Friday, May 30, 2008

Tourists just keep on coming to Spain !

I was reading in the local press the other day that the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and tourism of Spain released figures for the number of tourists visiting Spain in the first Quarter.
Apparently, there was a 3,3% increase in the same period from last year, with a whopping 15,2 million foreign tourists landing on the shores of Spain. That's just in the first 4 months. I guess some people are not feeling the squeeze at the moment?!

Although saying that, the stats also went even further to suggest that the low-cost airlines are probably the main reason for the increase. 3,9 Million of those who came came from the United Kingdom - which has over 40 daily flights arriving to Barcelona and Girona - and second was Germany with 2,6 million - Berlin airlines is the EasyJet equivalent, and for anyone who's been to Mallorca or another of the islands will know, Germans love Spain.

I imagine that things will continue to keep growing numbers wise, as we approach the "high season" and the nicer weather. Well, the supposed nicer weather - the news this morning commented that in Croatia and neighbouring countries are enjoying a 100 year record of high temeperatures (34ºC) whereas Spain and Italy are struggling to cope with the rain.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

My own personal top 10 Barcelona

I recently stumbled upon the top 10 visited sights in Barcelona (official figures of the visited/paid entrances) and I have to say, I was very surprised at the list and order. OK, there were no big surprises, like number 1 was Sagrada Familia for example - no surprise there. I suppose the list is also dependant on actual bought tickets - so something like visiting the olympic stadium up on Montjuic might have made number 7 or 8, but of course it's free, so couldn't be counted.
After reading it I got thinking, and I decided that if you based your trip to Barcelona solely on this information, then you'd be missing out on some great places, so started making my own top 10 places (not really in any order, just thinking about it), and thought it might be something to share. After 9 years here, I've seen most things touristy - some through personal choice and some accompanying relatives or friends who came to visit. So, and I must stress this is in no particular order, here are my top 10 places in Barcelona to visit!

1. Sant Pau del Camp church. "Saint Paul of the countryside" is the oldest church in Barcelona, and is a roman building which is just off Paralello on Calle Sant Pau. The thing I like about this church is that it looks the same on the inside as the outside - big stones. There are no golden candlesticks and huge icons, etc. It's a real back to basics place, and if you have the chance to visit the cloister, you'll have an idea of the age of the place - it dates as far back as 912 AD.

2. Las Ramblas. Ok, this might seem an obvious inclusion, but there are many people who post on sites saying it's not worth visiting/too touristy/too dangerous, and people do actually believe this stuff. I've read other posts saying "we went to Ramblas, but stopped for 2 minutes and got right back in the taxi cab, as it looked so seedy". Incredible. For me, you have to at least walk up or down it once to take in the whole experience. Otherwise, you'll miss number 3...

3. La Boqueria Market. Just for the food that you can see there! Ok, forget the hoards of tourists at the fruit stalls at the entrance - I mean have a real wander, and go and see all the funny stalls. There's an African stall which sells BUGS, like crickets, locusts, etc. (not all year round), the best Iberian hams (not in the city, but some great ones), the amazing offal stalls (I wonder how on earth they can stay open, if like 8 kilos of stomach costs you 1 euro 50?! What do they make on that?!), the fish stalls, and much more. Has to be done.

4. Cable car at Montjuic. I've done this a few times (although not since it got re-opened this year), and it's so cool it makes you fell like a little kid again! If it's a clear day, there are some cracking views, and there's the "is this really safe" question. I love it!

5. Park Guell, but backwards. The park is on a hill, and although the incline is not too steep, the walkways are so windy, that moving up 50 metres involves walking 500, so I always say, take the metro to Vallcarca, and then take the escalators (how lazy is that?!) to the back entrance to the park. You then start with the best view, and can casually (and often smugly as you pass red-faced tourists) meander down the rest of the way, saving the best till last - the ornate entrance with fairytale houses.

6. Horta Maze. This is a little out of the way, but if you live in Barcelona and have never been, it's worth a look. It's a maze from hedges, very well kept, and great fun. If it ever snowed and laid in Barcelona, I'd be straight there for me "Shining" experience!

7. El Bosque de las Hadas. The forest of the faries. This is actually a pub, just off Las Ramblas, and is a fitting neighbour to the wax museum. It's bigger nowadays that it used to be, but the entrance is still the strangest pub you will ever walk into - something straight out of a Tim Burton film. Fake trees, funny mirrors, portcullas all included with the price of a beer. Classic.

8. Palau de la Musica Catalana. I think maybe the reason this place wasn't on the official top 10 is that many people think you can just turn up and go in, whereas you do actually need to take a guided tour. One of Barcelona's many weird/cool buildings and the best is the stained glass roof window. I don't know much about art, but that's verrrrry nice.

9. Cuitadella Park on a Sunday. There's enough to see in the park on any given day (rowing boats, the Gaudi-designed fountain) and the cool Mammoth thing (just whay it's there I have no idea), but Sunday in Cuitadella seems to go back in time, to the late 60's early 70's! Lots of hippies arrive with bongos and start playing and after an hour, there's loads of them! The other thing I love is that lots of different nationalities go and take a dish they've made which is typical from their country/city. So for 2 euros, you can try Argentinian empanadas, enchilladas from Mexico (or Los Angeles, the last time I think!), Filipino chicken sticks, the list goes on...

10. Finally, but remember, it's in no order, I have put the Magic Fountains at Montjuic. I know it's a bit cheesy (I still love the way people clap after the songs, like as if there's a man inside pushing loads of buttons and winding handles, etc.) but it's still a spectacle with the Palace and lights behind that can't fail to put a smile on your face.

So there you have it. Some are obvious, and some maybe not so, but check them out - 5 are free!

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Advice for setting yourself up in Barcelona

Before I came to Barcelona, I put it up there with other European cities like Paris, London, etc. so I pretty much was resigned to the fact that commuting would be part of daily life. Who in London doesn’t have to travel at least 1 hour to get to/from work? This is the downside of moving to such a big city – but the benefits outweigh these little niggles. So when I moved to Barcelona, I had no idea of the city’s structure or layout, no idea of the different neighbourhoods, hell I didn’t even know how big it was. 9 years ago I didn’t have internet at home and even of I did, there wasn’t the wealth of information available now as there was then. Or maybe there was, but I just wouldn’t have known how to find it. Anyway.

You’ll be pleased to hear that Barcelona is really easy to get around. The metro system is one of the easiest to get used to – there are only 5 lines (well plans for more, but 5 main lines), there are no zones, and all the lines are called Line 1,2,3,4 and 5 and are even colour coded! You’d be surprised at how small Barcelona is and how quickly you ca navigate yourself around. Because of its natural landscape, Barcelona can’t grow – you have the sea at the bottom and Tibidabo Mountain at the back, so it just goes out. Once you hit the river on one side, you’re in Hospitalet. There’s another river on the other side, and that’s Badalona. So relatively speaking, even if you lived and worked on completely opposite sides of the city (and who would do that if they had the choice) then it would only really take you around 1 hour to get to and from work. Taking that as the longest journey, I would say that those who live and work in the centre will have an average of 20 minutes. I could even walk to work in about 25 minutes when Ilanded my first job! I didn’t expect that before I got here!

The first thing you need to do is get the accommodation sorted. You need a base. This is where many problems can arise. Talking from first hand experience, there are many “agencies” all very centrally located and with nice offices, who offer alleged lists of available properties which they will pass on to you for a fee. Kind of like a finders fee. They will even show you printed lists of properties with telephone numbers and often go as far to conduct a small interview with you – I want 2 bedrooms, no more than XX amount per month, close to metro line, etc. Then they’ll tell you that they currently have 9 or 10 or whatever number of properties that fit your requirements and all you need to do to get this list is pay their “agency fee”. We did. The list was given and we called all 9, or maybe it was more, I can’t remember, and guess what? Yes, they were all gone – some rented weeks ago. Apparently they just scour the local listings in the newspapers and add the number and name to their list.

Nowadays it’s a lot easier and your first port of call should be which is a great Barcelona portal, offering many things to buy and sell as well as accomodation. Be warned, due to the popularity of this site, there are new scams involving non-existant properties. Remember that if it seems too good to be true (too cheap for what you’re looking at) then it usually is. Take your time, and be patient – it’ll be worth it in the end. Most owners will ask for 1 or 2 months rent up front, as well as a month’s deposit for any breakages/damage. Bear that in mind when you’re looking. Contracts range from between 1 and 3 years, the maximum being 5. Check the small print if you can, or ask for a translation (you may have to pay) because although most contracts are standard, there may be one or two clauses that you don’t agree to. Mostly though, they have to adhere to the law. Another option is scouring the papers yourself, although if you have the language barrier (like I did) that’s not always an option. It’s surprising how quickly you learn certain words quickly though, whilst looking for accommodation! You should be fine, though, and the best thing to do is also ask around – when you go out to the bars and pubs, ask the people you meet, or look on the notice boards at the university and the cyber cafes you visit. Good luck!

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Welcome to my Barcelona blog

As an Englishman living in Barcelona, I hope to be able to offer some insights as to what it's like living here as a foreinger, a few hints and tips as to Barcelona life - some do's and don'ts - and in general offer the kind of advice that maybe I could have done with before I moved here.
I've been living in Barcelona for almost 9 years and have seen many changes in the city, but one thing has never changed - the draw and appeal that Barcelona has. Whether or not you've visited the city or are planning a trip, Barcelona is one of the best destinations you could choose. Tourism is the main income in Spain as a whole, and Barcelona is one of the most visited cities. The rise of low-cost airlines has made travelling a lot easier and often cheaper than travelling within your own country - or at least I can say so for the UK. My parents often joke that it's cheaper for them to come and visit me in spain than it is to go and visit my other brothers who live in other cities in England.
I'll also be available for questions or advice and open to suggestions as to what people might like to read about. And i'll always be as honest as possible to give an informed and qualified opinion.
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