Columbus, and the Giralda or bell tower, accessed by 34 ramps and a final flight of stairs which in spite of my fear of heights I pushed myself to climb. I'm glad I did, not just for the sense of achievement but for the spectacular aerial views of the city it afforded; Seville is just as beautiful from above as from below. From there I walked on to the Plaza de España, an immense crescent-shaped pavilion and piazza built for the less-than-successful Ibero-American Fair in 1929. It's extremely beautiful on the whole (LOTS of tiling, natch) but it's sad that parts of it have been allowed to fall into disrepair while others, now used as local government offices, are maintained. Feeling the heat - 41º, I believe - I walked back only so far, taking in a couple more monuments including the bull ring, then took the blissfully air-conditioned bus back to the hotel along the riverside, taking in the views of the vast park and landmark buildings erected for the World Exhibition (EXPO) which Seville proudly hosted in 1992.

I went on to have a fantastic evening. I started off with a couple of glasses of chilled fino and some delicious tapas in a fairly swankified bar opposite the hotel, where I got into a fascinating conversation with the barman about the correct temperature for serving sherry at. I read my (Spanish) newspaper, let the muzak wash over me, heard the church bells ringing, with the sun still shining all the while, and really did feel at that moment that everything was right with the world. Then, as night fell, I ventured back to the Barrio Santa Cruz and discovered to my delight that what by day I'd felt had little to distinguish it from the Juderia was by night a buzzing, vibrant, exciting place to be, where young Sevillians ram every tapas bar, spilling out onto the terraces and eating, drinking and chatting into the wee small hours. I found a terrace table at what looked like a fairly hip joint, ordered a beer and some tapas and sat back and drank in the atmosphere; it really was a moment. I rounded off the night with a visit to Isbillyya, a water-front gay bar and club which although relatively quiet when I arrived at around 1AM was packed and banging by 2. The out-and-out highlight of my night was the drag flamenco show; Andalucia is known as the birthplace of flamenco, and I'd seen some out and about, but this was truly different, being both technically accomplished (I'd say) and hilariously camp at the same time. I also met a very friendly - and non-predatory - local with whom I was able to have a good old chat and clear up a few words and phrases I'd been struggling with (callos not among them!)

Next morning, with a train booked for later that afternoon, I visited the Reales Alcazares (Royal Alcazar - this one, unlike Cordoba's, earns the title Real by virtue of its still being the residence of the King and Queen of Spain when in Seville) and while it's certainly very impressive, it was filled with yet more bloody tiling, predominantly mudejar, yet more arches and yet more tapestries. Despite feeling a complete Philistine I just couldn't muster much enthusiasm for it, but I did love the extensive and very pretty gardens which to be honest I felt were the real attraction here. Fruit was out on some of the trees and, unable to resist the temptation to set up the line that's coming, I got my gums round the King of Spain's plums. That, frankly, was worth the €8 entry fee alone.

OK you've been very patient to read this far so I'll try to be brief about my next stop, Granada. In fact that won't prove too difficult, because I've very little to say about the place, or at least very little that's positive. I didn't like the hotel much - it was badly in need of modernisation - and the sights just didn't win me over. The Albaicin, the old Moorish part of the city made up of labyrinthine streets lined with shisha bars, craft shops and cafés, seemed to me to resemble nothing more than a giant Camden; my inner snob came roaring out and I all but fled what felt to me like a horribly smug atmosphere of crusty/hippiness that in 2008 seems retrograde and incongruous. The Alhambra (and dear God am I going to get shot down for this but here goes) didn't impress me much either; despite being Spain's most visited monument by quite some way, this gigantic hilltop complex of palaces, fortresses and gardens is arduous to trek round, poorly signed (for €13 entry fee they could at least provide a free map, but no such luck) and compared to, say, the Mezquita, not as deeply rich in history as it thinks it is. Back in the city I did very much enjoy visiting the Capilla Real, the stunning final resting place of Ferdinand and Isabel, Spain's most famous rulers in history and conquerors of Andalucia, but other than that and coupled with a horribly touristy feel to the whole city, the best thing frankly was getting on the plane out.

The plane which will take me to Mallorca, the Balearic island where my paternal grandmother lived out the last few years of her life and in whose footsteps I am hoping to tread.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Caña Feel It?

In a moment you'll get the title of this post and having seen what I did there, should find yourselves helpless with laughter, or at least chuckling merrily. But until we reach that point, let me tell you about Madrid.

My three days in Spain's capital can be pretty much summed up in three words: art, walking and booze. Anyone who knows me even semi well will immediately see that these are three very good things, and will surmise that I had a good time. And you would surmise right, because after a few hours of post-Barcelona blues, I did indeed have a very splendid time and have a new found love for Madrid that I didn't get from my last (and until now, first) visit some years ago. Let's start with the art: Madrid is justly famous for having, in close proximity to one another, three of Europe's and indeed the world's finest art galleries - the Prado, the Centro Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. Having visited the Prado in the past, but not the others, I made the Thyssen-Bornemisza (named after the absurdly wealthy Baron and Baroness whose private art collection this still, technically, is) my first port of call after checking into my brilliantly located if slightly shabby hotel. It's an interesting collection, and a beautiful space, but it lacks any real wow factor; there are lots of pieces by acknowledged masters, but no masterpieces, if you catch my drift. Far more interesting, and impressive, was the Reina Sofia which I visited on Thursday, which concentrating as it does on European 20th century art, was bursting at the grouting with Dalí, Miró (please just say if that little thingy over the vowels is starting to irritate you) and Picasso, including Pablo's monochrome masterpiece, Guernica, which occupies its own vast room with an accompanying contextual exhibition to bring home the horror of the massacre it portrays.

My favourite art moment however was at neither of the above, but at the Caixa Forum, which I just chanced upon while walking back up Paseo del Prado. It's a striking building, clad in oxidised metal lattice (designed I found out by Herzog de Meuron, they of Tate Modern fame) and housing the art collection of, and temporary exhibitions funded by, la Caixa, one of Spain's big banks. Unusually for an art space in Madrid, it's also free, so in I went and was delighted to find that a whole floor had been dedicated to an exhibition of the work of Alfons Mucha, a brilliant Czech graphic artist to whom PV had introduced me (well to his work anyway, not to the artist who is a) long dead and b) not a personal chum of PV's, as far as I'm aware). Another floor was given over to an exhibition about the life and work of Charlie Chaplin, which I must say is not a subject I thought I'd ever find engrossing but certainly did. Topped off with lunch in the restaurant on the top floor (gazpacho*, chicken schnitzel, truffle tart and a glass of vino for €12 gets my vote any day) during which I was heavily eyed up by a rather handsome bear who was lunching with his parents (yes, Mummy Bear and Daddy Bear - whether or not they were eating porridge I couldn't see) and it was quite a fabulous couple of hours.

*Keen-eyed readers will have noticed that I'm eating a lot of gazpacho. Please be assured that it's not because it's the only thing I can understand on the menu, it's because firstly I love gazpacho and love seeing - or rather, tasting - what each particular restaurant's take on it is, and secondly, it's ridiculously good for you and tomotaoes help to protect your skin from sun damage which as you will all know, I need!

I mentioned walking, and yes, there was a lot of that. Madrid divides up into eight districts, each with its own very particular mood and style, and I managed to walk the length and breadth of six of them and at least pass through the other two. I only used the Metro maybe two or three times, and one of those was to get to the hotel from the airport! Of the eight my particular favourites were Chueca, which although known as Madrid's gay village is also home to some of its coolest bars and one which I have fallen in love with for life: the splendidly named Bar Cock on Calle de la Reina, and Malasaña, the gritty, arty maze of streets north of the arse end of Gran Via, where spit-and-sawdust cervecerias rub shoulders with trendier shops and grungy speak-easys.

The absolute highlight of the stay - and we're getting to the punchline now, folks - was my discovery of the caña tradition. Basically, from about 8pm onwards, if you go to any bar or cafe and order a caña you will receive not only a glass of draught beer (anything from a small wine glass size to a full half pint) and tapas of some sort. There's absolutely no telling just from looking what sort of deal you're going to get; some places offer no more than a bit of bread and salami, while others offer dishes piled high with patatas bravas, chorizo or tuna salad. The one certainty however is that the most you're likely to pay for this privilege is €2, but most often no more than about €1.20-€1.50. Working your way from bar to bar having maybe one or two cañas in each is a very economical way to a) eat yourself silly and b) get slightly pissed, all for very little money indeed.

All in all, I really fell for Madrid and its non-stop, high speed, 24 hour way of life. There really is something very invigorating at being in the thick of it and I'm already excited at the thought of going back. Next stop: Cordoba, where my Andalucia leg of the trip begins!

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Besos from Barcelona

Talk about time flying; here we are a week since my last post and already it's time to move on to the next destination, in this case Madrid on the 12.30 flight. Which given the proximity of Matthew's flat to the station just about gives me time to quickly fill you in on what I've spent the first week of my travels doing. Firstly though, as it's cropped up in passing, I should mention how very lucky I've been accommodation wise. Matthew really lucked out with this, his latest Barcelona pad (and there have been a few!) - large, bright, modern-ish and thankfully cool, and in an amazing central location in the very trendy district of El Raval. The brilliant location means I've been able to walk everywhere so it's been good for my health too!

Walking has in itself been probably my principle pastime while here. BCN is a very walkable city - you could if so inclined get from its southernmost point on the Barceloneta to its northern reaches of Gracia in twenty minutes and a straight line, and being largely on a grid system even Americans can find their way around with relative ease. The only part of the city which doesn't follow any discernible logic in terms of planning is the ancient Barri Gotíc or Gothic Quarter, and it's such a beautiful jumble of streets, squares and churches that getting lost there is actually part of the fun, and exactly what I quite deliberately did on (hang on...checking notebook...) Friday of last week. Friday was a day for contrasts; after the very old of the Barri Gotíc it was in with the new at the ultra-modern, uber-minimalist new Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) which can best be summed up from my jotted notes which run, in their entirety, to: "Amazing building - crap art."

The weekend saw Matthew and I up sticks and head down the coast to good old Sitges, and boy has it changed, even in the year since I was there last. Sitges was always bordering on the tacky - the easy comparison being that Sitges was to Barcelona what Brighton is to London, i.e. somewhere city dwellers bugger off to for the weekend - but this time around I found little to love. Maybe it was just that we arrived on a Saturday, but the place was absolutely rammed with tourists, and not just fabulous gay tourists but families, hundreds of them, clogging every street with their double prams and triple chins. One of the things I've always loved about Sitges is that it felt so unremittingly gay, with gay people in gay bars drinking gay drinks, and really didn't get that feel this time around. I don't think I'm alone in feeling this either, judging by the scowls on almost every face among the rows of guys sitting facing off across the main drag outside Parrots Bar and Parrots Cafe; or maybe they were just all German (yes folks, good old fashioned xenophobia is alive and well and living on thirtysomethingandfabulous).

(It wasn't just the boys in the café who were scowling: there was a moment on Sunday morning when I feared for my life despite being within the supposedly safe confines of the very-nice-I-must-say Parrots Hotel where we were staying. Matthew and I went down around 11.00 for breakfast and began to help ourselves from the buffet. I needed tea, as I always do of a morning, and found that the hot water dispensing function of the coffee machine worked very slowly and needed repeated pressings of the dispense button to produce enough for even a single cuppa. Turning away from the machine to go and enjoy my brekker, I saw that a queue of caffeine-starved queens had built up behind me while I'd been leisurely filling my cup and each and every one of them was giving me death stares. In fact I swear one of them was readying to stab me in the eye with a fork. The moral of the story and Lesson Learned #1: Never Come Between A Queen And His Morning Coffee.)

But it was far from a gloomy time, despite Saturday's torrential downpour and spectacular lightning storm; we spent a good amount of Sunday on one of the non-commercial stretches of beach, away from the incessant hawkers of drinks/massages/sunglasses that offer no protection at all, and in the evening, Matthew having had to return to Barcelona ready for work on Monday, I was left to my own devices. I wanted to go somewhere I hadn't tried before for dinner, and then on for drinks somewhere I wouldn't look out of place (or like I was cruising for nookie) on my own, so I asked the receptionist at the hotel for his recommendations. Both were excellent: I had a delicious al fresco dinner of gazpacho, carpaccio and foie gras at El Xalet, sitting by an outdoor swimming pool at a candlelit table, and then moved on to El Piano (yes everywhere has an 'El' in Sitges, it seems) where I chanced upon PV's good friends The Michaels and ceased to be alone. We joined forces for a bar crawl around town and I headed to bed around 3am (at a guess) having had a thoroughly enjoyable night.

Hauling my rather hungover frame back to Barcelona early Monday afternoon, I spent the rest of the day convalescing and reading The Mitfords (which is getting a post of its own, it was so good) leaving the flat only to help Matthew lug home the shopping for the dinner he'd offered to make. Resolving to make better use of Tuesday, I went for another epic walk, this time up, down and all around the swankiest shopping streets of Passeig de Gracia and Avenida Diagonal, chancing along the way upon the Palau Robert, a beautiful town house with a quiet, shaded garden which was a very welcome haven from the heat and bustle. For lunch, I took myself off to Flash Flash, a deservedly famous and trendy tortilleria where the suprisingly formal (but not at all snooty) service made me feel very special even though I was only having a snack and a glass of vino. That evening - my last - Matthew and I ate at home again, before heading out for a night-cap at Carpe Diem, his 'local faggy bar' to use his words, where we sipped on voddie and nibbled the barman's nuts while watching Spain's equivalent of X-Factor on the big screen.

And so to bed, and thence full circle to this morning, which sees me leave Barcelona - reluctantly I must admit given the lovely time I've had - for the high octane capital city Madrid. More of this, if you've not died of boredom yet, from there!

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Club Class, and classless clubbing.

Well, a big hola to you all from Barcelona on my first afternoon in this lovely city. I'm taking it easy today after a late night (is there any other sort in Spain, I hear you cry...) which saw Matthew and me up to our hips in foam, throwing shapes to Kylie at a fiesta de espuma in one of the clubs (I couldn't tell you which one they're all so similar; it's ten years since I first visited Barcelona and the scene is still practically unchanged!) Classy it was not; the one pair of jeans I packed is ruined, and much of my skin is dyed indigo blue, but it was a hoot and a half and a great way to start my visit.

The absolute highlight so far though was my trip out: I could get very, very used to flying Club class. The dedicated check-in desks; the roomy, peaceful lounge with booze on tap and freebies galore; boarding and disembarking the plane first; real glass to drink champers from (which was topped up throughout the flight by the lovely gay trolley dolly who also slipped me two miniature bottles of Pommery to take with me!); proper food, extra legroom...definitely worth every extra penny, but if I'm going to stick to anything like my budget for this travelling lark I'm going to have to be very strict about going economy with Club as an occasional treat.

Tonight we're going for dinner at a friend of Matthew's, so I'll get to put faces to the names of the various chums and chumesses he's spoken of over the years he's been here. He doesn't seem very happy at the moment but I think that's homesickness more than anything; hopefully I can put a smile back on his face or at least have fun trying! I'm already missing Alyn like mad; I've been in a sort of denial over the last few weeks about how much I would miss seeing him and now that I'm facing the prospect of not having him next to me for a few weeks it's making me feel a bit sick. Time to give him a call, in fact, so hasta luego and more of this nonsense soon!

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