Alternative London – Street Art Tour and Graffiti Workshop

Both my daughter and I have been to London before.  We’ve seen Big Ben and St. Paul’s Cathedral, have visited the Tate Modern, and have walked the Portobello Road market.  We had a number of nights in London this trip, just her and I, and were looking for something different – something we could do together, and couldn’t do at home.

We were happy to find out about Alternative London and get off the beaten track into one of my favorite neighborhoods,  Shoreditch.  We decided on this particular tour and workshop because we liked the idea of doing and not just seeing.  We wanted to be exposed to something cultural, but also to create something.  Extra points went to the fact that it was one of the most affordable things we did on our trip (£25 per person for a 4/5 hour tour and workshop).

Organized by Alternative London, a local artist’s cooperative who do a variety of artistic tours and workshops – art walks on the streets and in local galleries, as well as bike tours and food/pub crawls.  We booked on-line through their website for an 11am Saturday tour with a meeting point by the Old Street tube station on the Northern Line – easy to get to from anywhere in London (took us about 20 minutes from Soho).

Our guide, Rae, an artist/skater who is clearly passionate and deeply involved in the local art scene, told us all about the history of graffiti and street art, and the differences between the two, in an intelligent, animated, and entertaining way.  She touched on the political and the economic messages without any hint of preachiness.  She was thought provoking and light hearted at these same time.  She was great with her subject, but also great at connecting to all of us on the walk, something that not all guides do well.

After the walk, we took a short break to get something eat, and then after a brief lesson on stencil making, retired to their double decker art bus to get started making our own.

She then gave us a demo of different techniques for spray painting and we took turns on a few boards outside before working on own stencils.

Those of us who wanted, had the option of buying a canvas bag or t-shirt for a few extra pounds, to paint our stencil on.

London  has a lot to offer and the choice of museums alone can be overwhelming.  If you want to do something that supports the local art scene, gives you a street-eye view of what’s going on, and makes you really feel the pulse of the East Side, this is a great, affordable thing to do.

Plus, you get to take home your own handmade, one-of-a-kind souvenir.

Alternative London
The Alternative London Bus
1-3 Rivington St

Exploring the Gràcia neighborhood in Barcelona

Guest post by Linda Martinez

Barcelona has been on my radar for a long time so when a good friend from Bali asked me to meet up with her there for a few days in December, I couldn’t resist.  As I do in all new cities we visit, I checked Context Travel’s site to see if they had any tours going on while I was in town.

It’s amazing how many savvy travelers I know still have an outdated concept about walking tours.  Sure, there are still the huge groups with the person in front leading the crowd around with an umbrella.  Context’s tours are the complete opposite of this experience.  Think instead of a small group of no more than 6 people and visiting the city with a friend who is an art historian, archaeologist, etc. who is passionate about their field and who has all kinds of inside and interesting information about the place you’re visiting, its residents and the culture.  This is what you’ll experience on a Context tour.

I was staying in the Gràcia neighborhood and my friend was moving to Barcelona and was interested in that neighborhood as a possible place to live. She was leaving the planning of our couple of days together up to me, so I decided on Context’s tour:  “Gràcia and the Spirit of the Catalan Independence”.  Our docent was local Biel Heredero, a young native of Barcelona who is an art historian very active in the local arts scene and extremely knowledgeable about Catalan history and culture.

Our tour started at on the steps of the Virgen de Gràcia Sant Josep church.  This church built in 1626 gave the Gràcia area its name.


The majority of the works of architect Antoni Gaudí are in Barcelona and the association between the two is very strongly linked together.  However, we learned that he was not the only Modernista architect around.  The beautiful Casa Ramos was designed by Jaume Torres I Grau in 1906.  The Estelada – the flag of the Catalan separatist movement – hangs everywhere in the Gràcia neighborhood which many would consider the revolutionary heart of Barcelona.

Casa Ramos


My friend and I both wanted to see some Gaudí buildings though, but we were more interested in some of his lesser known buildings.  Biel did not disappoint and took us to see Casa Vicens – Gaudí’s first important work built between 1833-1888 and a residence for the owner of a tile & ceramic factory so the reason for all the tiles covering the building.  Since tile was an expensive material to use as decoration, not only was the tile easily accessible to him as a tile manufacturer, but it also showed off his wealth to the outside world.  Apparently the inside is just as beautiful, even more so according to our docent Biel, and Casa Vicens will be open to the public in 2016.

Casa Vicens


Plaça del Diamant is where there are entrances to underground bunkers that were in use during the Spanish Civil War and can be viewed by appointment.  There is also the bronze statue of Colometa, the protoganist in the 1962 novel by Mercè Rodoreda, “La Plaça del Diamant” translated into English as “The Time of the Doves” – the most famous Catalan book ever published and a must read/rite of passage for all school kids in Barcelona.


Continuing our walk in the Gràcia we encountered another Modernista building in Plaça de la Virreina which shows a style unique to Modernista architecture – sgraffito.  Sgraffito was a form of wall decoration in the 18th century that involved scratching through a top layer of plaster to reveal a different layer of color below. There is lots of attention to detail including tile mosaics on the underside of the balconies.


On we went to Plaça dela Revolucio.  In this square we found beautiful painted tiles formed into a hopscotch pattern – known as xarranca in Catalan.  This figure shows the various characters and elements that make up the annual La Mercè or Festa Major de Gràcia street festival – a huge festival celebrated every August in the Gràcia neighborhood that features competitions between various streets in the neighborhood, workshops, activities, and parades with the biggest parade of the festival featuring the Gegants (giants), the Castellers (the human towers), the Caps Grossos (big heads) and the Dracs (dragons).


In a building facing the clock tower at Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia, you can view some of the huge papier mache heads and figures that make up the Gegants and  Cap Grossos (Giants & Big-Heads).


In the center of  Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia is the symbol of the Gràcia neighborhood – this clock tower built in 1862 survived bombings from federal troops when the Gràcia neighborhood attempted secession in the late 1800′s.  The neighborhood has always been and continues to be a hotbed for Catalanism and dissension.


Despite its serious revolutionary history and vibe, the Gràcia really impressed me as a peaceful oasis in a sprawling city.  Kids played in the streets and the squares, couples and groups of friends hung out in cafes and families strolled or sat and chatted.  There were lots of great restaurants and there is a definite “green” ethos to the neighborhood with lots of organic markets, shops and restaurants.  As a vegetarian, eating was easy for me here despite the meat and fish heavy tendency of cuisine in Barcelona.  In fact, two of the best meals I had were in this neighborhood:  a vegetarian paella at L’Arrosseria Xàtiva and at La Pubilla, a restaurant where absolutely every dish had meat in it, the chefs whipped together a special dish not on the menu that was made with egg, mushroom and vegetables and was mind-blowingly delicious.  For that dish alone I’d come back to this neighborhood, but despite that the Gràcia is definitely an area of Barcelona worth spending a lot more time in.

Places to Stay:

Cross-Pollinate properties in the Gràcia neighborhood:

Studio Maignon

The following properties are in the southern part of the Gràcia neighborhood bordering the L’Eixample neighborhood:

Passeig de Gràcia Suite 34

Passeig de Gràcia Penthouse 51

Passeig de Gràcia Terrace 42

Passeig de Gràcia Residence 33

Linda, along with her husband Steve, is the owner of The Beehive Ho(s)tel in Rome.


Time, Italian Style

The numbers we use to understand time might be universal, but as a concept it’s culturally malleable.  For example, in Germany, a place where things are precise, an appointment for 2pm means you are expected there at 2pm.

In the US, a culture of eagerness and over-achievement, for that same appointment, one would expect someone to show up between 1:45 pm and 2 pm if they were serious about it. Maybe 2:05 pm if they weren’t.

In Italy, an appointment for 2pm really means anywhere from, say, 2:30pm to…  never.  

Being late in Italy doesn’t warrant an apology, nor does it have to actually be acknowledged.  One can even exercise their right to not show up at all and offer no explanation.

The concept of time is flexible and changes based on where you go, and in Italy it’s incredibly flexible.  There’s a whole vocabulary in Italian of vague terms that refer to how long things will take:  un’ oretta (a small hour), una decina di giorni (10-ish days), and there’s the different ways to interpret time too, such as “90 days” which could mean literally, 90 days from today, or it could mean 90 “working days” which can take 7 months or more.

It’s basically all meaningless unless, of course, we’re talking about food, in which case time is not so flexible.  

In many countries, we eat when we feel like it.  Breakfast for dinner, 24 hour restaurants, etc.  But in Italy, one doesn’t eat lunch at 11:30.  Ever.  Dinner at 5:00pm?  An Italian would think, “what the hell is that?”.  It makes no sense here to eat dinner that early.

Time in Italy revolves around food.  Think of the clock like this:

Generally speaking, the morning lasts until 12pm, when lunch time (pranzo) begins, lasting until 3pm.  Morning is also the only time one would have breakfast, which in itself is optional – although lunch is not!

Between those times you can have a merenda (a snack) or getting closer to dinner you can go for an aperitivo.  Coffee you can have anytime, but milky coffee drinks only in the morning – while a cappuccino is frowned upon in the afternoon, a caffè latte is tolerated.  And a milky coffee drink is not an apertivo or dessert.

Aperitivo time (what we call wine-o’clock) can be 6:00, maybe 6:30pm, and goes on either until dinner, or can even substitute for dinner depending where you have your aperitivo.

Dinner (cena) begins around 7, 7:30pm when restaurants re-open.  But if an Italian invites you to dinner at their home, they probably expect you there between 8 and 9pm.

All those other numbers that mark the non-food related times of the day?  When in Italy, don’t worry about them.
The moral here is twofold: when traveling in Italy, don’t stress too much about being late.  Go with the flow. Unless it comes to meal times, in which case plan exactly where you’ll be and when so you don’t get caught in that dead zone between 3pm and 7pm.

And remember, l’ora di pranzo è sacra (the lunch hour is sacred).

Understanding Italian Strikes

Another general strike in Italy has been announced for this Friday, November 14th, that will affect almost all forms of travel and public transport throughout the country.  Such a strike seems like a crippling affair when reported by English news sources, one with the potential to ruin plans and strand travelers.  However, as with everything else in the Bel Paese, strikes are not the same as they are “back home” and the amount of fear and panic they induce is mostly unnecessary.

So how do strikes really work here?  Well, strikes work pretty much the way other stuff works here – that is to say, not very well.  In the US, a strike means the negotiations have failed and the result is a total shutdown until an accord can be reached.  The threat of a strike is powerful because if a strike comes there’s guaranteed to be serious losses.  It’s the end of the line.  And if the strike was ultimately carried out half-assed, then it would undermine the threat of future strikes.

Here that’s not the case.  Here, they are optional.  They’re flexible.  It means, maybe the bus will run, and maybe it won’t.

To understand strikes you have to understand Italian unions.  They operate with or without the support of the people they are calling to strike.  They are essentially independent entities who lobby government for laws that govern workers rights and will affect different categories of employment, but they don’t require employees to join the union in certain sectors to lobby for them.

When you see news about strikes, what you’re seeing is not a notice from organized workers themselves, whose collective voice is being expressed by a union official.  Instead, it’s the union which is calling the workers of that sector to strike – and whether they do or not is up to them.

I get up and I go on strike

A few important things to note, to get a better grasp of how severe a strike can be:

- the trains to the airport from Termini station, such as the Leonardo Express, cannot be affected by strikes.  This is guaranteed by law.

- often, the Freccie, or high speed trains, cannot be affected by strikes – only the regional ones.

- for public transportation, the buses and metro are obligated to run for a few hours that are crucial to get people to and from work – around 8-9am and from 5-6pm.

- workers don’t have to notify employers that they intend to strike, and can’t be reprimanded legally for participating, so companies have to operate in the grey area of not knowing how much a strike will affect them either.

To sum up: a transport strike doesn’t mean that there won’t be buses or that you won’t be able to get where you’re going. It means there will be delays and you can expect to waste some time and have to be a bit flexible and easy going about it.

But, wait, that’s what it’s always like here, isn’t it?

Updated news about the actual hours and the companies/unions involved can be found at this Italian website which is fairly easy to decipher and updated regularly:

What will the future hold for Italy’s artisans?

by Steven Brenner

One of the things I love about Italy, and especially living in a small town in Italy, is interacting with small, traditional  businesses on a daily basis.  Maybe it’s part of my own family legacy – I grew up in a small town and I can remember riding my bicycle at 8 years old to my parent’s grocery store, which had been my grandfathers.  I remember learning math by counting back the customers’ change (this was before the cash register did the work for you and you had to actually use math!) and I remember playing downstairs in the spooky stock room on the conveyor belts.  I also remember when the big supermarkets came to town and my parents struggled, eventually having to sell out altogether.

A few years ago I asked my mother what that was like – to witness that change.  I wanted to know if they’d seen it coming, and what they’d done to hold it at bay.  At that time my wife and I had been in business for a while and it had been almost 30 years since the family store had been sold.

My mother answered that the hardest part wasn’t selling the store, nor was it the worries about money.  It was the lifestyle change.  It was knowing that their whole way of living was coming to an end.  My father had been the butcher in the store.  My mother worked at the cash register.  They had employees that were like family and an apartment above the store where sometimes these employees lived.  They knew their customers well and their customers knew them.  It was hard to accept that people preferred shopping at a big, impersonal store just to save a few bucks, but now, 3 decades later, it’s pretty clear that this way of life is not only here to stay, but it leaves no room for anything else.

I’ve seen this change almost everywhere in the world I’ve visited.  Everything seems to be falling into the hands of very few big businesses.  Italy has resisted somewhat, thanks to having such a strong tradition of small business, and perhaps from having such a bloated bureaucracy, making it hard for any business to strive here.  But slowly, slowly each and every town in Italy has been infiltrated by a large grocery store chain (Despar, Sidis, Coop, etc.) and the Eatalys will sadly shoulder out the same shops that created the romance of local products.  Eventually I’m sure even Starbucks will conquer the Bel Paese as well.

A few years ago I wrote about a tour I’d been on in Florence that focused on the artisans of the Oltrarno and how their trades were dying out.  It’s a subject that fascinates and saddens me in equal measures, a subject I wish I could do more to expose.  Maybe I’m just romanticizing the quaintness of daily Italian life, but those who visit Italy, and love it, certainly share the love for the old-fashioned.

I can’t be the only one who mourns the loss of Main Street.

Here in Orvieto, we buy our vegetables from Franco, the farmer who comes to town twice a week and sells his produce in the Piazza along with the cheese guys and the honey guy.  When a locket we’d bought our daughter didn’t close correctly, we stopped at the jewelry shop below our apartment and Massimo graciously fixed it – refusing any money.  And when I’ve needed belts adjusted or shoes fixed, I’ve gone to see Federico, the cobbler, who also insists that it’s such a small thing to do, that there’s no reason to pay.

Federico is a unique case.  He’s young – 26 years old, and not from Orvieto.  He didn’t grow up the son of a cobbler.  Instead, he got interested in shoe making and working with leather, and looked on-line for a school where he could learn the trade.  Having struck out, he went door to door around Rome, asking each artisan if they’d take him on as an apprentice.  They all refused, from a combination of not having the volume to justify the expense, but perhaps also because they felt their work was a secret that shouldn’t be shared with just anyone.

In the end, he found someone who was open to sharing his craft and Federico worked for free for a few years, learning how to work the leather, a bit like Daniel in The Karate Kid – with small, repetitive jobs.  Now he owns his own “bottega” in Orvieto where his American wife and his mother both work.  He handcrafts beautiful shoes, bags, belts, wallets, and whatever else sparks his creativity.

The fact that this young guy is reviving an old trade that’s literally at risk of extinction in the next few decades, is already worth supporting.  That he’s also been successful at it – in a town where other artisans are sadly closing shop only to be replaced by chain lingerie stores – is indeed the cherry on top.

I consider Federico a friend – the same way I consider many of the shopkeepers friends.  They’re the people who make up the backdrop of my life, and we’re connected, of course by commerce, but also by something more than that.  If you’re in Orvieto, you should swing by Federico’s shop on Via Garibaldi.  He’d be happy to show you what he does, whether you’re buying or not.  To him, it’s an art, and his customers are friends.