Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Another world inside Barcelona - Parc Güell

Imagine you said to a 6 year old child with a vivid imagination - "create the park of your dreams". Parc Güell seems like it was constructed on the basis of crayon scribbles, modelling clay and shreds of tiles found in a building site.

We spent an afternoon roaming around, stopping for a picnic lunch in one of the more secluded areas. We could have easily spent more hours there. It's one of those places which is deservedly a tourist attraction.

The gardens are littered with strange, dream-like architectural features - staggered arches, columns which seem to be forever on the verge of toppling, spiked white statues, swirling window frames, shattered mosaic paths, tiled benches that ripple inwards from the walls then plunge back again, Arabic-inspired patterns. Barely a straight line. The rocks seem piled together with superglue. It's the Flintstones meets Dali. As we walked further and higher into the park, we began to glimpse some pretty amazing views of the Barcelona, which is hemmed in by a valley and the sea.

The parc is an unreal place of tranquillity and respite from the big city, and is full of surprises. While roaming, we quite suddenly and inexplicably came upon a huge hall-like area, open but supported by Roman columns. Inside was a classical guitarist, plucking away. The best venue ever. We followed some stairs from this area downwards, and found another sheltered yet open alcove where another musician was playing a didgeridoo. Completely off the hook.

We ran into more of Gaudi's architecture around Barcelona - his art-like buildings often seem aquatic, surreal, they almost appear to quiver and undulate like coral underwater. To me, they're not always beautiful, they're just really unique and awe-inspiring. They just have their own aesthetic, their own logic. They make sense in their own weird way. In this way, Parc Güell reminds me of the best of Frank Gehry's works, in that it is so other worldly and fills you with wonder about how it was conceived and constructed, how it remains standing. It's also epic in vision and proportion - it took fourteen years to construct.

For once, I'm actually glad there was someone (in fact, a Count) who was rich and crazy enough to commission a work of such a grand scale - it's a great, open, public space with a ridiculous amount of artistic merit. (And much better as a public park than it's original inception - a luxury home estate.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Marrakech, Morocco

Our half-week or so in Morocco was really fascinating. The city is a full on, sensual and colourful maze. It's full of stray cats, carts drawn by mangy donnkeys, lawless motorbikes, kilometres of market stalls and most of all, rushes of people. The air is choked with dust and diesel exhaust. The tiny channels of markets in the old city are impossible to unravel and totally amazing. Sun trickles through the slats of the covered markets and creates bars of specked, diagonal light. The city reminds me alot of Venezuela and Mexico in some ways. Perhaps it's what I anticipated Venezuela would be like. Whatever this place reminds me of, it's great to be on the road again and travelling for real. And it's great to be out of England. So great.

Marrakech is elusive. Only a sliver of Morrocan life is accessible to us as tourists. As a traveller, I guess you come to accept that this glance is all you'll get in some places - we're just visiting, and our experience is limited.

There are many reminders of Morocco's colonial history and collisions of African and European. There are torrents of tourists, mainly French, flood the old city, Medina. Waiters greet us in French before realising we speak English. We're so aware of our white tourist status.

We spent countless hours sitting in rooftop cafes overlooking the main Place Jemaa al FNA, sipping fresh mint tea and people watching. Below, the market swam with beggars, snake-charmers and backpackers. Behind us, a group of Spaniard tourists try, in Spanish, to order paella. I have a sense that many tourists are engaging in the travel myth - travel without really travelling or being outside of their comfort zone. At about four o'clock in the afternoon, the night markets begin their set up, and the whole mood picks up. Dozens of Moroccans swarm around buskers - it seems busking is a form of mass entertainment here. There are plays, music...all kinds of theatrics going on down there.

The night markets are the absolute highlight for me. We ordered bowls of olives, couscous, tiny fried sausages, aubergine grilled until crisp outside and melting inside, bread and tiny bowls of fresh tomato and chilli and preserved lemon dipping sauces. The bill came to about $8. And it was delicious.

Flying in and out, the patchwork terrain differs from any other I've seen. Tiny wedges of plotted land sit alongside perforated, scar-like eruptions of ragged mountains.

A park near the Medina offers us some quiet and a chance to read the already outdates English-language papers. I'm loving the hard, bright sun.

I get the impression of a society deeply divided along gender lines. There are many beggars, mostly women, and many with small children. The stallholders at the markets and the waiters are mostly men. I wonder how tourism influences and distorts Morrocan life - the hordes of Western tourists obviously bring much needed dollars to local vendors, but the air of cheap consumerism and skimpy resort-style extravagance has the heavy stench of exploitation. It also must conflict with the country's Muslim values. I wonder about life outside of urban Marrakech. Without Arabic language skills, or even a bit of French, or a local to stay with, it's impossible to know.

So though I feel our experience of Morocco has been a bit slippery, I'm so glad we came here. Next I'd love to explore outside of Marrakech, and get real about this amazing country.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Barcelona memories, aka, ummm, why was I born in Australia???

New meets old, on Verde

A handful of my Barcelona discoveries and memories - I'm desperate to record them, and not forget them. These are the things that made me think, "Jesus Christ, is this my life?!"

- We clogged our arteries with the best churros and densest chocolate at Xureria Trebol. I've gotta get used to ordering hot chocolate in Spain - it's not chocolatey, hot, milk, it's hot chocolate ganache. Seriously (en serio).

- We found one of the coolest bars I've ever been in - Les Gens Que J'aime. It's French, underground, adorned with vintage photos and posters, and very barely lit. I could imagine booking it out for a special party. We stayed for just one gin and tonic before heading off. As we were walking down Valencia St, Justin said to me "Guess how much the bill was".
"Seven?" I ventured.
This continued until I reached eleven, and went, "Just tell me, please!"
Fifteen Euros. For two gin and tonics. That's like...more than twenty dollars. Jesus Christ. Never again. It was worth it though. I guess. No definitely, it was definitely worth it, just very hard to stomach. At least we found out the price after drinking, and not before, it would have been impossible to enjoy an $11 drink.

- The El Raval neighbourhood is a great place to wander and grab a tiny, strong, delicious cafe. It's very working class and Arabic-influenced, with lots of falafel and shewarma restaurants. The cafes around the Rambla del Ravel are great, always packed out. I would love to go back and visit this cafe.

- Just north of this area is the Barcelona Center of Contemporary Culture. It has a beautiful square, and excellent art shop (this trip has solidified my obsession with art gallery shops - the Tate Modern gallery shop in London is another fave).

- East of El Raval is the Barri Gotic - the gothic, old city. You could take a day to get lost and found in this quarter's tiny, windswept, cobblestoned alleys - grab a coffee and croissant for brekky, check out the Catedral, wander some more...Carrer del Banys Nous is especially cool - lots of alternative clothing shops and little boutiques awaiting discovery.

- El Mercat de la Boqueria is an intoxicating foodie experience - though we didn't actually eat here, just wandering and looking is almost enough, though I wish we'd had enough time to go back and grab a caña and some tortilla, some juicy fat olives, and wafer thin jamon iberico with tomato-rubbed bread. It's busy and bustling, totally overwhelming. There's salt-preserved fish, tiny chocolate truffles, massive legs of acorn-raised jamon iberico, piles of shiny clementine mandarins...I would seriously shop here every day if I lived in Barcelona. I would also work out at the gym for at least an hour.

- La Tramoia was a great place to stop for un pequeño cerveza and ogle at the meticulously constructed tapas on display at the bar. As with any self-respecting bar/restaurant/cafe, they have dozens of jamon iberico legs hanging from the ceiling.

- We overlooked the city and the valley from the Parc de Montjuïc on Barcelona's Western peninsula - Carretera de Miramar affords the best lookout.

- Sagrada Familia towers over Barcelona, and it just happened to be on the way from our hotel to the city. It's funny - Justin hates it, and I quite like it. Sometimes I think it almost looks like a crustacean. It's under maintenance at the moment, and the new additions are hideous, but regardless of what you think of it, it's an extreme and unique church.

- This strip of Carrer Verdi is really cool - full of alternative clothing shops and Middle Eastern restaurants. It's quieter, at the top of the city, just a cool place I really liked.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Leaving our third home in a year

"Travelling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things - air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky - all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it."
Cesare Pavese

The end of our trip is approaching. Eleven months is a really long time to be away from home - it will be twelve months all together. I'm looking forward to leaving England and doing a serious month's worth of "real" travel in Morocco, Spain and Italy (and a bit of Thailand thrown in at the end). It's funny that although being alone is a bit part of travel, it's not really the part of travel that people discuss very much. You're much more likely to hear about the amazing, exciting, exotic parts, and the deep friendships formed. In my travel experiences, I've always felt a sense of isolation and "looking in" before the "being part of the world" experience of the travel, if that makes sense. I've learned that I pretty much a freak in every country of the world. But that's ok - I think often while travelling you feel more like an outsider before you get to the point where you feel you've gained any insight. So it's worth it. Though I've never felt a really deep connection to Australia, let alone any nationalist sentiments, Sydney feels like home, and I think about the people back home alot. At the same time, we're already planning our next trip!! Too far ahead of ourselves again.

Being constantly off-balance isn't the only brutality of travel. Making friends and leaving them behind, with no certainty or where, when or if you'll see them again is harsh, really harsh. I've made a few really great friends in Nottingham. I wish they could meet my friends back home. We could all go to the Courthouse in Newtown for a few schooners. Impossible, but nice to think about.

So it's with mixed feelings that I begin the last stage of our trip.

Although I didn't love England, I'll miss delicious, inexpensive mixed veg curry, chilli naan and grilled fish at our local at Hyson Green, pots of vanilla tea and reading the Guardian at Lee Rosy's, crazy American-style supermarkets, coffee and pastries at Screaming Carrot vegan bakery, the Sumac Centre, asking for pints at pubs, tea and trashy movies that were so bad they were good at Charlie's house, curries and wine at Phil's house, Nottingham's good cycling paths (yep, I had a bike here), 30pence samosas, Broadway cinema, excellent ciders - some organic - on tap at every pub, long baths almost every night, heated towel racks and watching DVDs and drinking red wine under doonas to escape the miserable miserable weather.

But of course, you just don't want to be a stereotypical Australian whining about the tragic Pommy weather.

The last few days, it snowed properly, and the temperature dropped to almost zero in the day. It's been lovely, and I went down to WollatonPark, a big park and mansion that was built on lace wealth, for a Sunday winter adventure. On the ride there, the sky darkened very suddenly, and as cycled through the main gates, it started snowing for real, almost horizontally. It was very bleak and very beautiful. Very English - in the best sense of the word.