Dia del Libro: Barcelona’s Yearly Homage to the Book and my Favorite Books About Spain

Well known fact about me: I’m a huge proponent for books. I average 20 novels a year and nerd out at bookstores in Seville (and online – damn Amazon’s one-click for my Kindle!). In Spain – particularly in Cataluña – the International Day of the Book is celebrated as a day for lovers, even if only for lovers as books.

The UNESCO has delegated April 23rd as the International Day of the Book, owing to the fact that both Cervantes and Shakespeare, considered to be true purveyors of their languages, died on this day in 1616. What’s more, the feast day of St. George, the patron of Cataluña, commemorates his death and falls on April 23rd. This holiday is revered in the region, and I actually first heard of the celebration reading one of my favorite books set in Spain.

According to local legend, Sant Jordi heroically saved a princess on the outskirts of Barcelona by using a spear. From the slayed dragon’s spilt blood grew a rosebush, and Saint George pick them and gave them to the princess. Since the Middle Ages, men have been giving roses to their sweethearts on this version of Valentine’s Day, and women gift books to them. Results are a massive sale of both in the days leading up to the 23rd.

On this Catalan version of Valentine’s Day, I leave you some of my favorite books set in Spain:

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruíz Zafón

Celebrated young adult novelist Ruíz Zafón jumped into adult fiction with this superb work of mystery and intrigue, set in Barcelona. Youngster Daniel’s father takes him to a place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a forlorn library stacked floor to ceiling with obscure books. The one he chooses, the Shadow of the Wind, is subsequently devoured. When his father warns him that he must protect the book forever, a sinister man tries to destroy it, throwing Daniel into a struggle to save a book and the legacy of an author called Julián Carax. Set in post-war Spain, I had an insatiable thirst for this book, relishing in the intricate story lines and well-drawn characters. I’ve subsequently read many others by the author but not the prequel to Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game.

buy it: The Shadow of the Wind Paperback | The Shadow of the Wind Kindle

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

Am I the only one who felt tortured reading Old Man and the Sea? I was convinced I was anti-Hemingway, but my English lit teaching sister has set me straight. Bullfighting’s biggest proponent and the one who put Pamplona and the San Fermines festival on the map, troubled Hemingway was a Hispanophile in his own right. After having a coffee in his haunt in Pamplona, Cafe Irún, I grabbed a copy of the book with a torero emblazoned on the front. Set in 1920s Paris, a group of socialites travel to Pamplona to attend the San Fermines bullfights and running of the bulls. The book explores love, lust, masculinity and death against the backdrop of a Spanish town.

(The Paris Wife is a painful but beautifully written biography of Hermingway’s first wife, reconstructed from letters and journal entries by Paula McClain. Hadley divorced him just after the publication of The Sun Also Rises and took all of the royalties for it).

Buy it: The Sun Also Rises Paperback | The Sun Also Rises Kindle

Dancing in the Fountains: How to Enjoy Living Abroad, Karen McCann

Back in the Fall, I was thrilled to give away a copy of a laugh-out-loud tale of expat life by my friend and fellow Seville inhabitant, Karen McCann. Exploring the canny and kooky, the ups and the downs, Karen’s account of swapping brutal Cleveland winters for the eternal sunshine of Spain with her husband, Rich, is spot-on. I chuckled, recognizing several of the bars Karen and Rich frequent or the characters I’ve also come to know. This delightful recounting of the dreaming to the doing is one I’ve recommended to anyone who years for the sunshine and siestas lifestyle Karen and I enjoy.

Buy it: Dancing In The Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad Paperback |  Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad Kindle

Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past, Giles Tremlett

For a country know for its exuberant and open people, talking of the Civil War and the Franco years remains taboo, even fourty years after his death. Journalist Tremlett sets out to discover the dark roots of one of Europe’s more open and inviting countries. There’s talk of sex and the boom of the tourism industry, of midnight firing squads to eradicate those who cried out against El Generalísimo, of flamenco and gypsies. To truly understand a country whose history spans more than 2000 years is difficult, but Tremlett’s book about modern Spain and its secrets sheds light on modern society.

Buy it: Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past Paperback

 Winter in Madrid, CJ Sansom

My second post-war novel is a spy story set in Madrid with strong, British characters who make a life in the capital under the new Franco government. Madrid itself takes on a persona as if it were a character, and it made me look differently at several barrios that I’d come to know and enjoy, and the story of lost love made it an enjoyable read.

Buy it: Winter in Madrid: A Novel Paperback | Winter in Madrid: A Novel Kindle

Zen Khou, Maestro, Jeremy Joseph Dean

The most recent book I read is a story that mirrors my own in many ways. Jeremy Dean left his comfortable job as a teacher in England after over twenty years to teach at a bilingual immersion school in the Comunitat Valenciana. What he finds is a school that is poorly organized, the kids not quite bilingual and his own teaching styles no match for Spanish niños. Like I said, mirrors my experience at a bilingual immersion school. Dean complements his experiences at school with the day-to-day dealings of bureaucracy and language issues, though his students (the Marias, the Jaime/Jaume and the effable Macarena) steal the show with their ganas, their progress and their gut-busting pronunciation that kept me in good spirits during my two years teaching.

One of these days, I’ll actually get around to reading Don Quijote. After all, I did by a 400 anniversary edition and threw out half of my clothes after studying abroad to make room for the 800-paged brick!

Do you celebrate Día del Libro? What are you favorite books about Spain? Like books themselves can be, these are subjective views and by no means a be-all, end-all list. I’d love to hear your suggestions – I’ll need to download onto my kindle for the Camino anyway!

Three Great Day Trips from Barcelona

I’ve said recently that I don’t like Barcelona (and it sparked a big debate on my blog and Facebook page. Turns out even people who love the city think it has a dark side and that its people can be unfriendly at first, though many were shocked with my confession). So when my parents suggested it as our Christmas travel destination, I was initially disappointed, but figured a seven-night stay would guarantee we’d use Barcino as a springboard into a region that others tout as gorgeous and cultural.

Three places you can't miss on your trip to Barcelona. Medieval towns, funky architecture...and another country?

Thankfully, Barcelona is capital to a region with multiple encantos, even if I’m not a fan of its capital city or politics. During our stay, we were able to break out of the city thrice, discovering the beauty of Catalonia in its interior.

Montserrat

Upon my family’s last visit to Spain in 2007, the holidays presented us with the problem of what to do on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We hiked a mountain, attended mass in English (Thank you, Costa del Sol and your guiri enclaves!) and had dinner at the hotel. This year, we were in a heavily touristed area, but had three days of festivals to counter.

You know the saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”? We became Creasters cum Holy Rollers on the day of Jesus Christ’s birth by driving to the Monastery of Nuestra Senora de Montserrat in the mountains of the same name.

My mom and I made the last cable car for the day and were its only occupants, affording unparalleled vistas of the strange mountain range that the monastery and its various hermitages can be found in – it jutted up from the plains like an upside-down saw. My dad and sister drove the car up, snaking through alien rock formations and curbside offerings. Because it was Christmas, the parking was free, but the cable car ran my mother 6€ and me 5€ with a carnet joven.

The monastery, apart from its surroundings, is also known as the home of the Montserrat virgin, whose face is black, earning her the local nickname of La Moreneta. The place was crawling with tourists, similar to my experiences at Covadonga and Santiago de Compostela, but we were in for a treat: the all-boys choir, L’Escolonia, would be singing at the noon mass.

The whole place was opulent, lined in limestone with marble floors, statues of saints and an impressive art museum. I could barely see anything but on my tiptoes once inside the church, but the slight breeze and commanding views of the area were all I needed to consider myself holy on that day.

If you go: Montserrat can be reached by car, bus or train from central Barcelona. I used this page to plan our trip. The basilica itself was free, and many pilgrims choose to bring picnic lunches and enjoy the views, rather than picking over sandwiches in the cafeteria.

Girona and Besalu

For ages, Girona to me was little more than a Ryanair hub with a direct flight from Seville. On my way back from Karnaval in Cologne, Germany a few years back, I had a seven-hour layover. Not willing to sit in an airport, I hopped a bus to the city about an hour north of Barcelona and explored it on a sleepy Sunday.

It surprised me, quite honestly. Humbling beautiful, historic and lively – even on a Sunday!

I told my parents it was a must-see, and my dad’s love of medieval architecture made a trip to nearby Besalú to see the famous stone bridge. The town is teeny, cut through with cobblestone medieval roads and small, family-run shops.

We stopped in the tourism office, which was open but unmanned, and found that practically all roads led to the river Fluvià and the magnificent bridge. Many of the people we met told us that they were from elsewhere in Spain and had fallen under the charm of its Romanesque streets and history.

Girona was a quick drive away, and I remembered the city well – the soaring spires of the churches, the cobblestones under our feet, the street life. The clear day shone over the city perched along a river and its bright buildings, and merchants reopened after a few sleepy, glutton-filled days. We stopped for cupcakes on the main shopping street, beers in sun-drenched plazas, pintxo moruno in a bustling restaurant. Sadly, the smack-in-the-face Independence flags and signs got in the way of the beautiful buildings in the old Jewish quarter.

Even a horrible tummy ache (I later got sick) couldn’t prevent my sweet tooth from getting the best of me. I took my parents to Rocambolesc, the brainchild of the Hermanos Roca, famous Catalan chefs. The whimsical interior of the small place, which is a Catalan word for fantastical, was something like out of Willy Wonka, from a wall display of the six types of ice cream, a cotton candy machine and pinstripes.

I have to say that the hype, much like Barcelona’s, didn’t live up to my expectations. I let the attentive and sweet (ha!) shopkeeper chose baked apple ice cream with butter cookie crumbles and sweet apples, but could barely plow through half of it – it wasn’t sweet or even that tasteful! I agonized over the orange sherbet the guy parked on the bench next to me.

If you go: Girona and Besalu can be reached by car or bus from Barcelona, though there is a toll on the C-33. Rocambolesc is right near the red iron Eiffel bridge (Santa Clara, 50). The walk along the ramparts above the city are also not to be missed.

Andorra

This minuscule principality wedged in between mountain peaks of the Pyrenees range separating Spain from France welcomed me with a text message from my phone company. If Vodafone thinks it’s another country, it is in my book, too.

We snaked our rental car up through the Montseny and Costa Brava area of Catalonia before reaching the border. The signs were only in Catalan, but from the looks of it, we’d need to take just one road into the small country’s capital, Andorra la Vella. Upon parking, I felt like we were in a glamorous ski town – all mountains, clear skies and ski bunnies bustling up and down the city’s main shopping streets. Christmas sales had already begun, so we took our time browsing duty-free stores and brand name shops.

The day was leisurely, with the only hiccups being stops for a coffee or lunch. The city doesn’t offer much by way of culture, and our tour of the historic part of town – stretching back 800 years – took a mere five minutes. The tourism office claimed that hot springs, ski resorts and outdoor activities keep the country’s economy afloat, but I have a feeling it’s the tax-free cigarettes and perfume.

Andorra is a three-hour car trip from Barcelona, or a four-hour bus journey via ALSA bus lines. Part of the highway has tolls. Don’t miss the breathtaking mountain views and the duty free shops!

Have you ever taken any day trips outside of Barcelona? Where do you recommend visiting?

If you’re looking for a guided tour or discount tickets for attractions, check out TicketBar. Or if you’d like to take a Spanish course while in Barcelona, I’ve got top tips and language schools – get in touch!

Apparently, I’m Not the Only Guiri Who Dislikes Barcelona: Aga’s Take on the Ciudad Condal

After I confessed that Spain’s cosmopolitan Barcelona – a city on nearly every traveler’s itinerary, I was shocked to discover that I wasn’t alone in feeling iffy about it. Even friends of mine who have called Barna home have admitted that the city is a bit sketchy, that it’s hard to navigate and that it took a while for it to grow on them. Upon publishing what has been my most controversial post, Aga of Aga Nuno Somewhere offered to write a counter post about what’s to love about the sprawling city. Her story:

Barcelona was the first Spanish city that I visited. Maybe that is why I have such a soft spot for it? I remember walking the first time around Passeig de Gràcia and admiring Gaudí’s masterpieces and how intimidated I felt when being surrounded by thousands of tourist on la Rambla.  During my first visit I was only a tourist, but then came back to Spain for my Erasmus exchange and spent a whole year in a small Catalan town Lleida. I took every opportunity I could to travel to Barcelona, which is only 90 minutes away.

I love big cities, the hustle and bustle of a metropolis, and Barcelona had all I ever needed – sun, beach, beautiful monuments, calmer districts like Gràcia. I secretly dreamt of living there. Little did I know that I would actually move there with my boyfriend for two years. And as much as I like the city, I must admit it was not as great as I would have wanted.

Barcelona is expensive, finding a flat is a nightmare (we actually had to fight in court to get our 1500€ deposit back from the first landlord), Catalans are not really friendly when it comes to service and it is really hard to get to know them. As my boyfriend used to say: in winter they all go skiing to Andorra, in summer they all go to their beach houses on Costa Brava. When you actually live in the city that always appears on a list of top destination to travel in Europe,  all those tourists who come to visit start to annoy you… But I still loved being able to say: Oh, I live in Barcelona.

I discovered some great places to eat, as I am a foodie, so I tend to look for nice bars or restaurants everywhere I go. But unfortunately I have to admit that when comparing it to other Spanish cities, when it comes to food, Barcelona is falling far behind Madrid or Andalucía. You really must know where to go, otherwise you end up in some pintxo chain or paying a fortune for simple tapas and sangria.

I love street art, so every walk around Barcelona was exciting: I never knew what was waiting for me around the corner! And all of those Catalan traditions that I discovered during the fiestas: castellers (human towers), correfoc (parade with fire) or calcotada (eating grilled calcots – a kind of sweet onion). I had my calendar full of all the city fiestas –  la Merce (the Patroness of the city), fiestas de Gràcia and some other neighborhoods.

I also travelled a lot around the region, to lovely Sitges, Montserrat, Dali’s Triangle and Costa Brava. But even if you live in Barcelona for a long time, there is always something new to do, somewhere to go and discover, or simply sit in a chiringuito on the beach with a cold beer (or the winter version: drink in a vermutería– small local bar that serves homemade vermouth).

I really like Barcelona and had my favourite spots there, but then understand that not everyone falls under the spell of Ciudad Condal, especially when spending there only few days and just being a guiri.

Aga writes in Polish and English about her travels throughout Europe with her boyfriend, Nuno, on Aga Nuno Somewhere. Currently residing in Ireland, you can find her on twitter at https://twitter.com/AgaNunoBlog.

The Sagrada Familia: Gaudi’s Obra Maestra

The Sagrada Familia is perhaps one of the most well-known construction sites in the world, as well as one of the longest running. Intended to be the obra maestra of Antoni Gaudí, his untimely death leaving the construction site nearly 100 years ago launched the church into the epicenter of a battle over how closely to finish Gaudí’s work.

Nature inspired Gaudí as a child, and his grand temple is a testament to his religious devotion and belief that no man can create what God has done upon the Earth. Every detail of the facade and the towers were conceived bearing that in mind, though recent advances in technology have led to a stray away from the original blueprints. The church is slated to be finished in 2026, 100 year after its mastermind’s death.

On my first visit to the Sagrada Familia in 2005, a hangover dampened our plans to make it to the site early, but we lucked out that the hot July day meant that tourists had taken to the water. The line snaked halfway around the block, but the cavernous church provided refuge from the hot sun. It would be five years before the cranes would be removed, the sound of the drills quelled and the makeshift floorboards that served as walkways around a construction site would be replaced with smooth marble floors.

I went a few years later with my grandmother, and not much more work had been done. On my most recent trip to Barcelona, I could marvel in Gaudí works that partially redeem the city for me. While we scoffed at the thought of paying 20€ for the Casa Batlló, devoting an entire morning to the Sagrada Familia and paying the price of entrance and an audio guide was a no-brainer.

I’m not very religious or even very spiritual, but the emptiness and the contrast of colors, mixed with the soaring buttresses, was uplifting. We spent well over 90 minutes before taking the elevator up to the top of one of eight towers.

If you go: The Sagrada Familia is located in the Eixample neighborhood, and metro lines L2 and L5 serve the Antoni Gaudi plaza, making a stop at the station called Sagrada Familia. The basilica, museum and towers are open daily from 9am until 6pm in the winter, and until 8pm in the summer. You’ll be charged 13,50€ for entrance (11,50€ if you’re a student or senior), or 18€ for an audio guide with entrance fee. The towers will run you an extra 4,50€, and you will be assigned a specific time to avoid lines (we were able to sneak in 15 minutes earlier).

Alternately, you can skip lines and receive discounted tickets for all of Barcelona’s big sites via TicketBar by clicking here.

The temple was consecrated in 2010 and mass in now celebrated regularly. Many thanks to Meritxell of Tourism with Me for her help with where to eat nearby. We had a filling Catalan menu at Juanma, located at C/Lepant, 280. If you’re looking for a place to stay, look no further than Barcelona Home for great apartment rentals.

Places with Encanto: Barcelona’s Parc Guell

When I was a child, I used to cut up old pictures into tiny squares, scatter the fragments and look at the kaleidoscope of memories that began to collect, adorn other picture frames and end up in projects I completed for high school.

Years later, I toured Gaudi’s whimsical Parc Güell, a high-hanging oasis in the middle of a bustling metropolis. The shards of ceramic that lined the few physical structures and park benches captured my imagination much the same way that my photos had.

Originally meant to be a luxury subdivision dreamt up by Count Güell and designed by Antonio Gaudí, only two houses were ever built. The property was turned over to the city and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1960s. Despite the crowds and the uphill climb from the nearest metro stop, the park is a beautiful showcase of Gaudi’s work on a small scale, and it’s one of the redeeming parts of a city I’m not too fond of.

Have you been to Parc Güell? Which shot is your favorite?

Am I the only one who doesn’t like Barcelona?

I am a person who believes in second chances. You can ask my dear friend, Phil (hi, friend!).

And when it comes to cities that I didn’t like the first time around, I’ll always willing to make another trip. So many of my travels could have been spoiled by rain, strikes, food poisoning and culture shock, but some cities and I are just not amigos, even after multiple visits.

Barcelona is one of those cities. Three second chances later, and it’s still not grown on me.

In all fairness, I love the whimsical architecture, the Mercè festival, the oceanfront. But the positive aspects seem to end there.

I find Barcelona too busy, too big, too expensive and not well-lit. It’s not friendly in the same way that Valencia is (another Spanish city I could take or leave), nor did I ever stop feeling like a tourist. Having my family with me was stressful as I repeated, “No, Mom, I can’t read it; it’s in Catalan and I don’t speak Catalan,” or tried to ask directions, only to find the person I’d asked spoke no English or Spanish. Apart from the sites I like, such as Parc Güell or the Gràcia neighborhood, I felt like I wasn’t really savoring a second chance in a city – and I swear I tried!

I hear loads about the cuisine, but being based in El Born, couldn’t find much that wasn’t chain pintxos and tapas, or menus riddled with poorly translated English – always a sign the service and prices will be exorbitant. What’s more, I come from a family of picky eaters. We had pizza, two consecutive meals at a pintxos bar and burgers.

And what is with not a single place being open for coffee before 9am, save Starbucks?! Even the 24-hour McDonalds wasn’t open when we left early one morning for the Pyrenees! I can always count on an obscure cafeteria opening early for a coffee in every other part of Spain I’ve traveled to, so I was surprised that all the bars seemed shuttered until 9am.

I’m also not into the Catalan ‘tude. Spearheaded by Artur Mas, a campaign for Catalonian independence has transformed the city into an alien landscape of sorts, which independence flags hanging from balconies and Mossos, the Catalan version of a cop, all over the place. I can’t argue that their claim  that their language and culture was oppressed under Franco, I don’t think that their reasons for leaving will necessarily make things any better. The kicker? They want to be recognized as an EU sovereign state but still stay in the BBVA Spanish soccer league! (if you’re interested in learning more, check out Simon Harris’s book project, Catalonia is not Spain: a Historical Perspective)

I also had to laugh when our host called to ask us how the trip was going. Considering we’d invariably come during three back-to-back holidays, I told him we’d had to escape the country on the whole and go to Andorra. Qué lujo, he responded, and I told him about my plan to travel to 30 countries before 30. His response? That Cataluña is another country, even though it’s illegal to secede from Spain. Different, yes, but still Spain.

What is great about Barcelona is its proximity to the Pyrenees, Girona and Costa Brava. Navigating through my cell phone, we took quick breaks to Andorra, Girona, Besalu and Monstserrat. Getting out of the city meant having my head cleared and experiencing a part of the country whose tourism is highly developed and thriving. Returning, I tried to see Barcelona a bit differently, but I just ended up pouting like a three-year-old when I had to pay more than 1,20€ for a beer and use my cell phone as a flashlight for opening the door to our place in El Born. 

Have you ever given a city a second chance? Were your thoughts swayed? Is there a destination you’re not keen on returning to? Watch for the response to this post from Aga, part of the traveling duo of Aga Nuno Somewhere. If you decide you have to see Barcelona, considering checking out Barcelona Home for apartment rentals while in the Ciudad Condal.

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