Thursday, 31 January 2008

From VLC to BCN for the weekend...

The covered market off La Rambla offers its produce without the familiar processing and packaging

Rather a**e about face I'm afraid. Life moves on apace and if I don't get a blog off the stocks immediately, then I'm constantly running to stand still. In this case, the visit to the Formula One tests comes after our visit to Barcelona (BCN) for the weekend in chronological terms, but in purely blogging terms, it was quicker to dash off the F1 blog before the more leisurely look at BCN (could be something to do with the fact that I know little or nothing about motor racing and only marginally more about BCN!)

A horse and carriage parade down La Rambla... still not sure what it was all about!

So... to Barcelona a week ago last Friday evening at the beginning of a long weekend (a two-day bank holiday or festival for the children, to mark the martyring of Valencia's patron saint, San Vicente Martir Day). We decided to take the train rather than drive, in order to arrive relaxed and ready for action Saturday morning. Just like the UK, a fantastic, fast, comfortable service with complimentary headphones for the free movie on board, a punctual departure and arrival and of course, reserved and numbered seats. Just like the UK! Liz convinced me on arrival at BCN that our hotel was only two inches from the station and should be a 10-minute walk from the station - "why bother with a cab?". Ahem, OK, so it was 20 minutes and with a case full of cameras, a laptop, rucksack and travel pouch, I for one was knackered by the time the hotel finally came into view. However, en route, we did see the stunning Joan Miró art work in the park dedicated to his memory, so there was some benefit to the walk.

La Rambla boasts a range of art and artistes up and down its entire length

With our complimentary broadband all set up and the tourist websites suitably scoured for deals and bargains, we set off Saturday morning for a wander down La Rambla, checking out the heaving under-cover market, local art and artists (including the rather shocking surprise appearance of a street artist who burst out of a cardboard box as I was walking past it - why do these people think I'm going to give them €1 when they scare the living s**t [daylights] out of me?!!) and the pigeons which Chris and Jo chased mercilessly. The highlight of the morning was a visit to the free exhibition at the marquee for the current Barcelona World (Yacht) Race (no, we knew nothing about it either!) Both the exhibition and the event itself which is currently in its finishing stages, were fascinating, highly educational and very motivating for anyone interested in serious yachting. (House of the America's Cup in Valencia, please take note - these people really know how to create an exhibition that inspires and doesn't look like something out of a glossy magazine aimed at humouring your sponsors!). If the Barcelona World Race exhibition was great (it was!), then check out the website which is equally well-presented.

Outside Fundació Joan Miró

The afternoon was given over to a visit to the Picasso Museum (though for my money, whilst the Picasso Museum is set in a delightful building, Fundació Joan Miró which we visited on Sunday, was a far more inspirational trip. Miró seemed somewhat less up his own proverbial!). Later, at the insistence of the children, Liz and I went out for a superb Thai curry at the restaurant opposite our hotel. With mobile phones in place of baby alarms and less than 50 feet to the hotel reception, we were able to enjoy one of the hottest curries for many a long day - a complete rarity in Spain it seems, as there is not yet a Thai restaurant in VLC, though we wait with baited breath!

Bussing it around Barcelona

So, all curried out, Sunday came around and a brisk walk to Plaça España to catch the world famous Barcelona Bus Turístic for a two-day hop-on-hop-off experience around the city. The first route took us around Montjuïc - literally mountain of the Jews and our visit to Fundació Joan Miró. A couple of hours later, and much impressed, we departed for the next stage - back down to the sea front and a look at Roy Lichtenstein's Barcelona Head sculpture - created for the city back in 1992.

The Barcelona Head - Chris had studied Roy Lichtenstein's work at school in the UK and immediately recognised it - unlike his philistine parents!

The end of the afternoon was spent at the quirky Sagrada Familia or 'holy family' - Antoni Gaudí's strange masterpiece - still only 50% built, it remains under construction after 125 years. This is where fact is sometimes stranger than fiction - whether Gaudí's 43-year attraction to the creation of this magnificent building, or the fact of his tragic demise just days short of his 74th birthday - under the wheels of a tram. The only comparison I have - and the styles are a million miles apart - is William Randolph Hearst's Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California - another masterpiece created through the single-minded devotion of one, albeit extremely wealthy - media baron. I can only hope, (but am extremely doubtful) that the Sagrada Familia is finished in my lifetime, so I can pay a return visit, without the need for scaffolding and hard helmets!

Sagrada Familia - a mind-blowing experience

Back to the Bus Turístic on Monday and more views from Montjuïc , albeit slightly hazy. We left the bus with the intention of taking the Telefèric cable car out across the harbour from the mountainside. Sadly, whoever is responsible for the marketing and business development of this supposed tourist highlight is in need of lessons in both marketing and revenue management. We were asked for €36 for two adults and two children to travel one-way about 800 metres - this after we spent around half an hour with maps trying to work out precisely where the cable cars departed and how to buy a ticket. Thus a trek back to the bus stop without the cable car interlude - there are some things which are simply too overpriced for the tourist market and this is one of them! Mondays must be the day bus drivers take the longest tea breaks, because the usual 'bus every 5-10 minutes' became one bus after about 55 minutes.

Barcelona Panorama
The Barcelona cityscape from Montjuïc

So, to end the long weekend trip, with two children in tow, the highlight of anyone's visit to BCN must be a trip to the Museu de la Xocolata - how could anyone miss it. Distinctly not Cadbury's (not a single mention throughout the tour), it was nevertheless an interesting stop, with even more interesting purchases at the café afterwards. That said, it was another of those museums which seems to be pitched somewhere half way between some manufacturer's PR showcase and a genuine attempt at educating people about the history, introduction to Spain, and production of chocolate through the recent ages. The glass cases full of chocolate models of horse, battles, villages and everyday life were... well, pointless really. However, the three audio visual 'cubicles' were well worth the visit. Two-thirds of the way around the museum, it suddenly appeared to become a museum about something entirely different to chocolate - rather surreal really. To this day, we still don't know the subject or purpose - it was almost as if the chocolate curator (if there is such a thing) ran out of chocolate exhibits (perhaps they simply melted?), so stuffed a pile of whatever he or she had stuck up their attic out on display and hoped no on would notice. Ah well, the constant smell of chocolate did ensure a sale or two at the end of the trip and the surreal museum-within-a-museum was swiftly forgotten - until now!

A visit to the only gluten-free Mexican restaurant known to exist in Barcelona - Tijuana (how could it be called anything else?) and then the final twenty-minute footslog back to Sants train station (I'm really going to get a cab next time!), and we were on our way back to sunnier - and much warmer Valencia for our final day of the two-day Vicente Martir Day and a picnic on the riverbed, basking in the 28° January sunshine.

Life is such a struggle sometimes.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Formula One tests at Cheste - for a fiver!

€5 buys a day at the races with the Formula One testing at Cheste near Valencia

Another day, another event.

Valencia never ceases to amaze with its constant barrage of new things to do, and today was no different. Usually my beef is that a great event was staged, but there was no advanced promotion so we missed it or we only found out about it at the last minute. Well, this event, we did find out about yesterday, through the excellent regular weekly email from Comunitat Valenciana, but we also got wind of it through a visitor who'd read about the Formula One testing and trials at Cheste (just outside Valencia) in the Daily Telegraph! A quick 20 minutes car journey towards Madrid and we were at the course - at €5 per person this must be one of the best value deals anywhere in Spain, and that's saying something. Mind you, the noise - if you haven't been before - is deafening and shocking as the cars whiz past (I once went to the trials at Silverstone and didn't like the noise - or pollution then either!). Out of around 200 photographs taken, only 50 are moderately presentable (available on Flickr to the determined viewer!) and that was mainly because by the time the camera shutter was depressed, the cars had moved on another quarter of a mile!

If the America's Cup Yacht Race didn't already do it, Valencia is set to really hit the big time in August 2008 with the first of a series of Formula One European Grand Prix - on a brand new (yet-to-be-constructed) course around the America's Cup Port

If this is the precursor to Valencia's European Grand Prix in August 2008, then it should be an exciting time for all people living and visiting here - there were several thousand spectators at the course today - just for the testing - so for the real thing, we can expect a serious throng!

Entire trailer villages are created to keep each racing driver on the road... this is the entourage for just one team!

Not normally an avid fan of motorsports, one can nevertheless see where the excitement emanates. For me, the real eye-opener is the absolutely obscene amounts of money that must be invested in these cars, the teams and indeed the entire motor racing industry - I only hope it has real benefits further down the foodchain with development of Vauxhall Vectras and the like...

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

How to make the yummiest hot chocolate ever

Chris and Jo on a lion at Christopher Columbus' Column in Barcelona - January 2008

1. Melt some plain dark chocolate in the microwave.
2. Then get some whipped cream and put it on top.
3. Next stick a biscuit in the cream.
4. Then put some more cream on the top of the biscuit.
5. Then put a marshmellow on top.
6. Then burn the top of the marshmellow.
7. And then sprinkle chocolate all around.

On Monday we went to the chocolate museum it looked yummy.
There are sculptures made out of chocolate.

[This blog was written by Jo on the train coming back from Barcelona to Valencia - 21 January 2008]