Archive | April 2011

Le meilleur chocolat chaud à Milan?

Bar Manhattan

I may have found it. On my first (and only) try.

The afternoon after we arrived in Milan, my friend D and I stopped for a late lunch at Bar Manhattan, a bar/café on Corso Buenos Aeries.

With shiny walnut counters, little down-lights in the ceiling, and red backed chairs and table-tops, the café was the embodiment of understated European elegance. Burgundy-vested waiters didn’t bat an eye when we asked for some menus in English, and frequently checked in on us.

I was served a hot chocolate in a glass, the top half piled with whipped cream and dusted in cocoa. At the first teaspoon I was won – the cream was sweet and velvety, not like the airy stuff you spray from a can. I dipped my long-stemmed spoon lower and was delighted to discover a thick goo, the same colour of the one at Café de la Paix. It was delicious and dark, like a block of 90% chocolate.

I stirred in some of the cream, as with Angelina’s hot chocolate, sweetening and slimming the beverage (though I couldn’t resist lapping up spoon after spoon of it plain – like pillows on my tongue, I felt as though I was burrowed deep into a cocoon of feather-light mattresses and doonas).

Unlike the chocolat chauds de Paris, this one wasn’t served with a glass of water, and I slowed as I sipped, struggling to finish as I grew tipsy on cocoa. The chocolate began to solidify around the circumference of my glass, globular as it rested in my silver spoon somewhere between a liquid and a solid. Soon I would have to chew it!

At €4.20, it’s far better value than any of Paris’s famed hot chocolates, and is the main thing I’d recommend to anyone going to Milan.

Washington DC

Capitol Hill

I arrived in DC at 7:40pm on April 16.

I was supposed to meet my parents, my sister and my cousin (who were all doing trips of their own) at 7:00, and I anxiously wondered if they’d still be there as I dragged my suitcase across Greyhound bus station to the exit.

I got outside and realised that I didn’t know what car they’d be driving – not the make, or the model, or even the colour. After a couple of minutes of no one honking or shouting, I went back inside.

I circled the station, but couldn’t see anyone I knew.

But wait! There was another exit!

I walked like the wind out the second exit, and once again didn’t know which car to look for. A minute passed. And a second. After five I started to worry – my phone didn’t work in the States, so I had no way of contacting them. Were they waiting for me to tell them that I’d arrived? Had they been waiting at another bus station since 7:00?

Or, had I arrived on the wrong day?

I didn’t know where we were staying, or even how to get to the city from where I was. Would I need to sleep in the bus station overnight? I looked inside – on this trip I’ve slept in hostels, on couches, on trains, on an airport floor, and have stayed awake on planes – if I had to, this would be my most unsanitary night yet.

After waiting for another five minutes, I went inside to a payphone. My last $3 weren’t going to get me far (especially since the phone only accepted coins), but look – there was a call-collect number!

I dialled the number, then that of my mother.

And got her answering machine.

I dialled the number again, and tried my sister’s phone.

“Hello?” she said as the recorded voice told her that she had a collect call from me.

“Oh, I’ve got a call from Jolie,” she said to my parents.

“Rhiannon, if you can hear me, would you please press ‘one’ to accept the call?” I asked, hoping that she could hear me through the recorded voice.

She didn’t, and the recorded voice asked if I could pay instead.

I called again, but this time it didn’t get through.

I tried my mum’s number, thinking that she might have turned her phone on after what happened with Rhiannon. Nope – answering machine.

Then Rhiannon came through the door next to the payphones – I was saved!

We spent the next few days looking at the sights, shopping and eating too much. So I ended up with new clothes that fit me when I tried them on . . . but probably don’t anymore :p

I was surprised by how quiet DC was. A long belt of parks runs through the south of the city, and as I went through the memorials at one end and the Smithsonian at the other, I felt like I was at the edge of the world. Even back in Washington’s grid of streets, the streets seemed far too wide for the few people who strolled down them. Yes, the White House, Capitol Hill and the National Spy Museum were all very crowded, but these were the exceptions, rather than the rule.

Smithsonian Castle

As dad had planned the first couple of days, we made our way through the city in a much more methodical method than I’m used to. On day 1 we started at the White House (just looking at the outside – apparently you need permission from your consulate to visit, and because so many Aussies go to the US the Australian Consulate has stopped signing the forms in protest), then made our way through all of the war memorials and presidential memorials, and finished with the park of Smithsonian museums.

WWII memorial

The WWII Memorial comprises 56 granite pillars forming two semi-circles around a plaza and pool with two 13 metre arches on opposite sides. Each pillar holds a grey wreath and bears the name of a state, and the two arches each house four angels holding another wreath. At 103 metres by 73 metres, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a large war memorial.

Korean War Memorial

The Korean War Veterans Memorial is a long triangle of grass intersecting a circle, walled in black granite with over 2,500 photos representing troops sandblasted onto the wall. Standing on the triangle are 19 stainless steel statues of larger-than-life-sized soldiers on patrol. At the end of the triangle is the Pool of Remembrance, a shallow pool of black granite that looks like a giant sundial, and is surrounded by trees and benches. And American flag waves behind the pool, reflected in the water.

Roosevelt Memorial

Roosevelt Memorial

Next were the presidential memorials. Although the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials were impressive, my favourite was the Roosevelt Memorial. It is like a garden of stone – walls with large bricks are marked with quotations from Franklin D Roosevelt and small waterfalls and pockets of trees punctuate the maze.

Roosevelt Memorial

On day 2 we visited Capitol Hill, the Library of Congress and then Chloe and I went for a wander around the city while my parents and sister revisited the Smithsonian museums.

Although Capitol Hill is incredibly impressive from the outside – largely recognisable due to its appearance in countless films and television series – it was crawling with people. As we were unable to get a ticket, we needed to wait for 45 minutes for five to become available. If I’d been alone, I would have turned back as soon as I saw the mass of tourists. As I was with my family, and my father and sister really wanted to see it, I had to wait. Seeing it was interesting, our guide was quite entertaining and the dome is beautiful, but I didn’t think it was worth the wait.

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress, on the other hand, was exquisite. The entrance hall is made of white marble, with two staircases leading up to the first floor, each of them lined with statues of little boys who each represent a different trade. The ceiling is painted in red, gold and black, with circular paintings of . . . And the actual library made me yearn for one of my own –

There were four exhibitions on in the building – one of the discovery of the Americas, one about the creation of the US as well as the Declaration of Independence and its constitution, one on Civil War portraits, and Thomas Jefferson’s Library. The Library of Congress was free, there was no wait and it was fairly quiet – excellent value.

After shopping on day 3 (I finally have new runners – my feet can function normally again!), I had day 4 to myself. I visited the Neuseum.

Neuseum

The Neuseum is a museum dedicated to news, including:

Neuseum - Berlin Wall

  • The history of news (including the creation of the printing press, the introduction of radio, TV and the internet, and significant stories), with examples of newspapers dating back to the 1500s
  • The front pages of the development of Hurricane Katrina as well as individual stories from the event
  • The front pages from September 11, a piece of the satellite antenna from the north tower and video footage from the day
  • Seven pieces of the Berlin wall (each weighing three tonnes, this is the largest portion of the Berlin wall outside of Berlin) as well as one of the guard towers
  • A temporary exhibit about the relationship between the FBI and the media, including famous cases
  • Information about different media, including video interviews
  • News ethics (there was a game on a touch-screen table here – you needed to tap the front-page story and decide what you would do in different ethical dilemmas, like whether you would pay for a story or cover something up, etc.)
  • A 3D film about different historic news stories (3D doesn’t really do much for me, but if you’re into that sort of thing you might like it)

At $21.95 (plus tax), it’s the most expensive museum I’ve visited, but with six floors and a ticket that’s valid for two days (so theoretically you could give it to someone else to use for the second day), I thought it was worth it.

Suitcase-ing

  • Suitcase-ing – backpacking with a suitcase
  • Backpacking – travelling with a backpack, usually on a low budget

Conclusion? Those who backpack with suitcases are probably travelling with budget suitcases.

I would like to have travelled with a backpack and, after my first trip (December 2006-February 2007), I decided to buy one. It was beautiful – sturdy with cushioning on the back and a strap for my hips. Unfortunately my eyes were bigger than my strength, and it’s so big that I can’t actually carry it when it’s full (well, not if I want to stand up straight). It’s a bit impractical.

So I’m travelling with a suitcase I bought from Auchan at La Défense for €20.

As I packed, the lining (attached to the suitcase by a zip) pulled away from the suitcase frame.

When I left Paris, I discovered that the case rocked from one wheel to the other as it rolled.

One week into my trip, the little stand on the bottom of the case fell off, at a metro station in Budapest.

Two weeks into my trip, the plastic grips around the top handle snapped off.

Three weeks into my trip, I realised that the corners of the plastic frame of the case had started to crack. From then on I watched them crumbling before my eyes, piece after piece of loose plastic presenting itself every time I opened the case. I began to think that this was not the best €20 I’d spent to date.

Four weeks into my trip, the Marc Mallory logo popped off. Don’t ask me how. I was looking at the departures board at Lisbon airport and heard a little “ping!” I turned around and my suitcase’s badge of honour was on the ground.

After this, the plastic frame continued to break, and the grips around the side handle started snapping off.

It was time for an intervention.

Six weeks into my trip, I used packing tape to reinforce all of the corners.

Freshly returned to Europe from the US and approaching week eight, today I discovered that the damage had spread – the tape was holding together dislocated fragments of plastic that flexed back and forth when I poked them, and white fractures squiggled across the grey plastic from under the tape.

I slotted a new loose piece into a gap, and attacked the suitcase with the packing tape, mummifying its insides.

16 days to go – will it last?

Stay tuned.

Philly – Magic Gardens

Magic Gardens

Having travelled a bit, sometimes I think that I’ll run out of interesting things to see. The main example I think of is Gothic cathedrals – when I visit these now it’s usually out of a sense of obligation, as they have stated looking very similar to one another.

But the more I travel, the more I encounter things unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

In Philadelphia, it was the Magic Gardens.

Located on South Street, the Magic Gardens include an outdoor mosaic sculpture garden and a completely tiled indoor space, designed by Isaiah Zagar. Like Philly’s Gaudi, Zagar’s mosaics decorate buildings around the south of the city centre and are instantly recognisable.

The garden is a mini-labyrinth – there are low arches and tunnels leading to tiled courtyards, and walls are constructed from bicycle wheels, blue and green glass bottles, old bricks, plates and concrete. The concrete is painted in pastels and the tiles are plain, fragments of patterns, letters or shards of mirror.

I loved the mirrors in the mosaics – in the garden they glittered as they captured the sun, whereas others created the illusion of transparent windows in the walls. It was only when I went into the indoor basement that I realised I could see glimpses of my reflection in the mosaics – a collarbone here, a nose there, an elbow, my pockets . . . I had become a part of the masterpiece.

A wavy line of mirror fragments snaked down one wall, and my eyes were transfixed by it as I walked out – the mirrors flickered up and down my body as I stepped, the flashes like frames from an old film. I resisted the urge to return and walk past it again, and then sat in the sunny courtyard one last time.

Philly and general reflections

Philadelphia

When I first started planning a trip around the world, I was in my early teens and made a list of destinations with my then best friend, Andy.

She added Philadelphia to the list.

“Why Philadelphia?” I asked.

“Because that’s where the cheese comes from.”

As you can see, we were very well educated.

Then, when I was in Egypt, I told the others I would be going to New York City and Washington DC, at which Richard, another student, said I should check out Philly if I had the time. “Philly’s great.”

The former capital of the US (well, for ten years), despite being a city of 1.5 million, I thought Philadelphia had the charm of a small town.

The people had an old-world friendliness and politeness – they acknowledged me on the street with a nod or hat-tip. Customer service people always asked “how are you today?”, “how can I help you?” and always finished with “you have a good day.” It’s strange – meeting men who behaved like complete gentlemen made me feel more like a lady.

Elfreth's Alley

Independence National Historical Park

I stayed at Apple Hostels (which was awesome – they give you free earplugs and nasal strips. Brilliant! Why don’t all hostels do that?) in the historic district, not far from Society Hill. Society Hill is the wealthy part of town – a collection of beautiful tree-lined streets of red-brick buildings with shiny wooden doors and shutters coloured in black, dove-grey, cream, eggshell, wine and green.

Small square parks surround black statues of American notables, bordered by cherry blossoms and 18th and 19th century buildings.

Sights include the Eastern State Penitentiary, South Street and the Independence National Historical Park.

Eastern State Penitentiary

Following the 1787 establishment of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons Eastern State Penitentiary was opened in 1829 as part of a movement to change the behaviour of criminals through “confinement in solitude with labor”. With a wheel-and-spokes floor-plan (the central guard-post being the hub and each of the cellblocks forming the spokes), it quickly became one of the most copied buildings in the US, with an estimated 300 buildings worldwide based on its floor-plan. Originally each prisoner had his/her own cell with a private walled exercise yard behind the cell (about eight by ten feet, I think) and a trap-door in the cell for food to come through. The theory was that solitude would make the inmates regretful and penitent (hence ‘Penitentiary’) and the entire design limits the inmates’ contact with the guards and other prisoners. However, soon this became very expensive and the prison started bunking inmates together, and officially abandoned confinement in solitude in 1913.

Eastern State Penitentiary was abandoned in 1971 and is now a museum with an audio-guide voiced by Steve Buscemi (I love that there are celebrity voices in the museums here – Meryl Streep narrated a video on vertebrates at the Natural History Museum). It’s really something to see – long-arched cellblocks with peeling paint are lit in white, with door after door leading to the individual cells. You can almost feel the ghosts there.

South Street is a street that lines the south of the city with vintage shops and the Magic Garden (more on that next entry). Several of the buildings are decorated in mosaics, including mirror fragments, and the entire street has a relaxed, bohemian atmosphere.

Independence National Historical Park, in the historic district, is where you’ll see most of Philadelphia’s sights associated with the American Revolution, and comprises Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center, the Mint, Franklin Court and several other historic buildings.

Independence Hall

National Constitution Center

Independence Hall is where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and is also where the Liberty Bell originally hung. It was a lot of fun – after getting a free ticket from the visitors’ centre you get a free 45-minute tour about the history of the building and the Declaration. Our tour guide broke the ice by asking, “who here is from the original thirteen states?”

No one raised their hand.

“Okay, where are you from?” he pointed to a young boy.

“New South Wales?” the kid said uncertainly.

“Okay, you’re not one of us yet.” The guide looked for someone else. “What about you?”

“France.”

“You?”

“Germany.”

“Okay, you,” he pointed to another boy who was wriggling around in his chair, trying to get his hand higher in the air.

“California!”

“Okay,” the guide shook his head, “not one of the original thirteen, but let’s say you’re from New Jersey . . .”

Afterwards we got to see the rooms where the Declaration and the Constitution were drafted and signed.

The entire area is a celebration of American history. The last thing I visited was the National Constitution Center, which is a museum with information about the US Constitution. They have a 17-minute multimedia and theatre presentation called Freedom Rising, in which the actress/presenter discusses the Constitution and talks about the definition of “We the People”, its first three words. As the presentation drew to a close, the music swelled and the actress’s voice rose in pride, and my eyes started to water.

I can’t think of anything like this in Oz (admittedly, I haven’t done these sorts of touristy things there), and I felt sorry about it. I’m incredibly proud of my country, yet there don’t seem to be these displays of patriotism there. I couldn’t imagine the average Aussie family with their hands over their hearts watching the flag rise on Australia Day (why would they do that? The sausages might burn!). There aren’t an abundance of Australian flags in suburbia, most people don’t know the second verse of the Australian anthem, and images of Paul Hogan and Akubras with dangling corks are more likely to cause cringing than flushes of nationalism.

Maybe it’s because the United States had to fight so hard to gain their independence. Maybe it’s because they had to fight so hard to define and defend it once it was won. Whatever the reason, the nation and its government are celebrated in museums, music, art, television and film.

Because of this, most Australians can name more American Presidents than Australian Prime Ministers. There are no popular dramas (that I know of) about Australian politics. There are some songs that instil pride in their listeners, We Are Australian and I Still Call Australia Home, but the celebration of Australia and her history is a fraction of that of the US.

I think many Aussies are proud of where they come from, so maybe we’re too laid-back (read: lazy) to go in for all those theatrics.

Yes we’re a young country, but not that much younger than the US. However, unlike the US we haven’t had a revolution or a civil war. We are a constitutional monarchy, so never claimed our independence and broke free from Great Britain. When we formed a federation in 1901 it was done peacefully.

This raises another question – isn’t creating a united nation through peaceful means something worth celebrating? Or is our nation’s value less because nothing worth having should come easily?

New York, New York

I expected New York to be large and loud, busy and buzzing with energy.

New York was always one of the places where I wanted to live, and I thought that I would be swept up in its pace. What pace? When I left my hostel and walked south on Broadway in peak hour, it was quiet – there were few people and even the cars weren’t honking their horns. I continued south of Central Park, where the buildings grew shinier and the areas became more business focussed than residential, but it was the same.

New York seemed flat and grey. I missed the intimacy of Europe, the tiny alleys and renaissance buildings, the shouting market vendors and bakeries whose aromas pulled me in from the street. In contrast, New York was closed to me, completely anonymous. I walked down 53rd Street and 5th Avenue, feeling like I was just on a supersized version of William Street in Melbourne.

I continued walking, searching for the click that would make everything fall into place. It was as though there was a secret passageway to get into the life of the city, and I hadn’t found it.

By midday I was soaked in the ongoing rain. Then, as I was walking north from Chinatown, past Union Square, someone screaming snatched my attention.

“40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS!” a black man with elbow-length dreads in a clear poncho shouted.

Buy an umbrella people!” I jumped back as he bellowed, “it’s cheaper than a doctor’s bill!

“I think he’s scaring people off,” a guy said next to me, and I looked at him in surprise. Was someone actually talking to me?

“Well would you want to buy an umbrella from him?” he asked.

“Of course,” I grinned, “he’s passionate!”

I was in.

Suddenly I was talking to people . . . and (more importantly) seeing food!

Grand Central Station was a warm haven in the rain, and I started to dry off as I wandered through the market centre, looking at the fish, vegetables, fruits, chocolate and baked goods. When I headed back to my hostel that night, I was shocked by how many shops had names that included the words organic, natural, farm-fresh, healthy and gourmet, all of them with fruits and veggies arranged outside.

I prowled through shop after shop, wanting to buy everything. It was only after I’d chosen some salads and yoghurt that I realised I didn’t have any cutlery.

I stayed in the shop where I’d just bought the yoghurt, looking for spoons. There were beautiful sets of five stainless-steel teaspoons for $12, or fifty plastic spoons for $5. $12 was a bit steep for me, but I really didn’t want to buy 50 spoons . . .

I took the escalator to the basement, where two staff members leaned on the plastic cutlery display and chatted. I looked around them.

“Can I help you?” the girl asked.

“I’m just seeing what cutlery you have,” I said as my eyes scanned the numbers on the packets. The lowest seemed to be 25. “I just need one spoon.”

“Oh, go to the deli, Ricardo can give you a spoon,” the guy said.

“Really? Thank you!” I smiled and followed his gestures to the deli.

“Yo, Ricardo!” he shouted across the store. “Boss, would you get this young lady a spoon please, boss?”

Ricardo lifted his head from behind the deli as I arrived, looking suspiciously like he’d been having a nap under the counter. “What?” he looked at me groggily.

“I said would you mind getting this young lady a spoon, if it so pleases you boss sir!”

“Here you go, darling,” Ricardo handed me a spoon with a smile.

After this, New York started growing on me.

I loved ‘suggested price’ ticketing. At the Natural History museum, the ticket kiosk said $16.95 for general admission, and then said if I’d like to pay less I could go to the ticket counters.

So I went to the ticket counter and asked, “so, how does the suggested admission work?”

“You can pay whatever you want,” the girl said.

“Oh, okay. So I could pay, like, $5?” I asked tentatively, not sure if I’d get away with it.

“Sure, $5 please,” she handed me a ticket!

Times Square

I visited Times Square, which was an explosion of neon lights and activity – advertising everywhere, hawkers trying to sell tickets to comedy shows, yellow taxis, tourists, and M&Ms world – exactly what I’d imagined New York would be.

Chelsea

But my favourite place was Chelsea. I went there to see the Chelsea Market – a warehouse of stores connected by exposed brick tunnels, selling food, coffee and wine, with a busker playing an electric cello next to a fountain/waterfall walled in brick and lit in neon purple. Afterwards I wandered around the area, and there I was enchanted by how quiet it was rather than disturbed. Rows of specialty stores lined small streets, along with ethnic restaurants and delis. Apparently art dealers migrated here from Soho in the 1990s, transforming the industrial warehouses into galleries, and now Chelsea is home to 300 galleries, mostly along 10th and 11th avenues. I liked how the factory grit met the boutique glamour – ground floor shops elegant fronts with large windows of goodies on display, while the buildings themselves were stained with smoke and had rusty fire-escapes zigzagging from the ground to the sky.

It’s strange when you consider that I was looking for the busy, glamorous city from The Devil Wears Prada and Sex and the City, that the part I really fell for was nothing like it.

Ode to Madrid

Street in Madrid

Paris in Madrid

Plaza Mayor

Templo de Debod

Crystal Palace

Palacio Real

I love Madrid.

I love the bright pink and yellow buildings. I love how much everything east of Puerto de Sol reminded me of Paris, yet the wide main roads and squares make it easier to breathe. I love the concrete squares that dot the city, even though they felt like frypans in once the mercury hit 30ºC.

I love that the graffiti seems to be restricted the metal roller doors in front of shops, so it completely disappears in business hours, and then transforms the streets at night.

I love the beautiful designs on the tiled street signs.

I loved my hostel – Musas Residence, with dorm rooms and ensuites that seemed more like apartments than a backpacker’s squat. And I loved their free sangria night (what did you expect? I’m an Aussie!).

I loved Plaza Mayor and the mosaics on the buildings.

I loved the Templo de Debod – a genuine second century Egyptian temple transported to one of Madrid’s gardens. I loved Plaza de España, with market stalls under little white marquees selling clothes, accessories, souvenirs and other knick-knacks.

I loved Gran Via, a big shopping street that leads from Plaza de España to another palace . . . dedicated to the post office. And I loved the cheaper, grungier shopping streets that turned south off Gran Via.

I loved Mercado de San Miguel, one of the oldest covered markets in Madrid. The original metal construction now has glass walls and the rather posh market has bars selling sangria filled with freshly chopped apples and oranges. Other bars sell delicatessen products, tapas, fruit, cheese and baked goods, and they surround café-like benches that run down the centre of the hall.

I loved the enormous Parque de el Retiro and the Crystal Palace, which twinkled like a star in the sun. I loved the gardens around the Palacio Real, though the palace was no Versailles. I liked the Prado museum . . . but I prefer the Louvre (look at that – the French must have rubbed off on me).

I don’t even know why I loved it so much, but I did. Even when I was wandering around lost.

Especially when I was wandering around lost.

Tirso de Molina

My favourite place in Barcelona . . .

Gothic Quarter

Mercat Boqueria

Mercat Boqueria

I turned into the Mercat Boqueria on my first morning, torturing myself at the chocolate stalls as I tried to swindle free samples for myself. Fish, tapas, dried fruit and nuts, and colourful fruit and veggies are on display, and they sell tubs of fresh fruit salad for €1 or €2, while the Carrefour down the road sells them for €3.50. The produce all smelt remarkably fresh and watching the locals haggle made for a popcorn-worthy

Cascada - Parc de la Ciutadella

performance. But get in early – by midday the market is crawling with tourists.

Parc de la Ciutadella

Surrounding the Catalan Parliament, on the weekend this park was bustling with joggers, dog walkers, roller-bladers and chatter. On a Monday afternoon, however, the predominant sound is birdsong and people stroll in the sun or doze on the grass.

Park Guell

Parc Guell

Parc Güell

One of Gaudi’s creations, knobbly pillars, colonnades and steps look like they’ve been excavated from a goblin realm and preserved here in some sort of museum. On a hill to the north of the city, when I reached the top all of Barcelona was laid at my feet. I felt a heady rush of power, and understood for the umpteenth time why some people never stop travelling.

When I left I turned out a different entrance (the main one, as it turns out). There was a large, wavy terrace under a roof supported by white columns, all decorated in mosaics where a cellist and violinist played. The sighs of their instruments echoed through the space, seeming to bounce off the mosaic tiles. At the foot of the double staircase are two buildings that looked like they came from a Dr Seuss book – brown with long windows, white and mosaic patchwork roofs, and little towers at their peaks. Down here, two people were playing steel drums in the cave-like area under the terrace which gave the area a summer, island-holiday feel.

Montjuïc Gardens

After visiting the castle of Montjuïc, on the top of a hill to the south-west of Barcelona, I descended through the gardens on the hill. My favourite was the Jardines de Mossèn Cinto Verdaguer – wide central steps are framed by water terraces covered with waterlilies, surrounded by 2800m2 of flowerbeds, which have all just bloomed in an explosion of colour.

Gothic Quarter

Gothic Quarter

The Gothic Quarter

I’m not even sure if the area I liked was the Gothic Quarter, but it was between the Gothic Cathedral (its walls fence an internal garden of green plants, water and geese, for some reason) and the Arc de Triompf.

This area used to be a Roman village, and is still filled with old buildings and tiny streets, some of them so narrow that I think they must always be in shadow. Every time I stumbled onto one of the main roads, my heart sank with disappointment and I quickly turned back into the maze.

People are often standing on the street in front of their restaurants and shops, and the men readily called out “hola guapa!” when I walked past. And all of the bakeries now have chocolate displays in their windows in preparation for Easter – I kept finding myself stopping to admire the intricate castles and cartoon scenes.

La Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia - Nativity

Sagrada Familia - Nativity

Sagrada Familia - Passion

I visited this church on my first day in Barcelona and, upon discovering that the entrance was €12.50 (€10.50 with a student or youth card) and that the line stretched around the block, I turned away. It was impressive enough on the outside – one facade is dedicated to the nativity and another to the Passion of the Christ, including all the stations of the cross. I loved the Passion facade – the statues are more modern, simpler and slightly abstract, and feel more in tune with Gaudi’s designs than the more classical nativity sculptures.

So was it worth going inside? I went back to the hostel and started asking people. The conversation usually went like this:

Me: “Have you been to the Sagrada Familia?”

Them: “No, not yet.”

Me: “Oh, okay. I just wanted to find out if the entrance was worth it.”

Them: “How much is it?”

Me: “€12.50.”

Them: “For a church!?”

And one that isn’t going to be finished for another thirty years.

On the last day I gave in – how could I come to Barcelona and not see the inside?

Nearly all of my travels have been in Europe, so I’ve seen a lot of churches. And, after a while, the big cathedrals start to look very similar to each other.

Not this one – it was the most amazing church I’ve ever seen. Pillars stretch into the sky, breaking off into smaller branches as they reach the ceiling, so it feels like you’re walking through a fantastical white forest. The stain-glass windows are coloured in bright reds, yellows, blues and greens and don’t seem to depict one design, but are more like a celebration of colour and are so much more vivid than their gothic counterparts.

Afterwards you can learn about the architecture and construction in the museum below the church.

Gaudi’s creations are like nothing I’ve ever seen. I knew nothing about him before I came to Barcelona (I still don’t, for that matter), but his buildings are instantly recognisable. Either earthy and organic, mimicking the structures of plants and looking like fairy kingdoms from fantasy stories; or wavy and colourful with different shapes all over the place, like a Dr Seuss creation. No one else thinks like that.

Sagrada Familia

Hmm . . . I seem to have more than one favourite place. But that’s what it was like walking around Barcelona – almost every time I saw something new, I thought about how it must be the most enchanting part of the city, only to think the exact same thing about the next place I visited. Maybe it’s just the perfect place to have a ramble.

Lisbon

Rua Augusta Arch

I hadn’t been to Lisbon before, and it was only after I’d arrived that I realised I was searching for Porto.

I went to Porto in the summer of 2008, when I was living in London. I loved it – I arrived on a balmy night and the air smelled like leaves. For the three days I was there I was caught up in a wave of sensations – the smell of sausages sizzling down near the riverbank, the heat radiating off the pavement, the coolness of the port wine cellars, and the dizzyingly sweet taste of glass after glass of port.

Some cities seem to have such a strong gravitational pull that it drags you into the life-force of the city. Porto was one of them. On this trip, Istanbul is probably the best example.

In other cities you can see the potential, but you really need a local to show you around. And some cities never truly touch you.

At first, Lisbon seemed to be in the second category. I spent my first two days enveloped in wet, grey clouds. Whenever I returned to my hostel in Baxia, the city looked so beautiful out the windows that I kept going out for walks, but without a destination I was overcome with a feeling of vague dissatisfaction – was I missing something?

After a week of sun in Dahab (and the freckles to show for it) I had no patience for clouds. And after all of the smiles of Istanbul and Dahab, the people in Lisbon seemed grumpy and unsociable, and some of the men had pouts that could rival a parisienne.

My third day, Tuesday, looked like it was going to be another grey day.

Belém Tower

I returned to Belém (having walked there in the rain on Monday only to discover that everything was closed) and, when I was on my way to Belém Tower, the sun came out!

A man was playing a pan-flute by the river, where people leaned back on the benches by its banks. The smell of jasmine wafted over from the parks and I began to get a sense of Lisbon.

Jerónimos Monastery

The three areas where I spent most of my time were Belém, Baxia and Alfama.

In the sun, Belém was very peaceful, with beautiful manicured gardens near the river and pink, yellow and white buildings with terracotta roof tiles. The buildings there are some of the oldest in Lisbon, because the area didn’t suffer much damage in the 1775 earthquake. Sights in the area include Belém Tower, Jerónimos Monastery, Belém Palace, Ajuda Palace, The Monument to the Discoveries, the Botanical Gardens and the Coaches Museum.

Baxia - Rua Augusta

The next area was Baxia – where I was staying in Lisbon. With white marble streets, large squares, expensive shops, and tourists with shopping bags, this is the main shopping and baking district of Lisbon. After the earthquake of 1755 it was completely rebuilt, and is now a uniform grid of neoclassical buildings, with a pedestrianised central thoroughfare and a network of yellow buses and antique trams bumbling through the area. Here are some of the most impressive squares in the city and the 45m

Restauradores

tall Santa Justa Elevator, designed by Raoul de Mesnier du Ponsard (an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel), from which you can see views of the city.

Neighbouring Baxia is Alfama, a labyrinth of narrow streets with black paved roads paved and white footpaths. Home to Castelo de São Jorge and the National Tile Museum, steep stairs and winding streets lead up the hills to the castle, lined by churches and beautifully tiled or painted buildings with wrought-iron balconies. Blossomed trees are just starting to sprout green leaves, and when the wind picks the pavement is frosted in a shower of purple flowers.

This area also survived the 1755 earthquake, and getting lost in the medieval maze is a pleasure. At the end of my last day I returned to Alfama to wander around, and stumbled upon a church. I popped inside to have a look, only to realise that I’d walked into a mass.

The priest began to break the bread in preparation for communion, speaking in Portuguese. I was surprised to find the voice of Father Joe, the priest from my primary school parish in my head, reciting the English version – ‘. . . Christ broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and said: “Take this, all of you, and eat it: This is my body which will be given up for you” . . .’ The words must have been burned in my childhood and adolescent memories.

Although I didn’t take communion, I stayed until the end of the mass. When I left my mind was still.

And the sky had clouded over once more.