Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Oye Barcelona - City of Food, Culture, People and Gaudi

For my 34th birthday, I bought myself a ticket to Barcelona! Always wanted to visit this city - but missed the chance back in 2009. Finally since I've relocated to Europe, it is just a 2 hour flight away - makes for a quick long weekend getaway and a good birthday treat!
What attracted me to Barcelona - I think the food, the atmosphere and the art work (Gaudi). I'm not an artsy person but Barcelona is beautiful! And you will see how beautiful it is. Yes Gaudi made it gorgeous with his amazing work, but also the people and food.
From my faint memory of Madrid, Barcelona is vastly different in terms of the city vibe, people and culture. Afterall, they are Catalons not Spanish. Because of the long history (wouldn't bore you with it), Barcelonians do not view themselves as Spanish, rather of Catalonian decent. That makes for interesting perspective and culture! Food wise, there is a mix of both Catalonian cuisine and Spanish tapas. And the location of the city makes for fine weather all year round, which I suspect contributes to the friendly, happy and open people all around. I am a believer that good weather makes people happy (that's why the Nordics have high suicide rates). My plan was a 4 day vacation in Barcelona to soak in all I can. Initially, I thought 4 days seem a long time, but after 2 days I realized Barcelona has a lot to offer!

Playa Catalunya
Travelling from the airport into town was easy - you could take the airport bus to the main square or you could take the train and transfer to metro. The airport bus is very convenient and runs every 10-15 minutes and stops right in the main square where you can catch a metro to anywhere you like! Upon arrival, I immediately signed myself up for a free walking tour of the gothic area. I would definitely recommend this walking tour if you have just arrived and have no idea what or where to go. They also do a free city walking tour. As it is free, it works on a tips-basis. The walking tour was very informative and the guides were friendly and funny. We visited a lot of places in the gothic quarter and also got pointed to the best local café for some true blue hot chocolate and churros (Granja La Pallaresa)! Some churches/cathedrals are free to enter before and after the official opening hours (mainly before 9am or after 4pm). The museum at King's Plaza is free on Sundays after 3pm.

Awesome churros with hot chocolate
The tour took 2 hours and from there on, I walked to my hostel - Generator hostel. I strongly recommend this hostel. They also have a hotel right beside it. I could not believe my eyes when I saw the hostel - the façade and the reception area looked too posh and expensive for a hostel! Because of high season, I paid €14 per night for a girls' ensuite dorm room. I liked the room - it was clean, and quiet and comfortable. Linen and blankets are provided for, and you can lock your luggage (bring your own padlock). Doors are unlocked with a key card (like a hotel!) Location is also quite central yet far from the noise (2 stops away from Plaza Catalunya).
That night I met up with a Polish girl I chatted with on Couchsurfing and we went to the Musical Fountain for the light show. Note that the light show is only on on Fridays and Saturdays from 7pm (every half hour I believe). Check out the website for more information. It is walking distance from metro station Espanya. It was also beautiful with the night lights on all buildings. After, we walked in search of a tapas place. Having no clue where to go, we just randomly popped into a tapas place for some Spanish tapas and wine. It was a nice evening, but we were both real tired from the travelling and retreated to our beds early.

The next morning, I had arranged a walking tour with another fellow CS. Akil, from Pakistan who lived in Barcelona for 2 years. He showed me around the city and we went to all the tourist spots.

First stop - Park Guell. From there, if you hike up to the top, you get an amazing view of the city. The weather was perfect and at times too warm for my coat! Park Guell is also where you will see the mosaic work of Gaudi. I didn't go in - but from the outside, I could see some of the work. The distinct characteristic of Gaudi's work is impossible to miss. So quirky, whimsical and beautiful.

Still in awe! This is the back
Next stop, the must see La Sagrada Familia! To be honest, I've never seen pictures of the Basilica. And the moment we stepped into view of the majestic building, I was in awe. Speechless. I just stared at that humongous piece of work and marveled at how incredible it is. Seriously, if there's one church/cathedral/basilica you have to see in your entire life - it is this! Nothing else beats this in my opinion. This day was just to marvel at the structure from outside, I made another visit for the interior.
Next up, we went down to Barceloneta and had some fantastic Spanish food! The weather by the beach wasn't that great but the walk was nice. The beach is nice, but I felt it was quite forced - I guess it will always be like that when you see a city beach - a little sanitized and artificial. I like the natural beaches with their rustic outlook and conditions. This beach is beautiful and great for the people, but to me, felt just a tad too poised and commercial. Our lunch was fantastic though - Bar Bitacora - I recommend this place for some good Spanish food.

Lunch for 2
Our walk after lunch took us to Parc de la Ciutadella. From there we continued walking to the city center and marveled at yet another amazing building - Palau de la Musica Catalona. The night ended with a walk down the famous La Rambla street and I bade my new friend a farewell.

Next day - I had lots to do! This was the day I entered into La Sagrada. Remember to buy your tickets online and select the time you want to enter. This will help you avoid the long long queues to buy tickets and you can spend more time inside! I only bought a ticket to go in, without the audio or to go up the towers. I heard from the Polish girl that the audio doesn't really give as much information as she had expected, but I guess you have to be your own judge. I like to look at architecture but the history of it doesn't interest me as much, so I passed on the audio. You could easily spend 2 hours in that building itself. It is just that amazing! Imagine when it is completed in 20 years' time. A tip I got from another CS - Hospital de la Santa Creu - Sant Pau - it is walking distance from La Sagrada and the architecture itself is also really beautiful. You could go in, but I didn't.

Inside Sagrada

Sant Pau
After I took a trip up Montjuic. You can take the funicular from the metro station at Parallel (it is included in the metro price) and that gets you halfway up the mountain. From there you can walk up to the top where you get also a good view of the city from another angle!

A pretty famous standing tapas bar but I didn't find it too great
This day was my birthday - I had a quiet celebration with the Polish girl with a very nice Spanish tapas dinner at Vinitus. It is not easy ordering tapas when the menu is not in English but we managed to point and order and the food was good! After the dinner, we met up with her new Polish friends and had some fancy cocktails at the First Cocktail Bar. It was a nice night and a good birthday celebration.

At Vinitus

Grilled pulpo
On my last day, I went up to Bunker del Carmel. You could walk up there but I took the bus which took up all the way up, except for the last bit. You just need to walk up a little and you are on the highest point! The view up there is even more amazing than from Park Guell. After the little hike, I went to the Entremesos museum where they keep all the giants they use for the carnival. It is free entry so have a look at it if you have time. Next I went over to El Born CCM - they have a free exhibition of the uncovered ancient Roman remains. It was a good visit where you learn a little of the past history. My last meal in Barcelona was one of the best and value for money. I went to Ca La Montse and had their lunch special. For €15 I get 2 dishes and a dessert (plus drinks and bread). I had no idea what I was in for! I thought it would be appetizer and main course, but it turned out to be 2 main courses! I ordered the black seafood paella and it came out a main course portion. My fish dish was also huge! At the end of the 2 dishes I barely had enough space for dessert so I ordered only a yogurt to cleanse my palate. After, I took a walk along the coast and back to my hostel.

View from Bunker

This giant is bigger than me

El Born CCM
Black paella - this is divine!

All in all, I had fun in Barcelona. No late night partying or getting drunk but basically enjoying the city, food and culture. And of course the weather! Barcelona has a lot to offer, and watch out for pickpockets! I didn't get picked but it is very common there. Make a trip to Mercado de la Boqueria - where you have the local market that sells all sorts of things - from vegetables to fruits to meat, fish, nuts, cheese, oil and whatever. They also have cheap fresh fruit juices for €1. Definitely leave space for food because it is about the food there! The few CS people I met have told me that they came to Barcelona on holiday, fell in love with the city and moved here. I can see why that is the case. It is not difficult to love the city.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Conquer and Divide - A tale of the hike in Grandfather's Mountain North Carolina

Back in October 2016 while on a business trip to North Carolina, my colleague and I decided to be active the weekend in US - because the weather was awesome, and we had too much food. And we were in North Caroline, home to the beautiful Grandfather Mountain in Parkway Ridge! After much research we decided to tackle the hardest and longest route - Profile Trail. Go big or Go Home - that's our mantra so nothing of the 2 hour short hike sort.
Hiking in Grandfather Mountain is absolutely free! Profile trail is even on Google Map so it's easy to find the parking spot if you are driving. Our drive took 2 hours from Greensboro, and we nearly missed the tiny sign that pointed to the start of Profile Trail. Note of caution - this trail by itself is not too difficult but you do need to have an above average level of fitness. If you decide to move on to Grandfather's Trail or the Calloway Peak (like we did), then make sure you are very fit because it is no walk in the park.
We arrived rather late at 11:30am. It ain't a bad time but would have been better if we were earlier. The ranger told us to buffer 1 hour per mile - which would have made the Profile trail a 3 hour hike one way (6hours return). It scared us a little and we thought of just stopping at Profile and head back - but we were also skeptical about his estimates. So we headed out with the option of going ahead to Grandfather's mountain (another 2 mile hike) or heading back if it got too late.

At Calloway Peak
The start of the Profile trail is easy - we probably did almost 2 miles in an hour. The last mile was slightly harder with some uphill hiking but still manageable. We got to the end of the trail, at the junction point in 2 hours (with a stop for lunch in between). At the junction, we decided to give Calloway Peak a try since it was only 0.4miles away. You would have thought 0.4 miles would take 20mins or less - but we hiked like forever! The view up there was amazing but the return trip costs us 1 hour - how the hell did that happen! By then it was almost 2 pm, and we looked at the trail to Grandfather's Mountain and in our hearts we wanted to go for it. Calculating the 2 km to hike there and back, we were confident we would be able to make it back before sundown. So the hike starts!
Being Lara Croft

The hike started with some precarious rock face walking - a slip and it's bye bye. The view was amazing and it was pretty fun to do some "rock climbing". Nothing too technical. Then we got to the fun part! Steep rocks down down down. It was awesome, but the thought of having to come back up the same way on our way back didn't excite me much. From that point, there are 2 options to get to Grandfather's mountain - the easy way is to go under the canopy - saves time and effort or go the hard way - lots of climbing and ladders. Of course we chose the hard and fun way! It was ladder after ladder after ladder. Mostly going down and just a wee bit of uphill. Finally we arrived at Grandfather's Mountain - the swing bridge after 4pm.

Putting my muscles into good use

New hiking boots need a break

The Mile High Bridge is so-called because it is a mile high up. It was very crowded when we got there and windy. If you want to visit the bridge but don't want to hike, you can drive up to the carpark and park there for 20$. Pfft, why pay when you can hike there for free! We spent some time walking to the edge, taking pictures and finally have to make our way back to our starting point. It was almost 4.30pm when we started the way back and we moved at high speed to make sure we got back before sundown. Because there are more downhills than uphills going back, we made good time! Bumped into a family who saw us at the Profile Trail (they drove to Grandfather's Mountain because with the kids they couldn't hike all the way), and they offered to drive us back to our car since it was late. We declined politely and ventured on. Mind you, if you parked your car at the Grandfather's Mountain carpark, you need to be at your car by 5pm as they close the gates. If not, you are free to roam the mountains.
On the swinging bridge!
The view from the bridge
Telling you it's not for the faint hearted
The tough park for me was when I had to go uphill again - after so many hours of hiking and when you're tired and your mind is weak. But the only way out was to go up. I pushed on, and finally we arrived at the junction towards Profile Trail in 1 hour. From there on, Profile Trail is rather easy. Mostly downhill but watch our for your knees. We were both counting down to when we'll see the parking lot because the closer you get, the more you feel like this had to end. When we got to the 1.5mile marker, our hearts just rose because it meant our car was in sight. But the last 1 mile or so was the most difficult because it was so near yet so far.... Finally we made it out by 630pm. We were both knackered but my colleague still had to drive the 2 hour road back to our comfy hotel where we basically crashed out.
It was a really great hike and workout! I highly recommend anyone who's heading there to do this hike. Of course you don't have to do everything like we did (we were only there for 1 day so we had to do everything), just the profile trail to Calloway Peak would be nice as well! But I found the Hike from Profile to Grandfather's Mountain to be the most scenic. Of course if you have 2 cars, you could easily park one car at the end so you only have to hike one way and drive back to collect the other car!