Monsterrat!

Time to do some exploring! Monsterrat is a “must see” in Barcelona. I chose it as it combined breathtaking scenery of the mountain beaks of Mount Monsterrat, as well as wanting a cultural experience and to learn more about the history of the Royal Basilica and Monastery of Monsterrat, a popular pilgrim destination, famous for its vast Royal Basilica, “Black Madonna” statue of the Virgin Mary and spectacular mountain views. I booked a half day tour with Viator, which departed Barcelona at 2pm, giving me the morning to do more sightseeing around Barcelona.

Cathedral of Barcelona
Cathedral of Barcelona

As I was after a cultural experience, I decided to go to the Cathedral of Barcelona, situated in Spain’s Gothic quarter, about a 15 minute walk from Placa Catalunya,where the Archbishop of Barcelona is seated. It was constructed in the 13th-15th centuries, with the bulk of the construction taking place  in the 14th century. Its roof features gargoyles; a mixture of domestic and mythical animals. The church is dedicated to Eulalia, the co patron Saint of Barcelona.

Cathedral of Barcelona
Cathedral of Barcelona

It houses tombs of several saints, including Saint Raymond of Penyafort, Court Ramon Berenguer 1 and this third wife Almodis de la marche. The church underwent cleaning and restoration between 1968-1972. The intricate detail around the outdoor construction, in particular the gargoyles on the roof reflected the Gothic style of architecture and was just as impressive as the interior; hall style with high ceilings and laid out over five aisles with ornate stained glass windows. The choir stalls retained the Coat of Arms from the knights from the Order of the Golden Fleece and there was a side chapel of the Holy Sacrament and Holy Christ of Lepanto. Outside, there was a small courtyard with a little garden, including a small fountain.

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After exploring the church and taking in as much of the amazing architecture as possible, I stopped off at a small cafe in the Gothic quarter for a quick lunch of empanadas; a pastry filled with meat for vegetables such as spinach and cheese, before heading over to the Hard Rock cafe in Placa Catalunya to meet the tour group for our tour to Monsterrat.

Cathedral of Barcelona
Cathedral of Barcelona

Our tour guide, Anna, met us at the Hard Rock Cafe and our group of seven boarded the air-conditioned Viator coach for a 2.5 hour drive to Monsterrat through the mountainside, past pretty villages on the way. Anna, our tour guide was very knowledgeable and provided us with in-depth commentary along the way; about Monsterrat’s history and the two key landmarks; the Monastery of Monsterrat and the Royal Basilica. As our coach ascended the mountains, we gazed out the windows and enjoyed the breathtaking views of the landscapes.

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Upon arrival, we briefly stopped by small stalls selling farmers produce such as handmade soaps, cheeses and local honeys, where I bought some small jars of local honey. We were then given free time to explore all of the imposing landmarks. At the entrance, there were a series of small personal items such as baby’s clothes, books and even a wedding dress, which Anna explained that people had donated as offerings as part of their prayers of thanks-for example, if they prayed that they could give birth to a child and then they did, they might donate an article of their child’s clothing in thanks.

Monsterrat
Monsterrat

Inside the Basilica was phenomenal-with ornate candles,marbles, stained glass windows,  mosaic tiles and lattice work on the ceilings, chapels and decorations and also a museum, displaying artworks by many famous artists including Picasso, El Greco and Dali and Anna, our very informative tour-guide explained the significance of each of the monuments inside.

Inside the church at Monsterrat
Inside the church at Monsterrat

Monsterrat is also famous for the Black Madonna statue; a statue of the Virgin Mary, which has made Monsterrat a famous pilgrim destination and it has been there since 718. It is a small wooden statue housed in a small room. As I exited the Black Madonna chamber and hallways and headed down the path, there were many brightly coloured devotional candles lit in her honour.

The black Madonna in the Monserrat Basilica
The black Madonna in the Monserrat Basilica

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The Benedictine Monastery is also there, where I learned about the daily life of the Benedictine monks. There was also a large gift shop where you could buy souvenirs, including wild honey, handmade soaps and candles. Our tour ended as the sun was setting and enabled us to take beautiful photographs of the shades of dusty pink, orange, purple, grey and eventually midnight blue, as the sun set behind the mountainside.

Vacarisses-Candles at church in Monsterrat
Vacarisses-Candles at church in Monsterrat

The famous Escalonia boys choir also performs recitals there, however, unfortunately we had missed the time that they performed, however, Anna did play us a CD of their performance in the coach trip back to Barcelona and it was glorious gazing at the sunset and listening to the choir as our coach wound its way down the mountainside on the way back to Barcelona.

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By the time we arrived back in Barcelona, it was dark, chilly and I was starving and rationalized that after eating salads and doing a fair bit of walking, it was acceptable for me to have the paella I was craving.I entered a restaurant in Plaza Catalunya and ordered the deep fried squid and a vegetarian paella. The squid was fresh, crispy and delicious and the paella, which arrived, sizzling in a cast iron pan, was hot and flavoursome. It had been an incredible day; learning and absorbing the religious and cultural aspects of Catalonia, along with the breathtaking scenery of Monsterrat. Looking forward to more adventures tomorrow! xoxo.

paella
paella
Deep fried squid
Deep fried squid

 

 

 

Is there anything better than Tapas on the Beach?

I woke up, determined and excited to go to the Barcelonetta Beach, one of the seven beaches in Barcelona, which, in total, stretched 4.5 kilometres. Beaches in Sydney Australia are excellent with long stretches of golden sand, crystal blue oceans and white waves crashing against the rocks. Such an oasis did not exist in London and was one which I craved for and was eager to get my fix of the beach after being deprived of one during my four months in London.

I suspected the beach was not too far away and my instincts were confirmed by the hotels reception staff who told me that I could get there by simply taking the train from Urquinanoa, a short walk from the hotel and that it was only three train stops away.

Barcelonetta beach pier

After heading to Las Ramblas in the morning to pick up some fresh fruit for breakfast and manchego cheese, as well as some hot, crusty bread and a cappuccino from the bakery next door, I enjoyed my breakfast on the hotel balcony, before making my way to Urquinanoa metro station. The metro system in Barcelona is easy enough to navigate, and fortunately, Urquinanoa metro station was a short walk from the hotel.

Juices at La Boqueria marketsAlfresco dining at Barcelonetta beachWhen I arrived and exited the underground, I asked for directions to the beach at a café and the proprietress pointed me in the general direction. As I headed over, I saw what appeared to be a harbour. Yes, there was water, but you could barely see it with all the yachts crammed in. And no sand? Seriously, if this is what they call a beach, then I was majorly disappointed.

But I kept walking; it turned out that this was Port Barcelona and as I kept walking, there it was. Long stretches of golden sand, a calm blue ocean; not much in the way of waves, palm trees. It was a cool, clear, sunny day, absolutely perfect for it. I imagined the place would be packed in the Summer months, but it was pretty quiet, being late November. There was a walkway, which I walked across from end to end of the beach, pausing occasionally to take photographs.

Barcelonetta BeachThe promenade was lined with beachside cafes and tapas bars with billboards boasting freshly caught seafood, paella, freshly squeezed juices, cocktails and local specialities., with La Barcelonetta having a reputation as being one of the best places for seafood and paella.

Beach

I walked right to the end and along a pier where I could get the spray of the sea. I decided to stop for lunch on the walk back and gazed at each beach-side café trying to decide which one, eager to take advantage of the comparatively good weather and make the most of alfresco dining.

Paella at Barcelonetta beachI decided to splurge and try Sal Café, given its location right on the beach. The staff were friendly and helpful and alerted me to their lunch special of EUR 20 for a three course lunch (including wine!), which was extremely reasonable, considering its positioning.

They had paella on the menu too; I had seen it being served up sizzling and with fresh shell-fish on the top in a cast iron pan, but I remembered my rule about spreading the carbohydrates out across the duration of the trip. Also; I was determined to get my fix of seafood; something which I had been deprived of whilst living in London. I placed my order and whilst I waited, they brought me some juicy Spanish olives and a crusty bread roll. It was heavenly, sipping my rose and sitting right on the water, gazing at the view. All Goats cheese salad at SalsI needed was this delicious meal to make it all complete.

First came my entrée of goats cheese salad (again-yes; I know, but they are truly delicious). It was so beautifully presented that I was afraid to spoil it, but when I did, it was absolutely delicious. As I was eager to make the most of Barcelona’s coastal positioning and get my fix of seafood, I ordered the salmon fillet as my main course and out it came; tender, flaky and fresh.

Salmon fillet at SalsDessert was a pineapple carparccio served with vanilla ice cream. What more could I possibly ask for; delicious food, wine, alfresco dining and the beach!I basked in the winter sunshine and savored the meal.

Pineapple carpaccio

Afterwards, I went for another walk; along the beach a bit and then back to Port Vell. Port Vell is situated next to Barcelona’s industrial port and consists of 2 marinas, a fishing port and a ferry terminal for ferries which travel to the Baeleric Islands and other Mediterranean destinations and served the purpose for trade and commerce between the Christian population in the city’s North and the Islamic population in the city’s South during the Middle Ages and became the greatest maritime power in the Mediterranean. It now also contains the Maremagnum; a large shopping complex which also contains a multiplex cinema, bars and restaurants, an IMAX theatre and the largest aquarium in Europe.

Port Barcelona

I also browsed through some of the little alleyways around Barcelonetta beach, to get a feel for the lifestyle and the apartment complexes.

As the sun began to set, I went back to the beach for one final glimpse and to enjoy the sunset. Then back into the city centre for dinner.

This time, I went to Bar Lobo in El Raval, not too far from Las Ramblas.  It had outdoor seating as well as a light and bright atmosphere inside. I was feeling a bit cold, so I opted for indoor seating and ordered the ham and cheese croquettes and an Arugian salad. And Sangria of course! The croquettes were honestly the best I had ever tasted! They were so golden and crispy and melted in my mouth!
Croquettes at Bar Lobo

Afterwards, I browsed the shops in Las Ramblas and splurged on cinnamon flavoured gelato as I made my way back to the hotel.

Eating my way around Barcelona

As soon as I stepped off my  flight from London, onto the tarmac at Barcelona Airport, I was amazed how this beautiful land was a mere 90 minutes away from grey, cold and drizzling London. Instead, here, the sky was blue, the sun was shining and actually had some warmth to it! I shedded my scarf and replaced it with sunglasses.

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Plaza Catalunya

I eagerly absorbed the scenery, beautiful Gaudi architecture and buzzing plazas, beautiful fountain with an eclectic mix of cuisines, reflecting Barelona’s mixed heritage. Spanish bakeries serving hot, delicious fresh bread, cafes serving churros and traditional Spanish hot chocolate, pizza places, Moroccan restaurants, tiny, traditional tapas bars and traditional Spanish restaurants serving the iconic paella-that is of Barcelona.

Barcelona is the capital of the Catalonia region in Spain and is Spain’s second most populated city, with a population of 4.7 million, including regional areas within its administration. It is located on the North East of the Iberian peninsula, facing the Mediterranean Sea. Its population includes inhabitants of Catalonia, other Spanish provinces, and also immigrants from Italy, Pakistan, China, Ecuador, Bolivia and Morocco.

Gaudi Architecture-Sagrada Familia

After checking into my Hotel Viaggi and changing out of my London gear into a light sweatshirt, I stepped outside into the crisp autumn sunshine and put on my sunglasses. I was famished and my first port of call was finding somewhere to have lunch.

I was craving paella and stepped inside a restaurant called Dreta D’Eixample where I ordered the seafood Paella.  Paella originated from Valencia, with the traditional version of Paella being the seafood paella. Seafood paella includes mussels, cuttlefish, lobster, prawns and bomba rice and is seasoned with tomatoes, garlic and paprika and cooked in a seafood broth, made of shrimp heads, bay leaves and onion. The waitress brought me some hot fresh bread which I ravenously polished off whilst waiting for my paella. It came and it was hot, flavorsome and crispy on the top, filled with fresh prawns, mussels, scallops and chicken.

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Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately!), having a small stomach and having already partially filled up on the delicious bread, meant that I was full after eating just half of it-as well as not wanting the main thing that I would gain out of this trip to be a few kilograms. I rationalized that I needed to spread out the calories within the churros, hot chocolate, pizza, paella and bread over the four days and decided to walk off my big lunch.

Nuts at La Boqueria Market

I walked through the Plaza Catalunya, passed the many cafes, pizza places, gelaterias, souvenir shops and boutiques and into Las Ramblas. Las Ramblas is a vibrant, buzzing outdoor pedestrian area stretching 1.2 kilometres and connecting the Plaza Catalunya with the Christopher Columbus Monument at Port Vell. It is dotted with outdoor cafes, souvenir shops and lined with trees. It has several short streets running off it, including Rambla de Canelettes; the site of the Canelettes fountain, Rambla dels Etudis; a former Jesuit University, Rambla de Sant Josep; the open air flower market, Rambla dels Caputixns; the former Caputixn monastery; now predominantly the Liceu Opera House and the arts centre of Rambla St Monica.

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Fresh vegetables at La Boquerie market, Las Ramblas

I was drawn into La Boqueria markets, with tiny, traditional style tapas bars at the entrance; where people sat on bar stools at the tapas bar and were served tasty bites of sardines, meatballs, calamari, meatballs and garlic prawns. As I entered further, I was amazed at the sights around me.  I was surrounded by stalls left, right, front and back serving every type of food you could imagine. Such bright colours and in such abundance! There were stalls serving fresh fruits and vegetables, a vast range of fresh juices; even with flavours like coconut, all kinds of cured meats such as hams and salamis, fresh seafood, a smorgasboard of cheeses, featuring Spain’s famous manchego cheese, big juicy olives and antipasto features like sundried tomatoes, gelatos,  nuts and marzipans, chocolates, fresh breads and stalls serving hot empanadas. My mouth watered at the sight of it and if it weren’t for the fact that I had already eaten lunch, I would have gone beserk.

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Confectionery at La Boqueria markets, Las Ramblas

Mental note: must come here for breakfast tomorrow. Not wanting to become obese or to turn this into an eating holiday, I reluctantly left the markets and headed East towards the El Born.

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Fresh seafood at La Boqueria markets Las Ramblas
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Olives at La Boqueria markets Las Ramblas

In contrast to the buzzing, vibrant atmosphere of Las Ramblas, in particular, the Boqueria markets, El Born featured classic Gaudi architecture, narrow cobbled streets, quaint outdoor cafes serving speciality gelato, churros, hot chocolate and coffee, tiny, traditional tapas bars, boutiques and speciality stores specialising in handmade soaps and candles, jewellery and clothing. Wanting to keep reasonably fit, I also walked through Citadel park and along the lake as the sun set, which houses the Military Church of Barcelona, Catalan Parliament and contains many sculptures and pieces of contemporary art, as well as Barcelona’s zoo.

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La Cascada

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The Cascada is at the north of the lake was first inaugurated in 1881 and was amended in 1882-1888 and put on display; with the intention of it resembling the Trevi Fountain in Rome. The park also has a bandstand; Giora de la Transexual Sonia; dedicated to transsexual Sonia Rescalvo Zafra. She was murdered there by extremist right wings in 1991.

By this time, I was ready for dinner; but paella twice in the one day seemed a bit much. I browsed the various restaurants in Dreta D’Exiample, located in the city centre a short walk from Las Ramblas and Plaza Catalunya. A  Spanish waitress was standing at the door, holding menus and asked me something in Spanish. Not understanding, she tried in English, explaining the dishes and emphasizing the freshness of their seafood. Impressed by her efforts and assurance of the seafood’s freshness (something definitely lacking in the UK!), I decided to give Taller de Tapas a try. I was so glad I did. Whilst it had the rustic atmosphere of a traditional tapas bar, it was comfortable, had a large range of tapas and main dishes, as well as desserts. Tapas consists of a wide range of appetizer sized dishes, served cold (such as olives or cured meats) or hot (such as sizzling garlic prawns or ham and cheese croquettes).

Olives are a typical tapas dish

It originated in the middle ages, when inns and bodegas served small portions of food to travellers as the journeyed through the difficult roads around Europe. Original tapas dishes were chorizo and bread and tapas has since evolved, through the influence of the Roman empire to include sweet chilli peppers, potatoes and tomatoes.  Today, there is a huge range of tapas dishes, with popular ones including spicy meatballs, ham and cheese croquettes, garlic prawns served sizzling in a cast iron pan, olives, cured meats and spiced potatoes. In Spain, dinner is typically between 9pm and 11pm, so it is common for people to stop of at a Tapas bar for a snack after work, before dinner.

Goats cheese salad and sangria
Goats cheese salad and sangria

I ordered a goats cheese salad, ham croquettes and battered fish. The goats cheese salad was crispy and delicious, with a nice touch of quince paste and vinaigrette on the side, which went well with the crispy rocket, juicy tomato and sweet, rich goats cheese. The croquettes were golden and crispy and the fish was fresh, crispy and not oily at all.

Delicious creme catalan
Delicious creme catalan

Under the firm belief that no meal is complete without dessert, and feeling impressed and satisfied with this place, I decided to round off the meal with crème catalan, a traditional dessert originating from the Catalan province; similar to crème brulee. Delicious! Melted in my mouth! I walked back to my hotel, enjoying the bright lights of Plaza Catalunya.

Fountain at the Plaza Catalunya all lit up at night
Fountain at the Plaza Catalunya all lit up at night