Barcelona: or, a Lesson in Intensity

One of the great privileges of living in Europe is the ability to hop around and see other cities in a short amount of time. Like most expats, I am a great enthusiast of the City Break Weekend – basically, you look at which budget airlines are offering cheap Friday/Sunday return flights to a city you’ve never visited, and you go there. This time, it was Barcelona.

I was under the misconception that Barcelona is in Spain. In fact, it is in Catalonia, as any local will quickly let you know. Not once in the whole weekend did I see a Spanish flag to balance the hundreds of Catalonian ones hanging from balconies, and every public sign will be listed first in Catalonian and secondly in Spanish, even if the difference is only a minor spelling change. This fierce-spirited independence really becomes the feeling you get from the whole city.

Any good trip needs to start with preparatory wine and cheese. The view from our apartment over Barcelona, Eixample
Any good trip needs to start with preparatory wine and cheese. The view from our apartment over Barcelona, Eixample

We had two full days and a jam-packed agenda of what to do with them. However, I failed to take into account the exhausting effect of the blistering July sun, and our plans had to be reduced to fit our sloth-like energy levels. First up was brunch at Brunch&Cake, a highly rated local place with delicious food and quick service. On a Saturday morning it was packed, and we were lucky to get a table without a long wait (no reservations possible).

After fuelling up it was time for a wander around the Gothic Quarter. It’s the ‘Old Town’ of Barcelona, with some of the elaborate architecture dating back hundreds of years. It’s full of narrow, shaded alleyways and beautiful stone walls, at it gives you a good feeling for the soul of the town. At its cultural centre is the Barcelona Cathedral, a quirky shelter where the guard charged us 14E and then gave us back in change more than we had actually paid. There’s a fence between you and some elegant white geese, which you’d assume is for the protection of the geese. Wrong. I am confident it is for the protection of the tourists.

The aggressive geese in the courtyard of Barcelona Cathedral
The aggressive geese in the courtyard of Barcelona Cathedral

Their territorial squawking is amusingly at odds with the elegance of the structure. A glance upwards adds to this juxtaposition:

In Barcelona Cathedral, the best views happen when you look up.
In Barcelona Cathedral, the best views happen when you look up.

After leaving the Gothic Quarter we wandered down the infamous La Rambla, a popular street lined with trees and shops, bustling markets and explosive Capoeira dancers, where you’re just as likely to get pickpocketed as not. Clutching our bags and sweating like albino piglets we struggled to immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of the street and find any kind of charm in it. Luckily for us it was over quickly enough and we arrived at the wide blue harbour, and Port Vell greeted us with a sea breeze and hawking gulls.

The deep blue Barcelona Harbour.
The deep blue Barcelona Harbour.

Over a pedestrian causeway we paused while the bridge split itself in two to let the tall boats through. On the other end was a shamelessly commercial monstrosity of soulless restaurants and shops completely devoid of beauty or any sense of curation. Never mind, though – you’re there for the water and it’s easy enough to find a place to sip chilled wine and look out at it!

For dinner we tried a little place called Arcano, its arched stone walls providing welcome cool and quiet. I was really impressed with the balance of quality and cost here; the experience felt fancy but the bill was quite reasonable, I think it was 70E for two mains, two desserts and a jug of sangria.

Dinner in the cave or Arcano restaurant was upscale yet totally affordable
Dinner in the cave or Arcano restaurant was upscale yet totally affordable

Before the sun had risen I was already sweating, but keen to march on and see more of the sights. My “wing it” attitude came back to bite me as we arrived at the Sagrada Familia and realised that we were not able to enter without a pre-bought ticket, unless we waited 5 hours. Lesson learned: book in advance! So I settled for a walk around the outside, then we moved on. The architecture has that fantastic Catalonian whimsy about it, curved fairytale turrets, bold inscriptions of words splashed at all angles across the walls, and coloured decorative accents such as one which appeared to be a large christmas tree. It smells of Gaudi all over!

My very average shot of the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona. I think I was passing out from heat exhaustion at this point.
My very average shot of the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona. I think I was passing out from heat exhaustion at this point.

Our introduction to the legacy of Antoni Gaudi continued as we went to see Park Guell (another place to book tickets in advance, but we got lucky). What an incredible place it is. It’s a series of gardens and structure perched on a hill overlooking the city, overflowing with ornate columns and violet alliums, and yet the main viewpoint is an ascetically sparse gravelled platform, not a bit of shade or green, lined with those famous mosaic benches. Nobody (including myself) includes the boring gravel platform when taking the predictable shot over the city, but it’s certainly there under my feet!

The view to the water from the mosaic-tiled bays of Park Guell.
The view to the water from the mosaic-tiled bays of Park Guell.
The Catalonian Brothers Grimm would have found inspiration at Park Guell.
The Catalonian Brothers Grimm would have found inspiration at Park Guell.

FYI, if you’re the type to want to buy wine, cheese and other necessities to enjoy at home and release you from the obligation of finding somewhere to go out for every meal, try the food court in the basement of El Corte Ingles. They have a great selection of everything yummy, and you will end up spending too much money and being mad at yourself until you relax with a glass and a plate of deliciousness and think, well, after all, how often are we in Barcelona?

MW

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Munich: Southern Glory

Munich and Berlin, I have discovered, have an old and interesting rivalry. Berlin is the ultra-cool teenager and Munich is the sophisticated adult, and the tensions between them are exactly what you’d infer from that description! As an adopted Berliner, I visited Munich with a mix of curiosity and trepidation. Would Munich feel old and fusty, or impressively established?

As always, the only way to find out is to try it!

After a 50-min hop from the north to the south of the country, we picked up a car and headed directly out of town. Why? To visit the Castle Neuschwanstein, of course! The fairytale Bavarian castle that inspired Walt Disney himself. It’s more than a little out of town, in fact its a 1h40m drive, but the day was beautiful and we had the top down, so it was gorgeous.

The river Lech, somewhere in between Munich and Neuschwanstein, Bavaria
The river Lech, somewhere in between Munich and Neuschwanstein, Bavaria

I guess it’s hard to live up to your reputation when you’re literally the stuff of fairytales, but I have to admit I found the castle itself slightly overrated. A short walk up a forested path filled with summer-shorted tourists and naff horse-and-carriage tours brings you to the entrance, where the grey turrets stand imposingly in front of a lush green backdrop.

Unfortunately you don’t get anything like the view commonly seen in photos of Neuschwanstein, because there’s no opportunity to get to that vantage point. What you actually see is more like this:

Castle Neuschwanstein from the viewing point.
Castle Neuschwanstein from the viewing point.

Still awesome though.

That night I was about ready for a schnitzel and a glass of riesling, so we looked up Gasthaus Weinbauer hoping for a balance of traditional and authentic. Luckily, that’s exactly what it was. Warm and welcoming like an alpine hut, with a few locals enjoying an after-work beer, the Weinbauer transformed me from a hungry-almost-grumpy tourist to a grinning, sated … tourist.

I love a walking tour. There’s no better way to get to know a city (especially European cities, where the culturally important stuff is often centered in a sort of ‘Old Town’). I always go with Sandemans New Europe tours where possible, and I’ve never had a bad experience in over 10 cities. This time we learnt about Munichs critical role in the pre-chancellor political story of Adolf Hitler, the royal lineage and even the founding of the city when a tiny fledgling Munich stole the entire salt trade industry from Freising (and repaid them for 750 years too long, thanks to bad bookkeeping!).

A random shot of part of the Old Town in Munich. Pretty indicative of the general style of architecture and atmosphere!
A random shot of part of the Old Town in Munich. Pretty indicative of the general style of architecture and atmosphere!

Munich seems to be in an interesting and changing time for its own identity. It’s the traditional heart of Bavaria, a strongly Catholic state historically, and a politically conservative city. Culturally, its inhabitants are known to identify as Bavarian first and German second. In recent years, however, it is also becoming a fast-growing city, with the population expected to grow from 1.4m to 1.6m people by 2030, while also becoming a tech hub and centre for young talent. The development is somehow tangible in the city itself; Dirdnls and Lederhosen are spotted, then blocked by a passing mob of laptop-wielding University students. Suburbs are their own sub-cultures; old-money Schwabing wants nothing to do with up-and-coming Haidhausen.

there is an influx of a mostly young and well-skilled workforce from other german regions and from abroad – muenchen.de

After all that learning I was ready for a beer, so we headed back to the Englischer Garten where there is a delightful little Biergarten called Seehaus. The weather was everything you could hope for in a Bavarian weekend, so a litre of beer by the lake seemed only appropriate. It’s a pretty nice place to chill, and the inhabitants of Munich agree!

Seehaus Biergarten in the Englischer Garten.
Seehaus Biergarten in the Englischer Garten.

The next day brought with it our return to Berlin. Relucant was an understatement, and the juxtaposition of the sunny southern state to the grey northern one seemed all the more bitter! There can never be a real resolution to the Berlin vs. Munich rivalry, but I have to admit, one seems to suit me more than the other…

One more gratuitous shot of the Bavarian countryside.
One more gratuitous shot of the Bavarian countryside.

Sydney: See it like a local

Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House. Follow me on instagram, @hereandplaces
Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House. Follow me on instagram @hereandplaces

Sydney is a city truly deserving of the word stunning. When you’re looking at the Opera House perched on the edge of the rippling, dazzling harbour awash in sunshine, it’s easy to forget why you’ve ever gone anywhere else.

(You might be able to tell, I’m an enthusiastic Sydneysider.)

Everybody’s got a special connection to home and authentic recommendations for visitors – and using these is what makes travelling different to touristing! So, since I live in Berlin now, when I have time back home in Sydney how do I spend it? How do I get a good dose of everything I love about the city to last me until next time? Here’s a shortlist:

1. Get out of town.

It might seem like any town you want to get away from must not be so great, but Sydney is a big place and the best stuff is definitely outside the city center. As much as I love Darling Harbour, the Botanical Gardens and Surry Hills, I’d rather do any of these:

– drive right up the north coast to Palm beach. This is the northern limit of Sydney and will give you 45mins of stunning beach views. When you get there you’ve got to walk up to the Barrenjoey Lighthouse! The view is worth the hike.

Barrenjpey Lighthouse view, Palm Beach. Follow me on instagram @hereandplaces
Barrenjpey Lighthouse view, Palm Beach. Follow me on instagram @hereandplaces

– catch a ferry from Circular Quay to Manly beach. Manly is the area I grew up in and I firmly believe it’s the most beautiful part of Sydney. Make sure to walk over to Shelley beach for a quieter spot, and if you can, do the extra 10min drive up to the North Head for unbeatable views back to the city.

The view back to the city from North Head. Follow me on instagram @hereandplaces
The view back to the city from North Head. Follow me on instagram @hereandplaces

– head inland and get into the bush. A hike in Ku-ring-ai National Park will show you a side of Sydney that has nothing to do with coastline or city lights, and it will remind you how close to the wild you really are.

Any of these would take at least half a day.

2. Have a drink in Surry Hills.

Once you’ve recovered from your day’s adventure in the Great Outdoors, you’ll be ready to step into Sydney’s amazing nightlife. Whatever you’re into – from country pubs to 24h clubs – there is something for you, but I’m more of a sit-at-a-bar-and-rack-up-a-tab kind of gal so here’s where I love to go:

Shady Pines Saloon. It’s got a completely committed midwest dècor complete with enormous mounted Moose head, peanuts and a whiskey selection to boast of. Get there early for a good spot at the bar and try the Amaretto Sour.

Café Lounge. With a creative cocktail list, regular live music from local bands and a very comfortable group of couches, Café Lounge is a homely yet interesting spot.

– If you’re feeling less shabby artist and more wine-and-dine, head to The Winery. Unsurprisingly there’s a great selection of wine but also a beautiful terrace garden with a Tuscan feel and delicious food that’s still affordable. After a couple of glasses of red I love the mushroom arancini balls.

3. Get active.

Sydney is an outdoors city. Everything revolves around the harbour, beaches and parks. So take a leaf out of the local’s book, pack your sneakers and get out there.

– Do the coastal walk from Bondi to Coogee. The beaches of the eastern suburbs are truly spectacular. My favourite is Gordon’s Bay, which you’ll find around halfway through the walk.

Gordon's Bay, Sydney. Follow me on instagram @hereandplaces
Gordon’s Bay, Sydney. Follow me on instagram @hereandplaces

– Get out on the water. Whether it’s taking the ferry to Taronga Zoo or doing a sailing class from RSYS in Kirribilli, sometimes the best way to see the city is looking back on it from the water.

After a week in the (should be) capital of Australia, you should be exhausted, tanned and grinning!

If you have any other must-do items for this list, leave a comment and let me know! I’m always on the hunt.

MW

Thanks to Destination NSW for providing info about Sydney’s best.

UBUD: THE BEST DECISION

Pita Maha, Ubud, Bali

When I was planning my trip to Bali, I was thinking beaches, endless horizon and fresh coconuts. My goal was to do as little as possible (apart from getting enough of a tan to my my friends in Berlin envious).
I had actually forgotten all about the inland of the island, with all its jungle treasures. There was no “Eat, Pray, Love” vision. Well, maybe just some “Eat”!

But in searching for somewhere unique and beautiful to stay, I quickly discovered that Ubud holds its own against the blue stretched Indian Ocean.
We found Pita Maha, a rather expensive resort that I immediately fell in love with and accepted the fact that my sensible budget would be sidelined. Here’s why:

Pita Maha, Ubud, Bali
The view from the restaurant out over the pool

This paradise was in stark contrast to the hectic drive to Ubud. Balinese traffic rules are actually loose suggestions at best (stray dogs also jeapordise safe passage), and we’d flown past a series of vibrant looking villages with their specialised wares lining the streets – silverware, stone and wood carvings and delicate Batik.

Stepping through the doors of Pita Maha was surreal in the true sense of the word. All the noise, dust and dirt stopped was gone. All I could hear were the faraway chirps of crickets, and some soft Balinese music. My eyes were ushered into a valley of deep, lush green.

We were escorterd down to our villa (I had requested “the quietest one, far away from any children”) and were met with this:

The entrance to the villa
The entrance to the villa

A little dipping pool looking into the valley, an enormous villa made with intricate dark wood and high ceilings, and not one but TWO different day beds were some of the things we enjoyed for the next few days.

A bit of time by the pool:

Some sort of brown sugar-lime-vodka situation... Delicious
Some sort of brown sugar-lime-vodka situation… Delicious

A bit of a walk in the surrounding land:

The Campuhan Ridge walk is definitely worth doing if you're staying in Ubud. Just beautiful!
The Campuhan Ridge walk is definitely worth doing if you’re staying in Ubud. Just beautiful!

I was hoping to achieve some sort of moment of peace in these two days, something I could hold onto back in the hustle of regular life. Is there a word to describe when something is so beautiful that you’re unable to appreciate it in the moment because you’re sadly anticipating its ending?

*****

When I sauntered into the office a few days later, the only person to comment on my fabulous tan said “wow, I thought you’d come back more tanned!”

Travel is bittersweet.

MW

P.s if you have any questions about this resort, leave a comment and I will answer, no-frills!