E: Kate Lisa Lola Barcelona – Spain

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Great history, incredible food and vibrant people, why don’t people obsess over Barcelona like they do Paris or Rome?

The root of my fascination with Barcelona stems from the 2008 Woody Allen film ‘Vicky Christina Barcelona’. The eccentric characters, ambient music and panning camera shots of Gaudi’s buildings were more than enough to carve a romanticized Barcelona firmly in my mind. Any mention of the film within my circle of friends almost instantly leads to ‘Isn’t that the film with a threesome?’. However, what my good friends fail to acknowledge, is in accompaniment to Penelope Cruz’s alluring accent and charm, the film showcased the city in a way which I had not seen or thought about before. Barcelona was portrayed as an amorous beacon of culture, composed of streets exuding life and character. Much like the way many people view Paris, but Barcelona drenched in the Mediterranean sun appeared far more enticing in my eyes.

I had been invited to Barcelona courtesy of my good German friend Lola, who had spent the previous year studying something related to finance within the city. Lola seemed the perfect match for Barcelona, motivated and positive, yet very easy-going. Always appearing in control of whatever situation she would find herself in. My first ever encounter with her was during university in Singapore, I was invited to tag along with a trip to Cambodia via a mutual friend. I had been invited to this trip regardless of Lola’s opinion. Showing up to her flat one night, having never even being properly introduced, she smiled at me as if she had known me for years, offered me a beer and handed over their flight details. I approved.

Lola was caught up in a job interview at the time of my arrival but I had previously assured her that I would be capable of temporarily surviving in a foreign city despite her absence, and would locate a bite to eat until she finished her tasks. The coach from the airport dropped me off in the city centre and within two minutes of strolling the side streets off La Rambla I was in love.

Bustling with people, much like any other city, it was busy but somehow in a different way. Unlike the people back home, the crowds here did not seem to be in a particular rush to be anywhere. The usual composition of suits and ties were almost completely absent from sight. Youngsters whizzed past on skateboards and scooters unsupervised, something unheard of back in London. Shockingly even the tourists blended in to some degree, due perhaps to the large mix of people and my good mood.

Whilst weaving in and out of side streets, I discovered a little side door to a 365 café. “Great, a distinctive name that Lola will easily be able to find,” I thought to myself. A ping from my phone’s speaker alerted me that Lola was headed to the café now. Unfortunately however, a good deal of time had passed since I had finished the remaining crumbs of my baguette, and there was still no sign of Lola. The café was much nicer than the chains we had at home so I had presumed it was an independent store. I was wrong. 365 cafés can be found almost everywhere in Barcelona.

When Lola did eventually manage to hunt me down, it was glorious to see her again. Suddenly all the imagery from the previous times we had spent together was vivid once again. In true Lola style I was not surprised in the slightest when her first suggestion was “I have some friends who are at the beach right now, they’re playing volleyball, we can join them if you want.” Once again, I approved.

The evening was spent drinking beer and failing at playing volleyball near Port Olympic de Barcelona. The easy-going atmosphere of the city was echoed by the beach and refreshing compared to the drab weather back home, I felt ever so happy and relaxed to be there. I was treated to some German ‘Spätzle’, and watermelon for dinner, before heading to the bus terminal to meet the others. Approaching us at full velocity in the darkness, Kate and Lisa let us know they had arrived.

Lola’s flat despite lacking much space was incredibly charming. Room and corridor floors were blanketed by colourful tiles, adding to its Spanish charm. The miniature balcony overlooked a labyrinth of rooftops and gardens, which housed various plant pots and odd furniture. One even became an extension of a nearby bar at night. A breakfast of muesli and local fruit on Lola’s miniature balcony kick-started our day of exploration of the gothic quarter of the city. Many of the buildings here date back to Medieval times and some go as far back as the Roman era.

Although it was difficult to divert my attention from the movement on the streets and the stonework surrounding us, glancing above at the residents in their balconies was my favourite component of the morning. A young couple played cards together on a small table, while sipping beer. A woman stepped outside for a quick cigarette, herself checking out the entertainment the street traffic below had to offer. An older couple dined together whilst sharing conversation. The neighbourhood was brought to life simply by these people stepping onto their balconies, sharing small personal moments of their lives with the outside world. They gave the neighbourhood a personality. Suddenly ‘knowing’ the people who lived there made the buildings so much more intriguing. Seeing short glimpses of their lives left me curious to find out more, how long had they been there? What profession do they have? When did they first buy the plants on their balconies?

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We proceeded to gather the required picnic materials from a grocery store nearby, later reconvening with some of Lola’s friends from the previous day at Parc de la Ciutadella. After we finished deliberating where to sit down in the shade, a man took his place at the foot of the tree adjacent to us and began to play his guitar. Talk about hitting the jackpot. He was not a busker, there was no hat or guitar case in sight, he had just come to the park with the sole intention to play music, as a Londoner, this again was an idea I found difficult to comprehend.

Where to get your groove on: El Bombón is a lively salsa bar set in the gothic quarter which offers the perfect getaway from the typical Top 40 clubbing scene. Incredibly affordable €2 Mojitos and an exciting Latin atmosphere should make this place a must on your to do list.

Table tennis in the afternoon sun was a satisfying (and free) way to spend a couple of hours. Food combined with a bit of friendly competition had left me in a content mood. However, this calm feeling was cut short upon our return to the flat as Lola commanded us to put on our running shoes and depart before sunset. Running is such a brilliant way to see a new city. By the time you get the chance to blink, your surroundings change and you find yourself on a completely different street. Lola being familiar with the layout of the streets led us from the heart of the town to the seafront.

The transition of the whole city from day to night was clearly visible from our viewpoint at the base of the W hotel building. The lights initially emerged like distant stars scattered on the peaks behind the city, increasing in frequency as you followed the slope towards the shore. The combination of the rugged terrain’s natural beauty and the electric influence of the cityscape brought the picture to life. Saddened at the fact I was without my camera, a quick plunge into the seawater made me feel much better, despite the fact we were now soaking wet and had nothing to dry ourselves with before commencing the run back home.

  • Sample the local cuisine at: Bitacora With mouth-watering food, drinks and dessert for roughly €20 per person, Bitacora was undoubtedly the best food we had during the trip. Options include tantalisingly spiced potatoes, fresh mussels and tangy green peppers. The restaurant offers a great casual setting with outdoor seating available during the summer.
  • Gotta be a tourist: Learning about Gaudi’s visions of having the scenes of the bible illustrated on the façades of the Sagrada Família through the audio guide was fascinating. Subtle elements which were not obvious at first became illuminated through the explanations. For example the glass at the top of the building behind the alter was left unstained so as to symbolise the pure light from heaven, and the columns and ceiling were crafted in an attempt to recreate the scenery of a forest (pictures below).
  • Gotta be a tourist again: Despite the swarms of people Park Guel is still worth a visit. It was essentially Gaudi’s idea of the ideal housing complex, complete with a central market for residents to be encouraged to interact. Financial instability prevented the project from completion, leaving only the first two buildings constructed (top picture).
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E: Athenian Afternoon

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Athens, the birthplace of democracy and city of wisdom, does the modern-day flavour of the city fulfil grand expectations a third time around?

Feeling surprisingly alert considering I had spent the day roaming unsuccessfully in search of Barcelona’s botanic gardens, my flight arrived at Eleftherios Venizelos Airport around 4am. Mixed feelings encircled me concerning my return to Athens. This was my third visit to the concrete jungle, whose legacy was dwarfed in the shadow of the great historic city that once stood there before. Being a Cypriot, I often felt that I should have had a sense of ‘belonging’ in Athens, the Hellenic capital. However, previous experiences had left me agitated and unimpressed by the Athenians manners and mentality, something which many European countries are beginning to tire of. Having made these opinions known to everyone prior to the organisation of this trip, I decided to keep an open mind when booking my tickets.

With my backpack on my shoulders, I contentedly strolled past baggage collection and exited swiftly. Pausing outside of the exit gate, it occurred to me that I had entered the country without passing through immigration. Asking a nearby officer whether I was allowed to leave, he briefly glanced at me unimpressed before shrugging and turning the other way. Welcome to Greece!

IMG_6937A strange sense of calm gripped the city that day, almost as if it lay in anticipation of a storm. That Sunday would be the day the 2015 Greek bailout referendum would take place. Syntagma square was crowded with ‘Oxi’ (No) campaign posters and signs, against the proposed austerity measures. This was exceedingly interesting to see, especially as the majority of the media in the country had been broadcasting advertisements in favour of the Yes campaign. The atmosphere on the street was weary, but in fact the Athens of 2015 was just like I remembered it 8 years ago, the 60s buildings were underwhelming, the ancient ruins had struggled in the face of time and the crowded streets harboured little charm.

I found it difficult to be this unimpressed by a city that has given the world so much in terms of culture and democracy. At some points I even angered myself with my negativity, especially since we were there for such a short period of time. Thankfully despite all of this occurring in my head, my company was outstanding. I was so pleased to see them all learning even a little bit about Greek culture. All of us being Biology students from York had really grown close these past three years mainly as a consequence of being confined within labs and tortured with evolving formats of exams.

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Rising up above the city and passing the slabs of stone surrounding the steps leading up to the Parthenon still retained some of the magic people would associate with the highly romanticised Ancient Athens. When you finally reach the top, the noble Parthenon greets you. It’s only a matter of time until disappointment strikes again, instead of being taken aback by the elegance of the structure, you end up pitying the ruin it has become. Engulfed in scaffolding, the fact that the Parthenon has endured a lot is obvious. One can imagine the greatness the temple will possess once restoration works are completed, and the awe that will engross guests when walking between the columns, yet this dream still seems a long way away. The site also offers some brilliant views across the city which are once again tainted as the majority of the views are composed of dated apartment blocks. A fire even broke out in the distance while we were there.

Our final venture of the day was a visit to the new Acropolis Museum. A modern building, where the artefacts are exhibited with minimal distractions in a clean, well-lit and open space. Knowing all of the pieces on exhibition in the museum are solely from the Acropolis is impressive, and a reminder of just how much history both the city and the country encompasses within it. I was impressed with the execution and use of the space. Yet even when I managed to enjoy something in Athens, at the end of the day, the design was by a Swiss Architect, and ultimately in the coming years, it will fade into being just another characterless glass building expressing nothing of the people of the city.

IMG_6946After a frappé on the roof terrace of the museum, we headed home to board the ferry to Paros the next day. This trip had left me feeling even more muddled than before. The strangest aspect of my experience is having spent only a day there, I wish to return again. I would like to take the time out to delve a little deeper in the surrounding neighbourhoods, see the city off the beaten path and seek out these elements I keep hearing about which apparently make it so great to be an Athenian. Having travelled and enjoyed so many different cities around the world, it simply frustrates me not being able to find any joy in the place. Quite confidently I can say that I do not intend on booking tickets back there any time in the near future, but when I do come back and have the time, I’m determined to search every street corner in an attempt to find something I can remember the city positively by, because it’s a shame, even after three visits, I still don’t get it.

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