What to See on Barcelona’s Montjuïc Hill

by Jessica Infantino Trumble

Many people who visit Barcelona may overlook Montjuïc. Often overshadowed by the over-the-top Modernista sights that the city is known for, Montjuïc offers visitors a respite from the tourist-filled streets, not to mention a great view of the city. What’s event better is that many of the sights on Montjuïc are free, making for an affordable and laid back day of sightseeing in Barcelona.

While Montjuïc has everything from recreational areas to museums, many of the sights that remain today are a result of 2 major events – the 1929 Worlds Expo and 1992 Summer Olympics.

A Fortification High Above the City

Long before these 20th century events, the hill was anchored by the Montjuïc Castle. Not your typical castle, the star-shaped fortress dates back to 1640 has served as a defensive fort, a prison, a military museum (which was inaugurated in 1963 under Francisco Franco) and now a municipal facility.

Only the shell of the original structure remains, but the Montjuïc Castle is still a worthwhile sight to explore, especially for its commanding views overlooking Barcelona and its harbor. And if you happen to visit in the summer, you can catch a movie in the moat during an open-air film festival at the castle.

Barcelona as the World’s Stage

The 1929 Barcelona International Exposition put Montjuïc on display for the world to see. This was Barcelona’s second go at hosting the Worlds Expo (the first was in 1888), and Montjuïc was chosen as the site because of its availability of space.

Planning began in 1905, led by Modernista architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch, targeting 1917 for the event, which was postponed more than a decade due to World War I. As you may expect, the Worlds Expo had a huge urban impact throughout the city – buildings were remodeled, metro lines were extended and the funicular that is still used today to reach Montjuïc was constructed in anticipation of the event.

That year, 20 countries participated in the Worlds Expo, each with a dedicated week to “show off”. While many of the pavilions and sights were never intended to be permanent and were torn down shortly after the event, a few exceptions remain today.

Starting at the top of the hill, the Palau Nacional was the grand exhibition hall for the event and is now home to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) with an impressive collection of art from the 10th to the 20th century. As you descend down the hill, notice the grab bag of architectural styles and elements, from the neoclassical columns (representative of the Catalan flag) to the Venetian towers that flank the entrance of the exhibition area (modeled after St. Mark’s in Venice). Even Plaça d’Espanya at the bottom of the hill drew its influence from St. Peter’s in Rome.

The Barcelona Pavilion designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe housed the German exhibition during the Worlds Expo. This decidedly modern building is one of the most significant pieces of architecture from the 20th century, promoting the idea that “less is more”. Simple in form, the structure includes a “floating roof” and furniture that Mies van der Rohe designed himself. Like other pavilions, the original structure was torn down but later rebuilt in the 1980s following Mies van der Rohe’s original design.

By contrast, the elaborate CaxiaForum across the street is an example of Barcelona’s Modernista architecture designed by Puig i Cadafalch. Formerly a textile factory, it now serves as a free museum and cultural center. Other sights that remain from 1929 include the Magic Fountain, with nighttime water and light shows that still wow crowds, and the Spanish Village that was designed to show off different styles of the country’s architecture. When you reach the bottom of the hill, you won’t be able to miss the Las Arenas Bullring, which was turned into a shopping mall after bullfighting was banned in Barcelona in 2010.

Let the Summer Games Begin

The 1992 Summer Olympics was a good excuse to spruce up Montjuïc for a new wave of visitors. In fact, the site was chosen because it already had a stadium that was originally built for the 1929 Words Expo.

In fact, the site was chosen because it already had a stadium. Originally built for the 1929 Worlds Expo (for games between the participating nations), the Olympic Stadium was also intended to host an anti-fascist alternative to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which never happened due to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. It was also used as a staging area for cars during the Spanish Grand Prix in Montjuïc in 1975.

The exterior you see today is original, but the interior was completely rebuilt to accommodate 65,000 spectators for the 1992 games, and the stadium has since been served as a venue for events ranging from football to concerts. Fun fact: Michael Jackson performed a concert at the stadium as part of his Dangerous Tour in 1992.

Other sights in the “Olympic Ring” include indoor arenas, swimming and diving pools, as well as the 446-foot tall Communications Tower. Designed to resemble the body of an athlete, the tower was used to broadcast coverage of the games around the world. The 1992 Olympics hosted athletes from 169 countries and was such a hit that Barcelona soon became one of the most visited cities in Europe after Paris, London and Rome. Also nearby is the Olympic and Sports Museum, celebrating the 1992 games and Olympic history, and the Fundació Joan Miró contemporary art museum dedicated to Barcelona’s homegrown artist.

Getting There and Around

There are several different ways to reach Montjuïc, whether you choose to start at the top and work your way down or vice versa. Most of the sights are within walking distance of each other, but there are also several bus lines (#50, #55 and #193) that run through Montjuïc.

  • Take the L2 or L3 metro line to the Paral-lel stop, then follow the signs along the path to reach to reach Montjuïc Castle (it’s about a 15 to 20 minute uphill walk). Alternatively, you can take the Montjuïc Funicular (covered by your metro ticket) from the metro station to the top of the hill.
  • Take the L1, L3 or L8 metro line to the Plaça d’ Espanya stop, which drops you off at the entrance of the Worlds Expo area.
  • Alternatively, there’s also an aerial tramway (which was intended to be a tourist attraction for the Worlds Expo but didn’t open in time) that runs across Port Vell between Montjuïc and Barceloneta. While a little pricy, it is a novel way to reach the hill with great views as you cross the water.

For more useful tips about Barcelona from Jessica, check out these posts, from her blog:

Modernista Barcelona in 6 Hours

Rambling Down La Rambla in Barcelona

Where to leave bags for the day in Rome

When you rent a vacation rental it can often be a problem what to do with your bags before you can check in (usually around 3pm) and after you check out (normally around 11am) when you’re leaving the city later in the day.  I just discovered this service, near Termini station, that will not only store your bags for a small fee, but they’ll come and collect them at any point in Rome (station, B&B, apartment, etc) and will deliver them to you where you need them next.

Bags Free
Via del Castro Pretorio, 32
email:  info@bags-free.com
(+39) 366 26 76 760 (office hours are 8:00am to 8:00pm every day, holidays included)

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

by Steven Brenner

Thanks to the invasion of Starbucks, the worldwide thirst for coffee is higher than it’s ever been, despite the fact that their coffee sucks and is totally overpriced.  Coffee consumption and cafe culture has been around Europe for centuries, around North America for decades, and is now spreading into Asia.  It’s an enormous industry, over 2 billion cups of the stuff consumed PER DAY worldwide,  yet the division of these billions of dollars is completely screwed, with huge wealth being created at the sale and immense poverty forced on those at the origin.

I’m not an expert on economics or world history or agriculture, but what I’ve seen with my own eyes makes me question why these growers, who control this powerful commodity, are so poor?  And when you start to really examine the politics behind it, and just how artificial the whole thing seems, I have to wonder why poverty exists at all and how is it all connected.

I know, heavy stuff, but that’s the way we roll in the MB house!  We travel, we try to see things and form opinions about them from direct experience.  We take tours with people who are passionate and informative about their life’s work, and try to make the world a classroom for us and for our kids.

We were in Boquete, Panama, the mountainous interior part of the country, home to some of the world’s most valuable and prestigious coffee – the Geisha.  When grown at the right elevation, a few growers get such high rankings for this coffee that it is only sold at auction to the highest bidder.  We’d signed up for a tour at the Finca Dos Jefes coffee plantation, an organic coffee farm owned and run by an American expat named Richard Lipner and were amazed at what we saw and heard – eye opening, heart breaking injustices – hard not to think about every morning when you sit down, open your computer, and take a sip of a cappuccino.

Some basics:  coffee is an ancient drink with almost magical properties.  It’s made from little cherries that only grow between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, in 70 countries.   There’s an organization that was set up in the last century to protect the prices, probably helping to stabilize some countries by putting a floor on what other, more desperate countries can charge.  That was when there was a possibility of a coffee abundance.  Now, if anything, there’s a shortage.  And yet, despite the high demand, the farmers are barely able to stay afloat.

The cherries are grown, picked when ripe, usually by hand, then they are either dried outside on mesh beds, or a load of water is wasted and contaminated to remove the sticky “mucilage” around the bean.  There’s a fermentation process and a roasting process – which can be an art form itself, and a variety of ways to brew it (in my opinion, the moka is the best).

If you want to learn all about how coffee is grown and roasted, you can take a tour with Rich in Boquete.  But I don’t want to dwell on the details of coffee itself.  I want to dwell on poverty – because coffee and poverty, at least in Panama, seem to go together.

Around Boquete, cherry pickers make about 5-7 USD a day when it’s cherry picking season.  This is the lowest of lowly work, and almost entirely delegated to the indigenous people who were displaced in the early 1900′s when the French came to build the canal. Eventually, after having their land taken and getting pushed up almost into Costa Rica, they were then given a batch of wild land as an Indian reservation where they currently live.  They have no infrastructure, and thus, no way to get an education (unless you walk 10-20 miles to school in the rain) and lift themselves out of poverty.  Between the poor Panamanian (which by North American standards is quite poor already), and this lower caste of Indian who picks coffee cherries, you go so far down the ladder of “wealth” that there’s about zero chance of any of these people making it on to the ladder, let along climbing up it.

Here’s an example of living quarters for a family of 10.

Note the absence of windows and no ventilation.

Cooking on a concrete slab and dealing with the smoke.   These people actually aren’t the worse off.

Here’s a make-shift home where about 30 people live.  When it rains (which is often) their home is continually destroyed.

Like I said, I’m no expert and I don’t claim to know why the world is the way it is, but I do have to try to string some basics together, to understand what I’m seeing, and to respond to my kids who ask innocently why these people can’t build a bigger house; why they can’t get better jobs; why they can’t just leave.

As I travel more, and especially as I travel with my kids, I find that the more I learn about the world and our interconnectedness, the more I can’t untangle it all.

I don’t know if capitalism can work without cheap labor, or whether an alternative to capitalism could be an improvement.  I don’t know why rich countries can’t coordinate with impoverished ones more fairly, nor am I naive enough to think that simply paying people more will truly solve their problems – it can help, at times, but money, after all, isn’t the same as wealth.  The problem is political, economical, and the power play between them.

What I do know is that it’s 3:45 pm and I’ve just had an espresso, a fair-trade coffee from Nicaragua.  I know that, like it or not, I’m connected to those farmers, even as I leave to go get my youngest daughter from school.

 

Sintra: A Lisbon Daytrip Fit for a King

by Jessica Infantino Trumble

A visit to Sintra will have you feeling like a royal for a day.  This quaint little town just 20 miles northwest of Lisbon is characterized by cobbled streets, charming shops and fairytale-like castles built high atop lush green hills.  In the 19th century, Sintra was a summer retreat for the Portuguese monarchy who sought to escape the heat, and is an easy and worthwhile daytrip from Lisbon today.  Here’s what you need to know.

Getting There and Around

The best way to get to Sintra is by train, which departs from Lisbon’s Rossio station about every 15 minutes.  Buy your ticket from a window or vending machine near the tracks or swipe your Lisboa Card at the turnstile – it covers the fare and gives you discounts on some of Sintra’s main sights.  Then it’s just a quick 40 minute ride to Sintra, which is the last stop on the line.

When you get there you can explore the lower town on foot (and you should), but save yourself the steep hike and take bus #434 to see the sights further up.  The bus does a loop every 30 minutes connecting the train station with the main square near the National Palace, Moorish Castle and Pena Palace.  You can buy a “Pena circuit” ticket from the driver and hop on and off at any stop on the route. Click here for bus timetables and an interactive map.  You can also get a unique guided tour of the area, including transportation, with our friends at We Hate Tourism Tours.

What to Wear

Chances are you’ll be doing a lot of walking and castle climbing, so sturdy shoes are a must for Sintra.  A light jacket is also a good idea since it’s a little cooler than Lisbon given its coastline location.  After all, that’s why the monarchy came here to escape the hot summer months.

Rainy season is usually winter through spring (and occasionally in the fall), so pack an umbrella if you plan on visiting during these months, otherwise you may find yourself waiting in line to buy a poncho in the gift shop at Pena Palace.  And since many of Sintra’s sights are outdoors, you may want to bring a hat in the summer.

Sintra Highlights

One way to tackle Sintra is from the top down, which means your first stop would be Pena Palace.  This whimsical palace is an eclectic fusion of architectural styles inspired by the castles of Bavaria.  A prime example of romanticism, its bold red, yellow and purple exterior is hard to miss, complete with Moorish turrets, alligator water spouts and a Triton-flanked archway.

Built by King Fernando II, the palace was home to 5 generations of Portuguese monarchs from the mid-1800s until 1910 when they fled during the Republican Revolution.  Thereafter Pena Palace was converted into a museum, and has been restored with a keen attention to detail, looking as if the royal family left just yesterday.

As you explore the interior, you may notice that the palace is considerably modern as palaces go (i.e. Versailles in France or Schönbrunn in Vienna, etc.), offering up an intimate look at 19th and early 20th century life.  Pena Palace was actually quite progressive, having the flush toilets and hot shower in Portugal, a telephone to listen in to the opera when the king didn’t want to make the trek to Lisbon and an enviously well-stocked kitchen by today’s standards.

The palace itself is surrounded by the sprawling Pena Park, which is more like a forest than a park with dense trees, plants and other hidden treasures.  The palace grounds make for an almost magical downhill walk, otherwise you can pick up bus #434 and head next to the Moorish Castle.

Located on an adjacent hilltop, this medieval castle was originally built in the 10th century by the Muslims as a military fort.  After years of conquest, rebuilding and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that caused considerable damage, King Fernando II launched a campaign to restore and preserve the castle and its surrounding forest.

Buy your ticket and then follow the winding forest path to get to the main entrance.  Once inside, you can walk along the moss-covered ramparts and climb the stone towers for amazing panoramic views on a clear day.   Even if the weather is less than favorable, or you’re left without a view thanks to the thick fog that rolls in off the Atlantic, you can still have a great time, trust me.  Read more about my foggy day in Sintra here.

If you’re feeling especially adventurous, there’s also a zip line that allows visitors to soar through the tree tops at the base of the castle.  After you’ve had your fill of castle-climbing, hop back on the bus and get off at the main square where you started for the National Palace (it will stop at Pena Palace first, so sit back and enjoy the ride).

This palace also dates back to Moorish times, making it the oldest surviving royal palace in Portugal – and hard to miss thanks to the two white conical kitchen chimneys on top.  The interior is truly a feast for the eyes with highly decorated, themed rooms each with a unique story, like the Swan Room (an homage to the king’s daughter) and the Stag Room (adorned with coats of arms and hunting scenes).  The National Palace also boasts the largest collection of Portuguese azulejos painted tiles in the world.

Other worthwhile sites in Sintra include the Quinta da Regaleira, an elegant estate towards the outskirts of town with yet another absolutely gorgeous park filled with grottoes, fountains, underground wells and hidden tunnels.  It’s an easy 10 minute walk from the National Palace, otherwise you can take a separate bus #435 from the main square.

This bus will also take you the farther out west to Monserrate.  This palace has a bit of a different flavor than the others in Sintra, combining Gothic, Moorish and Italian styles of architecture (it’s dome was modeled after the Duomo in Florence) and a subtropical garden with waterfalls, palm trees and other exotic plants.  There’s also a free app to guide you through an interactive tour of the palace.

For another unique experience, the Toy Museum is just 2 minutes from the National Palace on foot.  The museum houses an expansive collection of more than 40,000 items from around the world – from ancient Egypt ion toys to Nazi toy soldiers, as well as trains, planes, cars, boats, games, books dolls and even playthings that belonged to royal children – dating back as far as the 3rd century BC.

Finally, for an especially memorable way to see the main sights in Sintra, you can take a horse-drawn carriage tour of the city.  Book in advance or look for these old-fashion carriages waiting near the main square.  Tours range from 25 minutes to 2 hours and 40 minutes for up to 4 people, and can be customized to make your daytrip extra special.  Check out the company Sintratur’s website for tour options and rates.

For more travel tips by Jessica, check out her blog here.

 

City Locker – Paris Luggage Storage in 3 Central Locations

City Locker – a genius idea.  Three locations in the city where you can check your luggage in either while waiting to check in or after you’ve checked out of your accommodation.  They’re open from 8am to 10pm, 7 days a week.  You have to book online in advance with a credit card and they’ll send you a code so you can access your locker without the need for staff.