Sunday 11 November 2012

Week 6 - Sitges


So here I am - after seven weeks, five countries, five flights, 21 major train journeys, countless minor train journeys, four bike rides, three cable cars, two funiculars, one taxi and who knows how many kms walked - safely home... and sitting back in front of my gigantic screen in Brisbane.

(said ridiculous screen does look gigantic whenever I come home after travel – for about a day. Then I get used to it again)

Carl and Kai, view of Sitges
Anyway, my last European stop after Paris was in Sitges, Spain, where my friend Carl lives with his family. Spain had always seemed like a nice, warm, mellow(er) place to end up in after travelling for a while, and indeed it was.

Sitges isn't far from Barcelona, but it's smaller and more chilled (at this time of year, at least. In summer it is apparently a bit of a Euro Gay Mecca party town, which amuses me greatly).

Anyway, there is a beach, with real sand and everything. There are almost even "waves", although I put the term in inverted commas so as not to confuse any hopeful surfers (the local bleached hair brigade, who don't know any better, still try to ride them).

I spent two of the first three days doing pretty much nothing apart from churning out blogs and enjoying the sunshine and a more relaxed pace of life. After busy Paris and not having a break for a while it was a welcome change. That said, I had four-year-old Kai and six-month-old Lily to keep me from getting *too* relaxed, but by and large they were perfect days.

The Thursday was a public holiday, and Carl's in-laws had us (and a bunch of other rellies) over for lunch. I was treated to proper homemade paella with some very nice 11 year old wine, followed by a most pleasant, almost bushwalk-like walk up the local hill.

Calçots – yum!
On Saturday Carl and I took off to a local winery, called Jean Leon. According to their usual "we love ourselves just a little bit" video, the winery's namesake made his fortune in America running a restaurant for the rich and famous, before returning home and starting the vineyard. It's owned by a big Spanish wine company now, but they have retained the brand and make smallish batches of select wine from their local plantations.

After the video we got a tour of the cellars (which were wonderfully musty, like a wine cellar should be) and had a generous tasting of their wines. We bought a bottle for about $25, which is a reasonable amount in Spain, but probably really corresponded to a $30-40 bottle in Oz.

These are graves
(Carl insisted we drink it before I left – not a hard task – and it was very nice, although not *amazing*. Aussie wine has spoiled me somewhat)

After the "serious" winery, we stopped off at a little market type place where they sell wine from big barrels for a couple of Euros per litre. You bring your own bottle/tub/bucket/whatever and fill it up. It's pretty young wine but it's perfectly drinkable as table wine, and it doesn't give you a headache (as Soni's father said when I first had it at their place – and he wasn't lying).

So, a taste of both ends of the spectrum.

For lunch we hit a local spot and I got to try Calçots, which are like small leeks or big spring oniony things (only actually nice – some of you know how much I detest spring onion). They barbeque them and you have to eat them in a specific way (see the photographic evidence below, complete with bib).

Sagrada Família (outside)
Carl and I also checked out the ruins of a medieval church up on a hill, where there are remains of a children's cemetery. They have actually carved little child-sized graves out of the rock. The bones are long gone, but the graves - which are mostly full of water - are still there. It's all a bit disquieting.

Sunday was a low-key family type day. Entertaining kids is always fun though. Carl, Kai and I went for a little walk along the promenade in Sitges as the sun went down.

Sagrada Família (inside)
On Monday and Tuesday I tackled Barcelona. Carl works there, so we met up for lunch on the first day, and beers after work on the second. Both occasions were excellent. In particular, the beer place was rather good. They had an enormous range, most of which were very strong (>7% alcohol). I found a rich, chocolaty beer called "Monk's Elixir" particularly to my liking – I think it was about 10%.

As for the days, I spent the first one checking out the famous Sagrada Família - the church designed by Gaudi. It is still unfinished, but nonetheless awesome. In construction for nearly 130 years, they estimate it will be completed in another 10-20 thanks to more modern methods.

The outside is impressive - a mixture of old and new (and cranes) - and the inside is quite unique. Gaudi used a lot of naturally inspired shapes in his work, and the church is no exception. Columns branch like trees towards the roof, and there are spirals everywhere. Pictures do not do it justice.

Sagrada Família (staircase)
My other Barcelona day was more of a tourist ramble. I walked down to the docks and took the cable car over the harbour, before wandering around the Gothic quarter and ending up in the Parc de la Ciutadella. I didn't realise quite how touristy Barcelona was until that day; the hordes wore me down eventually, so the beers with Carl were extra-welcome.

My last Spanish excursion was to Montserrat, a big lump of conglomerate about an hour by train from Barcelona. I took the – unfortunately packed – cable car up (have you worked out that I really like cable cars yet though?) and had a nice little wander around.

Noseless lady near Hotel Miramar
The mountain has been home to a monastery for a long time. There are also ruins and little shrines further up, and lots of paths to connect them up. This makes for some really easy walking, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself right up on top of one of the higher peaks with very little effort at all. I guess compared to Australia, most places like this have had people wandering all over them for years, so the paths are quite well defined.

All in all it was a really nice final "trip" within the trip, and a welcome relief after the craziness that was Barcelona the previous day.

Chapel up on Monserrat
I spent my final day wandering around Sitges looking for some nice whiskys to bring home (alcohol is so much cheaper in Europe), and for some ingredients to cook a nice risotto for the guys, who looked after me really well and put up with me for longer than anyone else in Europe. I'm pleased to report that all missions were successful <sips Caol Ila> and that the risotto turned out pretty well too.

Carl has suggested that I nominate Spain as the most awesome European country, but I do have Italian background, so I better not go choosing favourites. That said, it is worthy of the label "a pretty damn awesome place". Great food, (good) cheap wine, and a nice friendly culture. A bit like Italy, and similarly disorganised. Also – sun (although, to be fair, some of the other less sunny countries do have better weather at times too).

Really, at the end of the day, my little Europe jaunt has been very interesting, and incredibly enjoyable, and every country has had a lot going for it.

View from Montserrat
Many unexpected things have happened, almost all of them lovely. I've gotten a taste of at least five uniquely different cultures, with all their quirks. Europe is still so incredibly tribal, albeit in a refined sort of way. Exploring a slice of it has given me a lot more personal insight into all the history that I already knew, and the people I've met over the years from various countries.

Sitges sunset
It's not cheap though - I have to say that without the lovely free accommodation I had throughout, I would be coming home somewhat poorer. So thank you everyone, not only for the free B&Bs (and Ls and Ds), but also for taking me out, hanging around, and generally letting me be a part of your lives. I was exactly what I had in mind when I planned my little invasions – relaxed little snapshots of local life with a few select touristy things thrown in.

Stay tuned for another adventure next week!

Edit: The full set of pics are up on Flickr at last!

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