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It’s amazing how many savvy travelers I know still have an outdated concept about walking tours.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.

 

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

Discovering Lisbon’s Belém Neighborhood

by Jessica Infantino Trumble

A day spent in Belém is a journey back to a time when Portugal ruled the seas.  This peaceful little suburb of Lisbon played a huge role in the Age of Discovery, as it was the starting point for explorers like Bartolomeu Diaz, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan.  Their journeys literally spanned the globe, staking claims in Africa, Asia, India and South America along the way.  Even Columbus landed in Lisbon before returning to Spain after his famous 1492 voyage.

With boatloads of history and impressive panoramic views, Belém warrants at least a half-day of sightseeing, or longer if you have an appetite for discovery.

How to Get There

The easiest way to get to Belém from downtown Lisbon is to hop on tram #15E.  You can pick it up at Praça da Figueira, Praça do Comércio or the Cais Sodré rail station, and in about 30 minutes it will drop you off right in front of the Jerónimos Monastery.  Just be sure to not get off at the first “Belém” stop, rather wait for the next one named “Mosteiro Jerónimos”.  From there most of the main sights will be within walking distance.

Alternatively, you can also take bus #714 from Praça da Figueira or Praça do Comércio, or bus #728 from Praça Comércio or Cais Sodré.  When you’re ready to head back to Lisbon, catch the tram or bus from the same stop in front of the monastery (they come about every 10-15 minutes).  Both are covered if you have a Lisboa Card, otherwise just pay the driver when you get on.

The Lisboa Card also includes free entry to many sights in Belém including the Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery and offers discounts on several others.  If you plan on doing a lot of sightseeing or using a lot of public transportation in Lisbon, then the card is a good bet.  If your usage will be light, then you can probably skip it.

What to See

Belém offers a good mixture of museums and monuments depending on your preference.  Here are just a few of the top highlights.

You can’t miss the impressive Discoveries Monument soaring 171 feet high on the waterfront.  Built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Prince Henry the Navigator’s death, the monument immortalizes Henry, placing him at the helm of the ship.  He’s followed by 32 other larger-than-life figures who also played a role in the Age of Discovery – monarchs, explorers, cartographers, artists, scientists, missionaries and the only female, Henry’s mother Felipa.

As you stand at the base of the monument, look around and take in the view anchored by the 25th of April Bride and Monument to Christ in the distance.  Then look down at the inlaid marble map in the square in front of the monument that chronicles the expeditions of Portugal’s explorers.

Next head to the Belém Tower, which was built in 1515 as a fortress and watchtower to guard Lisbon’s harbor.  The tower quickly became a symbol of the Age of Discovery since it was the last thing explorers would see as they embarked on their journeys and the first sign of home when they returned.


The exterior is an ostentatious example of Manueline architecture, named after King Manuel I to celebrate the prosperity during his reign.  This style of architecture is characterized by intricate ornamentation that glorified Portugal’s achievements as sea, like twisted rope, anchors, shells, flora, Manuel’s armillary sphere and Christian symbols because, after all, someone had to finance the journeys.

Cross the makeshift pedestrian bridge to get to the visitors entrance (during high tide the water can completely surround the tower), then spend some time exploring the various rooms that were once used for cannon firing and spoil storage.  The climb to the top of the tower’s terrace is worth the 120 steps for the sweeping view of the Tagus River.

Continuing with the theme of discovery, Portugal’s story of sea exploration comes to life at the Maritime Museum.  Located in a wing of the Jerónimos Monastery, adjacent to Calouste Gulbenkian Planetarium, the museum houses a collection of more than 17,000 seafaring items.  You’ll get an up-close-and-personal look at model ships from the Age of Discovery, ornate royal barges and other vessels, maps and navigation tools from the past few centuries.

From sea to land, the National Coach Museum offers another perspective on Portuguese transportation from a bygone era.  In 1905 when it was clear that motor cars would become all the rage, Queen Amélia had the riding arena at the royal palace turned into an exhibition area to preserve her collection of fancy coaches.  The museum’s unique collection began with 29 royal vehicles, along with uniforms, harnesses and other cavalry accessories, which has grown to include even more vehicles, art and artifacts from the 17th to 19th centuries.


Ending up back where you started, the Jerónimos Monastery is another brilliant example of Manueline architecture in Belém.  Construction began in 1501 under King Manuel to give thanks for the successful sea voyages of Vasco da Gama and other great explorers, fitting since it was the sale of spices from da Gama’s trip to India that financed the project.

The monastery was inhabited by the Hieronymite order of monks who provided spiritual guidance to sailors before they embarked on their journeys.  It’s also the final resting place for King Manuel, da Gama and other Portuguese notables.


The real highlight of the monastery is its cloisters.  Just like the Belém Tower, the bold yet elegant, lace-like arches and columns are heavily decorated with nautical motifs, representing a time of Portuguese wealth and sea power.  With such breathtaking architecture, it’s no wonder that the monastery and the tower are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.


What to Eat

After a day of sightseeing, treat yourself to one more discovery at Pastes de Belém.  This café, which is conveniently located across from the Jerónimos Monastery bus stop, stakes claim as the birthplace of Lisbon’s trademark custard tarts.

They make about 20,000 of the pastel de nata a day, and rumor has is that the closely-guarded recipe is only shared with 3 pastry chefs at a time.  The tarts are served with little packets of powdered sugar and cinnamon to sprinkle on top, and usually warm and crunchy right out of the oven.

To read more about Jessica’s travel experiences and tips, check out her blog Boarding Pass.

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Some of the best value can be found in Lisbon on self-catering apartments.  Here’s 3 stylish, central and ultra-inexpensive places to stay in Lisbon:

Lapa D in Estrela – €60/night

Lisbon Core apartment – €60/night

My House in Lisbon – €79/night

Off the Beaten Path in Rome’s Monti Neighborhood

by Amy Knauff

Monti is the historic area located between Termini Station and the Colosseum/Roman Forum.  It’s where Woody Allen shot a good deal of “To Rome with Love” – so it’s your picture postcard version of Rome: ivy covered buildings, narrow cobblestone streets – but it’s less touristy, more authentic and hip than the area around Piazza Navona/Pantheon.  On a rainy autumn day, here’s what we’d consider an ideal visit:

9:30am: Start at the Cavour metro stop. Walk straight up the street in front of you, via Leonina. Here you’ll find two great cafés to choose from for breakfast. Ciuri Ciuri, at nr. 18, is a classic Italian bar with yummy Sicilian pastries (cassate, cannoli, marzipan, Modica chocolate, sweets made with Avola almonds and Bronte pistacchios). 2 Periodico Café, at nr. 77, is a cozy spot where you can enjoy a more leisurely breakfast while listening to chill-out music, snuggled up in an armchair as you read the morning paper.  For a typical Roman bar, with amazing coffee and good pastries, head right up Via del Boschetto to Er Baretto on your left at nr. 132 (has a few outside tables too).

10am: Head back down via Leonina to nr. 46/48, where you’ll find a big, blocky industrial-looking building that stands out like a sore thumb from the more quaint buildings in Monti. It’s a parking garage, and on Saturdays and Sundays, the ground floor is home to Mercato Monti, a small but interesting vintage-styled market. Purists, take note: most stuff in here is not actually vintage. But it’s the style that counts, and it’s a fun spot to pick up some interesting, offbeat finds and hang out with creative types.

11am: Leave the market and head out for a wander around the narrow cobblestone streets of Monti. This neighborhood is charming, picturesque and packed to the brim with interesting, eclectic shops for clothing, jewelry, and home goods. Stop by the uninspiringly named Candle’s Store (via Urbana, 21), which has gorgeous homemade candles. Aromaticus (via Urbana, 134) is like being in an adorable greenhouse; they sell garden and home decorations (and you can enjoy lunch or an organic smoothie or snack surrounded by greenery). On via dei Serpenti (nr. 141) check out Pifebo Vintage Shop, which has authentic vintage finds.

Of course, Monti isn’t just about shopping: the architecture is fascinating, as the mix of individual homes with street entrances, ivy-draped streets, and planters exploding with red and pink flowers make you feel like you’re not in otherwise chaotic Rome. Being something of a bohemian/artsy area, there is also plenty of interesting street art and graffiti to see as you walk around. (See if you can spot the space invader mosaics!) And of course, it’s de rigueur to pay a visit to the neighborhood church – the Church of Santa Maria ai Monti right in the main piazza was designed by none other than Giacomo della Porta.

1pm: You’ve earned a long lunch. Monti is loaded with good restaurants (for all budgets). Urbana 47 (at via Urbana 47, of course) is one of the most popular ones in Monti, and it’s “zero-kilometer” (locally sourced). But in general, it’s hard to go wrong in this area – it has mostly authentic, non-tourist-menu restaurants. Even La Bottega del Caffè located smack dab in Piazza della Madonna dei Monti is good, packed with tourists and locals alike. It has covered outdoor seating (so it’s great for people-watching) and I like their pasta with salmon in cream sauce. If you’re in the mood for something non-Italian, you can also get sushi at Daruma (via dei Serpenti 1) or Indian at Maharajah (via dei Serpenti 124) or Sitar (via Cavour 256) to name two of the four different Indian restaurants in the area.  Down Via dei Madonna ai Monti, almost at the end on the right, is Taverna ai Fori Imperiali (via della Madonna dei Monti 9), a well known Roman trattoria with great food – but you’ll definitely need to make a reservation.

2:30pm: Stretch your legs after lunch – climb the stairs next to the Irish pub on via Leonina and cross the busy street (via Cavour). On the other side there is a big tunnel with stairs. Walk up the stairs and keep going straight until you get to Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli. Follow the hordes of tourists into the church and visit the stunning marble statue of Moses, sculpted by Michelangelo.

3pm: Leave the church and keep going straight, away from via Cavour. You’ll soon get to the back end of the Colle Oppio park, which overlooks the Colosseum. On Sundays the dirt soccer field (called “la polverera” for its dustiness in the summer) in this part of the park is used all day by Latin American soccer teams. They play rain or shine. Huddle under your umbrella for a while and watch the back-to-back soccer games with the Colosseum as a backdrop. The smell of South American food and the sound of Latin rhythms add to the atmosphere.

4pm: It’s time for an afternoon coffee (or hot chocolate). Get out of the rain and into the closest coffee bar. Caffe dello Studente, just across from the soccer field, is Rick Steves-recommended and has a nice view of the Colosseum.

And no visit to Monti is complete without a stop at Fata Morgana on Piazza degli Zingari (up at the end of Via degli Zingari, and not on the lower part near the Cavour metro).  This is one of the top 3 gelaterias in the entire city and not to be missed.

Want to stay in the neighborhood? Here’s some of our top suggestions:

Appartamento Baccina starting at €100/night

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B&B Suburbe from €120/night

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Apparatmento Urbana from €110/night

 

Shoreditch – The Coolest Neighborhood in London’s East End

by Steven Brenner

 

There’s something about the East Side of many cities that sounds unsavory.  Who knows why – maybe historically it comes from the wind’s direction, blowing bad smells from nearby industry toward the East, or maybe it has something to do with the current of the Thames and the crap it would wash up down shore to the have-nots.

Whatever the reason, the East End has typically been considered the less salubrious part of London – and perhaps many East Sides worldwide have inherited that same reputation.

 

 

But these are also the areas that have the wealth of ethnicity and the youthful artistic flair to be transformed into the kinds of fashionable neighborhoods I hunt for – neighborhoods with small, non-corporate businesses; artistic industry and the people who work in them.  In London, this is what you find in Shoreditch, the area just north of the City of London’s financial district which has been undergoing gentrification since the late 1990′s.

 

 

Shoreditch (the name may even come from a variation of “Sewer Ditch”) is technically in the borough of Hackney, and includes Old Street Tube station, Shoreditch High Street, Brick Lane (the Bangladeshi area made famous by Monica Ali’s novel of the same name), and Hoxton.  At its borders are Islington to the north and Liverpool Street station in the south, which is right at the edge of the City of London.

Here’s some of the great things about the area:

 

 

Boxpark, a pop-up mall made from shipping containers.  Ok, it’s a mall, but I have to appreciate how much it deviates from the typical model of a shopping mall.

 

 

Columbia Road flower market.  On Sundays this outdoor market is as alive as can be.  Again, it’s lots of shopping, but mostly vintage, food, flowers and it’s all outside and convivial with lots of great people watching.

 

 

Brick Lane.  Once the slums (and apparently the scene of Jack the Ripper’s murders), it’s now an entire universe of ethnicity.   This is the place to come for a Bangladeshi curry.  It’s punks, street art, music, street food, vintage, and sometimes so crowded you can barely walk down the street.

 

 

People watching.  There are some people in Shoreditch who are so cool, there isn’t even a name for their fashion sense.

Old converted warehouse buildings make the best lofts and restaurants.  Nearby, an old Framery from the 1920′s was converted into a group of funky flats:

 

Flat 1 – £125 a night

Flat 2 – £125 a night

Flat 3 – £125 a night

Flat 4 – £159 a night

Flat 5 – £142

Flat 6 – £142

Flat 7 – £142 a night

Loft – £301 a night up to 8 people

 

Vietnamese food. When Shoreditch High Street becomes Kingsland Road you’re in Vietnamese heaven. If you have yet to be completely converted to the wonders of Pho – a Vietnamese noodle soup, you’ll need to plan a little visit here.

 

  

 

Shopping. Yes, there is plenty of vintage, but there is literally everything else too. If you’re looking for something unique, something you can say you bought in London and not just anywhere else in the world, you’ll probably find it here. There’s also a number of semi-outdoor markets, such as the Spitalfield Market.

 

 

More cool places to stay in the area:

Shoreditch Studio for £119 a night

Shoreditch 1 bedroom for £165 a night

Victory Chambers 2 bedroom from £160 per night

Broadway Market from £95 per night