Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Barcelona Beaches

Beautiful Barcelona.
Beach time.
Boast on the beach.
Spring in the city had sprung and the fair skies and good weather is now something you can depend on every day in Barcelona. Apart from the occasional Spring storm, which brings a lot of rain in a short time, impressive thunder and lightning, as well as cooler temperatures, the city is fairly hot from April and May all the way through till September. I hadn't done much hiking since January, just a trip to Nuria and La Mola, so I figured I'd head to the beach instead and get some sun and sand instead. Although not famous for its beaches, Barcelona does have them and they aren't too bad for city beaches. Nothing to compare to the one further up the Costa Brava, or Sydney's wonderful beaches, they are basically the same - sand, (some) waves and a good way to get a little bit of a tan on the weekend. I decided to get the Renfe train to Sant Adria del Besos, a neighbourhood in the North of Barcelona, and walk back along the promenade all the way to Barceloneta and the small beaches within walking and metro reach of the centre. A little bit of history about the beaches of Barcelona though, that is quite interesting. Before the 1992 Olympics, most of these beaches didn't exist! The 2 miles of beach was created, using sand imported from Egypt, replacing mostly rocky shore, ugly, abandoned buildings and shanty towns. To think that this area is now so important and a symbol to the city, and not that long ago it was pretty much an industrial dumping ground and wasted, ugly space!
The power station at Sant Adria.
Silent chimneys.
Power station on the sea.
Barcelona is very popular with tourists.
Sant Adria del Besos isn't the most beautiful or exciting 'barrio' of Barcelona, and isn't visited by many tourists. The train was mainly full of locals heading to the beaches, slightly more away from the city and the crowds, but still within sight of the city in the distance. There isn't much to see apart from the beach as the area is mainly industrial service sector buildings, small manufacturing, transport, recycling and power generation, historically full of migrants due to the work here. One thing you can't miss here is the old Besos Thermic Power Plant with its 3 tall smokestacks dominating the landscape. Built in the 70s, it was controversial right away - as you'd probably agree if you saw it, a huge concrete box of a thing with 200m chimneys reaching for the sky. It's basically impossible to miss. During its operation it caused a lot of pollution, black rain and smog, that made cars, buildings and clothes out on washing lines dirty, not to mention what it was probably doing to people's health. Thankfully, it was torn down in 2008 due to many and prolonged protests from the locals and now it sits there, a symbol of the past, the industrial power of this suburb and its migrant residents. It's also very popular with photographers and it's even appeared in some music videos. As much as an eye-sore that it is, big, ugly and concrete, I kind of like it for its artistic value, including some very interesting and colourful street graffiti on the walls, and enjoyed taking a few pictures of it before heading down to the beach. The beach and walk is quite pleasant though and as you walk along the promenade, you get the sea breeze and view of the Mediterranean and as well as the bigger buildings of Barcelona in the distance. Another spot a lot of people stop at is the Pont de Petroli, or Petrol Bridge, a long pier that is a good place for a photo and view back towards to the shoreline. This 'pont' is very popular with Instagramers too.
The 'Pont de Petroli.'
Barceloneta beach time.

The W Hotel at Barceloneta.
The walk along the sea at Sant Adria.
Reaching Barceloneta means more and more people, all trying to get their piece of sand to lay on and get some sun. There are always people here when the sun is out and sometimes it's real struggle to get your patch of beach. Most of the people here are tourists, who can easily walk from the Metro station, grab a drink at a nearby xiringuito (beach bar) or some tasty seafood at a beach-side restaurant. Sadly, when you do get a space, it isn't relaxing for long - hawkers are selling their wares, whether it be beer, mojitos, massages or selfie sticks, calling out and doing their laps, back and forth, all-day, non-stop. You try and ignore them, usually I can't help saying 'no thank you' to all of them, but even I stop doing this or you'll never get any relaxation. There is drinking and smoking on the beach as well as paddle games and football - all very Spanish. This is the busier and more touristy beach, and if you want peace and quiet, then this isn't the place for you. Instead, you'll get the real beach-vibe of Barcelona - people selling FCB shirts, fake Gucci handbags and Prada shoes, saris and all sorts of souvenirs, as well as constant traffic on the walkway next to the sand, bars and people drinking and talking, all a short distance from the W Hotel and seafood restaurants - what more could a tourist want right? This quickly gets too much for me, the amount of people, the fact that you can't walk anywhere without nearly stepping on some vendor's crap (as they've taken over whole footpaths), so I usually walk for a bit, take in the sights and get a few photos, then head into the barrio for a beer and some tapas as a little local bar (which shall remain nameless in the hope of keeping it a secret).

View of the city from Sant Adria.
The start of the walk in Vilanova.

Following the path.
Gay Paradise since 1930.

If you still want more beaches, and maybe even another walk with beaches, then get on the train and head to Sitges. Famous for the 'gay scene' as well as its film festival, its a busy and lively place to visit, during the day and the night. They also have a great Festa Major, the annual Catalan party that is held in nearly every town and city across the country during the Summer months, a 4 or 5 day weekend of music, beer, cultural events and good fun. I wasn't here for any of these thing today, instead I came for a walk with my girlfriend along the coast then some relaxing time at the beach. We decided to start at Vilanova, one more train stop south, start from there and make it for a late lunch in Sitges. The weather was great - blue sky, a few clouds to make it more interesting, and just good old Spanish warm weather! Ready for a walk! The path was a little hard to find as there weren't many signs, but once found it was easy to follow. Little more than a dirt train in some parts, the path follows the railway lines for most of the way, occasionally dipping off closer to the coast or climbing some of the rocky outcroppings to give a spectacular view of the sea. Not difficult or long at all, it's something that everyone could do, and should do - an great way to spend half a day walking, getting out in the sun, smelling the sea breeze, a train ride and also ending up in a cool place like Sitges. Along the way, apart from the great sea views, we spotted a big rainbow gay flag waving in the wind, and I know that Sitges is known for its Gay community, I wasn't sure what this flag was doing on a rocky hill in middle of nowhere next to the train line. Upon further inspection, we found a sign stating the this beach is "Gay Paradise" since 1930 - the World's first gay beach - and there was also a beach bar (xiringuito) called "Xiringay" which was established in 1970. From a higher vantage point we also discovered that it is also a nudist beach. After a little thought, I decided it better to finish the walk before having a swim, as I would only get sweaty and dirty again.

The walk from Vilanova to Sitges.
There is history in Sitges.
The Cau Ferrat Museum.
Reaching Sitges in the early afternoon, it was time for a sit down in the shade and a cold beer. I must say something about the city first. As much as I love it, its freedom to be open and be who you are, its proximity to Barcelona and have its own beaches, it is a tourist trap. To make things worse, the hotter it gets the busier it gets here. Night does not bring any respite as that's when the nightlife starts. It's 24-7 here in Sitges at the right (or wrong) time. The first place we found served us beer on the terrace, but told us that they don't accept cards. Finding this hard to believe, I went inside to ask at the bar and I told that it was 'cash only' here. I looked around at the restaurant I was in and couldn't keep my mouth from dropping - it was full of people having lunch, drinking, having a good time, but all paying cash. How could they run a business this way and how can so many people be just paying cash? So, not having any cash on us, we ran. Serves them right for telling us the stupid rule only after bringing the beers. Beers were bought at a convenience store, along with some snacks, and a place on the beach found - relaxing time was achieved. Walking around the city is also very pleasant - its small but very beautiful. It has the typical white-washed buildings of Catalan coastal towns, small stores selling expensive jewellery and bars and restaurants packed together, all trying to get the best sea view. The church that is the picture postcard of Sitges is the Iglesia de San Bartolomé y Santa Tecla, perched up on the outcrop hanging out over the sea. The stairs are always full of people taking pictures of this beautiful church (and themselves... and sometimes themselves and the church), and it has a nice little bench where you can sit and take in the views with the sea in front of you and the church directly behind you. There are a couple of museums, but most people just walk around the Old Town as well as the Passeig Maratim. I was happy with that and some beach time - not so with the crowds on such a hot day. If you like crowded beaches, expensive bars and thumping nightclubs, then this is the place for you in August!
Sant Adria from the Carmel Bunkers
Barceloneta beach.

Barcelona from the bunkers.
Els Bunkers - a romantic place to take her.
If the beach isn't for you, there's still plenty to see and do in Barcelona before it gets too hot. One of these things are the 'Bunkers de Carmel.' These Civil War installations that served as (yup you guessed it) bunkers to protect anti-aircraft guns. They later became a shanty town, the last in the city, but with the coming of the Olympics, the residents were offered new apartments in the city and so moved out. This left the area free and is now a very popular destination for people to come and get a spectacular 180 degree of the city that is Barcelona. It's not that hard to get here, although there isn't a direct metro line, it isn't that far to walk either. Hey, you can't expect a fantastic hill top view without walking up a hill! I had some champagne (or cava in Catalonia), supermarket tapas including bread and humus, and spent a lovely afternoon with the girlfriend, enjoying the view, having a lovely conversation and just being happy to be where we were. I also brought my camera of course! If you get a few days in Barcelona, or you live here and have never been here, then put it on your list - it's free, outdoor and  great place to come and see. It gets quite crowded up here, but they're not all tourists, many locals also love the view and use the time here to chill, enjoy a drink or two with friends and listen to some music played by a weird guy with a guitar. There is so much more to this city than just beer, tapas, FC Barcelona and trendy nightclubs, you just have to look... or ask a local in the know.
There's always one...

Uninterrupted views of the city.
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UncleTravellingMatt. April 2019.

Monday, 12 August 2019

The Nuria Valley

Hot Air Balloons over Vic.
The hike to Nuria.
The mountains are calling!
Christmas in Sydney was lovely, a chance to go home after nearly 4 years. I visited a few beaches, drove around old suburbs of Sydney were I lived and had many memories, as well as catch with some old friends and family. The weather had been hot too, some days tipping the scales at 45c in the city, driving people to flock to the beaches or stay indoors with their air-con on high. I had also visited a few beaches, some of my old favourites and places where I spent many hours lying in the sun, dipping in the water to cool off and rinse the sweat off being laying back in the sun to warm up again - nothing like Summer in Sydney. I'd ticked all the boxes of things that I wanted to do once getting home, most of these things were food that I had to eat - Vietnamese Pho, Thai Laksa, good old Aussie meat pies and sausages rolls, as well as a hot Indian curry. I spent one of my last nights chilling on a rooftop terrace bar in Newtown, having a few beers and talking dreams and aspirations with my best friend who I went to school with. This friend (she knows who she is), is one of the hardest-working, dedicated, smartest and interesting people you will ever meet and I am very happy we got to hang out while I was back. It doesn't matter how long between visits and chats, even if it's 4 years, it seems like yesterday - that's friendship. But not, it was time to make the 24 hours flight back to Barcelona, battle with jetlag and go back to work within a few days and teach 3 year olds. Bring it!
Anyone else see a baby? Looking at the clouds and seeing shapes - Pareidolia.
End of the ski season.

This way!

Nuria is also a ski resort.
The Winter in Spain and Barcelona hadn't been too cold and snowy so far, last year was much worse. I say worse, as I don't really like the dark, cold and wet days of Winter, but in Barcelona it isn't that bad at all. Also, I like a good winter hike if there's a bit of snow around! Since getting back here and going back to work, I was far busier at work and seemed not to have much time for day trips or any mountain trips at all, and it was starting to show. I was feeling the need for Nature, the call of the wild, to stretch my legs and hike. Luckily, many of my friends here feel the same, and so a trip was planned. Already it was March, and I'd been back since mid-January after Australia, and not really done anything, let alone in the mountains. We decided to head up to the Vall de Nuria (Nuria Valley), a Ski resort and monastery in a valley in the Pyrenees. There are 2 ways of getting there - walking from the town of Queralbs (or from France on the other side of the range) or via a rack railway. There are no roads, no short-cuts apart from the train but it isn't cheap to do it that way - unless your name is 'Nuria' then the ticket is free! It's actually a very popular name in Catalonia, but I'm sure not just for the free ride up here. I've caught the little train once as well as walk, and this time we would be walking as well, starting from the village of Queralbs and walking for just under 3 hours. It's fairly close to Sabadell, just over 1 hour and 30 mins on a good run and along the C-17, a road that runs through small mountains, past towns like Aigufreda, Centelles and past Vic. To make things easier, I had dinner at my friend's place, with their 2 kids, and slept on the sofa, ready to make an early start in the morning.

Mountain cabin with a view.
The start of the hike to Nuria.
The hike up.
Frozen water at the dam.
With a little napping and no traffic, the ride went by quickly, even the kids were quiet! Being a Sunday, you usually get to see balloons setting up in the area around Vic, and today we saw lots of them, all floating just off the ground, making their quiet ascent into the big blue sky. If you've never been on a balloon trip, I highly recommend it - it's peaceful, relaxing and you get amazing view straight down onto houses, roads and fields, and also a unique view of mountains. The landing isn't always quite so tranquil - it;s usually a bumpy affair and you rarely land exactly where you want either! We parked the car at the rack railway station, had a quick bathroom break and leg stretch, then slowly walked up to the starting point of the hike. Already at this time, around 8:30, there were people waiting for the train to Nuria, but not as many as you'd get in Summer or Winter. In summer, loads of people come up here to go hiking in the Pyrenees and sometimes right over the border to France. In Winter, it's busy because it's also a ski resort. Luckily for us, it wasn't peak season and there weren't that many people going either way, train or trail. We stopped at the entrance to the village, filled up water bottles from the mountain spring fountain and also had a small snack of croissants and pastries to get some energy and motivation to start. We had 3 kids with us and with kids, you need to stop and feed them, rest them a little, every 45 mins to an hour to get to the finish line - they can do it, kids have an uncanny ability to always have a secret reserve of energy which they let lose at the wrong time, usually in the car on the way home, but they need stops and encouragement to hold their interest. Adults either need to be in shape or be mentally tough (sometimes both) to keep going, relying on muscle and training - kids just need to be kids.

The Rack Railway train making its way through the mountains.
As cool as the train is, you don't get these views without walking!
The Rack Railway.
The steel 'teeth' that help the train up the slopes.

We hiked up, stopping a few times for snacks and water, as well as photos. It didn't quite take up 3 hours, although it's quicker without kids. The view gets better and better, the higher up you get and further along the path. You cross small rivers, go under the railway bridge, and wind your way up and through the mountains, occasionally getting a brief view of the rack railway train steaming up and through the tunnels, cutting out all the twists and turns we had to do. The Vall de Núria Rack Railway, or the 'Cremallera de Núria' in Catalan, was originally opened in 1931 as an all-electric train to access the ski resorts which up to this point was only accessible via footpath and donkey. The train operates normally for some of the way, snaking up the railways, through tunnels, but the last part, the steepest part, it goes up via a strange rack system. This part of the track looks like big metal teeth in the middle between the normal rails, and this links with the train and it gets pulled up the slope, even in snowy weather. The walk is a pleasant one, with great views behind you of where you started from, the green trees that change colour in autumn and even in Winter, blue skies and interesting clouds. The best part is when you finally reach the end of the hike, walking over a crest and you get a view of the valley and the resort. There is a small lookout point, where everyone goes to take photos and get selfies taken, but it's a must. From here you get a great view, and today we got exactly what we were hoping for - the was dam partially frozen over, as well as some remaining snow on the slopes and higher mountains. Beautiful! We walked down, alongside the water and over to the resort for a well-deserved beer and some hot food.

All aboard to Nuria!
The best view of Nuria.
Frozen lake.
The Vall de Nuria!
It's not just the ski slopes here that attract tourists, but the monastery as well. According to legend, Saint Giles came to the valley and lived here for 4 years during the 8th Century, but had to flee from persecution. He left a carved image of the Virgin, along with a cooking pot, a cross and a bell for calling shepherds to meals. A pilgrim called Amadéu began searching for the image in 1072 after having a dream. He built a small chapel for pilgrims, and eventually found the items left by the Saint and kept them in church as holy objects. The image is regarded as the patron saint of fertility by shepherds and the Sanctuary here is named after Saint Nuria. Inside the chapel, you can ring the bell while holding your head in a confession style booth, and the saying goes that  if you do this, you'll become very fertile and have many kids. I've done this a few times and thankfully no kids yet! We sat on the lawn in front of the monastery and ate our packed lunches, enjoyed the warmth of the Winter sun on our legs, and chilled out, not really wanting to leave. After a decent amount of time, and just when the sun started to lose its potency, we got up and started the journey back down to the cars. We had our last snack at the bottom along with more spring water, then a quick walk around the village of Queralbs, before jumping in the cars and heading for home. It was a good day - I love the Nuria Valley and love the hike there. Next time, I will not just hike there but further afield, through the Pyrenees, maybe even into France! Who knows! Adventure is just there on the horizon, take it and live it!

Rooftops in Queralbs.
The little streets of Queralbs.
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UncleTravellingMatt. March 2019.

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...