jn82’s Epic Adventure

Day 29 [27 Feb 09] – Barcelona

Posted in Barcelona by jn82 on February 27, 2009

Today we took the 7.49am Renfe AVE 3063 from Zaragoza to the heart of Catalunya, Barcelona. The train was exactly the same as the one we took from Madrid to Zaragoza, so no new pictures.

After getting to the hostel, we set out on a day of Gaudí, exploring a couple of the famous architect’s works. The first stop was to Casa Batlló, a building restored by Antoni Gaudí and Josep Maria Jujol, built in the year 1877 and remodelled in the years 1905–1907.

Quote from Wikipedia: ” The building looks very remarkable — like everything Gaudí designed, only identifiable as Modernisme or Art Nouveau in the broadest sense. The ground floor, in particular, is rather astonishing with tracery, irregular oval windows and flowing sculpted stone work.

It seems that the goal of the designer was to avoid straight lines completely. Much of the façade is decorated with a mosaic made of broken ceramic tiles (trencadís) that starts in shades of golden orange moving into greenish blues. The roof is arched and was likened to the back of a dragon or dinosaur. A common theory about the building is that the rounded feature to the left of centre, terminating at the top in a turret and cross, represents the sword of Saint George (patron saint of Catalonia), which has been plunged into the back of the dragon.”

Casa Batlló.

The entry fee of €16 was a bit high, so we decided to give this one a miss and head to La Pedrera (aka Casa Milà), another building designed by Gaudí, and built during the years 1906–1910, being considered officially completed in 1912, and was comissioned by the married couple, Rosario Segimon and Pere Milà. Inside this building was a museum of Gaudí’s works as well as some history of the man himself, so it is a good place to start any tour of his works as you can get lots of background information into his inspiration for his buildings. This building, like the rest of his works, is really one of a kind in terms of the architecture and design, and very interesting to look at.

La Pedrera.

On the roof of La Pedrera.

The final stop was to Sagrada Família, a massive Roman Catholic church under construction, with  construction beginning in 1882 and continuing to this day.

Wikipedia quote: “The Sagrada Família was designed by Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926), who worked on the project for over 40 years. Gaudi devoted the last 15 years of his life entirely to the endeavor. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2026. On the subject of the extremely long construction period, Gaudí is said to have remarked, “My client is not in a hurry.” After Gaudí’s death in 1926, work continued under the direction of Domènech Sugranyes until interrupted by the Spanish Civil War in 1936.”

Sagrada Familia.

A bit too tired to go into more desctiption right now, but you can check out the Wikipedia links as well as the picture gallery here for more pictures.


Day 28 [26 Feb 09] – Zaragoza

Posted in Zaragoza by jn82 on February 26, 2009

Today was the supreme day of (unplanned) rest. I slept at midnight and woke up at 11am! It was unplanned in the sense that it was because Zaragoza does not have that many tourist sites (which interest me) to warrant a whole two days of sightseeing, so we decided to only sight see after lunch, which was at an amazingly cheap place which served a three course set meal and a glass of wine for only €6.01.

After lunch, we headed back to the hostel, where I had to write yesterday’s blog post. Soon after getting that done I decided to take some siesta myself, since the final place we intended to visit did not re-open till 4pm (damned siesta!). My siesta raged out of control and I only ended up waking at 5pm, so we headed to Palacio de la Aljafería late.

Wikipedia description: “Palacio de la Aljafería is a fortified palace built during the second half of the eleventh century in Zaragoza, as the residence of the Banu Hud dynasty during the era of Abu Jaffar Al-Muqtadir and reflecting the splendor attained by the kingdom of the taifa of Zaragoza at the height of its grandeur. The palace currently contains the Cortes (regional parliament) of the autonomous community of Aragon.”

On the way to the palace, I found a good example of what the average car in Zaragoza looks like.

Just kidding.

Having only about an hour before the palace closed, we quickly shuffled around the various rooms while listening to the audio guide. I do not remember most of the content now, except that the Moorish architecture and designs within the palace was very interesting and the first of its kind I have seen so far.

Inside Palacio de la Aljafería.

Outside Palacio de la Aljafería.

Indeed a very relaxing day, and we ended up at the same cheap place for dinner, costing another €6.01. As I am typing this, I am enjoying a 1 litre bottle of €0.79 Vino Tinto (red wine) from the nearby supermarket. Saúde.

Link to today’s pictures available here.

Day 27 [25 Feb 09] – Zaragoza

Posted in Zaragoza by jn82 on February 26, 2009

This morning, we took the 8.20am Renfe AVE to Zaragoza, a city almost inbetween Madrid and Barcelona if you were to draw a line joining them. This particular train is Renfe’s fastest train in Spain, and reaches speeds of just over 300km/h, as we experienced on the train ride to Zaragoza.

Renfe AVE 3083 from Madrid Atocha to Zaragoza Delicias.

On the platform at Zaragoza Delicias.

Now I cannot exactly remember why I decided to come to Zaragoza, but I think it was something to do with the fact that I wanted to visit more smaller cities than just going to the regular big city tourist traps. Initially wanted to go to Bilbao and San Sebastian in-between Madrid and Barcelona, but that would have been a bit more hectic with shorter stays and more train connections. Zaragoza is a smaller city with a population of almost 700,000, though if you were to walk around the streets and tourist areas you might think the population was much lower. The city was first on the map after it was colonised by Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus and named “Carsaeaugustus” around 27 BC to 1 4AD, and remains the only ever Roman city to be named after the Roman emperor. With not that many tourist sites to visit, it meant that we were in for a more relaxing time.

The first sight of the day was to Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Pilar, or just Basílica de Pilar for short, which dominates the ariel views of downtown Zaragoza. The Basílica de Pillar is one of two minor basilicas in the city of Zaragoza, and is co-cathedral of the city alongside the nearby La Seo Cathedral. The architecture is of baroque style, and the present building was predominantly built between 1681 and 1872.

One of the big draws here is a piece of marble believed to have been left by the virgin Mary in 40 AD, which draws many Catholics from around the world to come here and kiss it. Although not Catholic, I decided to line up and kiss it and embrace the full experience of the basílica. The other big draw here is a statue of Mary carrying the baby Jesus called “Nuestra Señora del Pilar” (or Our Lady of the Pillar).

Basílica de Pilar.

Night view.

After this, we went for lunch at the funniest/weirdest place, in my opinion. In the middle of the shopping area (I assume) just off in a small alley in front of Basilica de Pilar, there was Bar Xiang Gang (), this tiny hole in the wall. I initially wanted to just go in for a look and a laugh, but after chatting with the Mainland Chinese(?!) operators of the bar, I decided to order what I thought was a cheap lunch. I think I just wanted to experience the whole ridiculousness of it all a bit more, as I could not figure out what a PRC male in his 20s, aPRC women in her late-30s/early-40s and a young boy (the woman’s son) of around 6 were doing operating a small bar with a few games machines in a smaller Spanish city. Okay the lunch was pretty cheap, for €5 and then just €2.20 more for the beer. My travelmate was pretty displeased with the quality of the food and the way it was prepared, as he claims the meat was fried with a painter’s paint scraper, but I found it pretty okay.

Bar Xiang Gang.

Un-healthy and Un-Spanish fried chicken, sausage, egg and chips.

After no food poisoning and some siesta back at the hostel (because NOTHING is open from 2-4pm or 5pm in Spain due to siesta, this was not a problem in Madrid or Toledo though), we headed to the second big tourist site in the city, La Seo Cathedral, which is part of UNESCO’s World Heritate Site Mudéjar Architecture of Aragon listing. The interior of the cathedral is very nice, and it has the usual smaller chapels at the side dedicated to the various saints.

La Seo.

Side of La Seo.

The rest of the day from 5.30pm – 9pm was spent at four small museums which contained the ruins and artifacts of four structures from the days when Zaragoza was Carsaraugustus. These four structures were the forum, port, public baths and theatre. After visiting a couple of Roman city ruin sites previously, this one was still pretty interesting because of the level of description behind every structure, and even spinning a story into the audiovisual presentation to create hypothetical scenarios which might have been part of everyday life during that period.

How a shop could have looked like in the marketplace of the forum.

Wooden model of the port.

Swimming pool of the public baths.

Roman theatre.

Dinner was late, as usual because of Spanish timing, and was at a buffet place we had walked past before lunch. Food was not fantastic, but for €16 per person for the buffet and a bottle of wine right in front of La Seo and Basicila de Pilar, I guess it was a fair price to pay.

Link to gallery of today’s pictures available here.

Day 26 [24 Feb 09] – Madrid

Posted in Madrid by jn82 on February 24, 2009

Well actually the day was not really spent in Madrid, but in a city 30 minutes away (70km) by train called Toledo. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986 for its extensive cultural and monumental heritage as one of the former capitals of the Spanish Empire and place of coexistence of Christian, Jewish and Moorish cultures.

The 9.20am Renfe Avant 8292, our ride to Toledo.

View of the old city on the bridge from the train station into Toledo city.

The really stupid thing about this city is that there is no tourist information centre at the train station or anywhere nearby at all. Considering this is a very popular day trip from Madrid, this is pretty surprising. After spending a good one hour walking into the city and asking at various hotels for the location of the tourist information centre, we got the map of the old city and the sights to visit.

We walked past a few of the less interesting tourist sights and did not go in. The first big attraction of the day was the Catedral de Toledo, the main attraction of the city. It is said to be one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Spain. It sits on top of the hill and is deceptively large. Wikitravel description: “When you enter you will be confronted by sparkling gold reliefs, huge oil paintings and portraits of all of the Toledo Cardinals going back at least 500 years. The baroque Transparente, behind the main altar, is like nothing you have ever seen. The Cathedral also has a great art gallery with works by Raphael, Rubens, Goya, Titian, and one of El Greco’s major works, The Disrobing of Christ“. Entry fee was pretty expensive €7, but there was a lot of nice art pieces and internal architecture of the cathedral to be appreciated.

Exterior shots of the cathedral.

After lunc, we walked around a few other sights but did not bother going in. The next place we went into was for only a short while, into Iglesia de Santo Tomé, just to see El entierro del Conde de Orgaz (The Burial of the Count of Orgaz) by El Greco, considered to be one of his finest works.

The next and final place we headed to was Iglesia de Los Jesuitas, set in the highest point in the city, which was built by the Society of Jesus in Toledo following a model of the Jesuit Gesu Church in Rome and the Spanish churches of Palencia and Alcala. The main reason for visiting the church though was to access its towers which provided a panoramic view of the city. In actual fact the view was only good and clear in one direction, but it was still pretty good.

Inside Iglesia de Los Jesuitas.

View from the towers. Clearly visible are Alcázar (which was closed for restoration) and the Catedral de Toledo.

After this, we caught the 5.30pm train back from Toledo to Madrid. Catching the 8.30am train from Madrid to Zaragoza tomorrow morning.

Full gallery of today’s pictures is available here.

Day 25 [23 Feb 09] – Madrid

Posted in Madrid by jn82 on February 24, 2009

We left the hostel later this morning as we intended to join the Madrid free walking tour with the guys from New Europe Tours, henceforth NET, as we had previously in Edinburgh and Dublin). However, this was not to be as the tour guide told us that the groups for the past few days had been harrassed by the local “official” tour guides of Madrid (appointed by Tourism Madrid), henceforth MT, and had reached a point where it was no longer comfortable for them or the members of the NET tour to proceed with the walking tour. They said that the MT guides had dressed as pirates and blew smoke in the NET members faces, shoved them around and kept shouting at the tour group the previous day. This may sound extremely unreasonable, but we did not believe the NET tour guide 100%, after speaking with some of the MT protestors (who were tour guides themselves).

The main issue was that the guides from MT felt that NET was encroaching on their turf by offering free tours, which were not really free considering the tips paid, while the tours organised by MT which cost around the same as the tip amount paid per person to the NET had less people as a result. MT stated that the NET guides were untrained and did not know the full level of Spanish history to be qualified to lead tours for tourists to the city. There were other certain issues which I will not mention, but I did see where the MT guides were coming from and could understand their side of the “protest”.

The MT “protestors”.

In short, all this just meant that we were left on our own today.

The first site we went to was probably the biggest non-museum one, which was Palacio Real (Royal Palace of Madrid). Although this is the official residence of the King of Spain, King Juan Carlos, he and his family choose to reside in another smaller palace on the outskirts of Madrid. This leave the Palacio Real to be used for state occasions. Unfortunately, no photography allowed inside the palace.

Outside Palatio Real.

Side of the Palace.

The next stop was just beside, Catedral de la Almudena. Plans for the construction of a new cathedral for Madrid dedicated to the Virgin of Almudena began in the 16th century, but the slow construction did not begin until 1879, and it took another 100 years before the construction was completed. Although not very highly rated by a MT guide I had spoken with at the protest due to the “newness” of the cathedral, I found this to be a nice change from all the old cathedrals we had seen previously, as the interior was totally grey and white, as opposed to the brownish colour of other cathedrals.

Outside Catedral de la Almudena.

Inside Catedral de la Almudena.

Insane pipe organ.

After this, we had a quick lunch nearby. Funny thing is that lunch was two Singaporeans and a Japanese having Italian pasta and Belgian beer in an Irish Bar in Spain, talk about globalisation as work. The picture moment of the day was probably the Duff beer the bar sold (yes surprisingly from Belgium). The beer itself was nothing great, which makes me wonder why Homer Simpson has so much of it.

Doh! Tapas and Duff!

Headed to the Temple of Debod after lunch, but that was closed on Monday. This seemed pretty interesting as this entire temple was rebuilt in Madrid in 1968 after construction works in Egypt prompted UNESCO to make an international call to save the temple.

Temple of Debod in Madrid.

The final stop of the afternoon was to Parque de el Retiro, the favourite park of the people of Madrid. Lots of people chilling out at the many cafes and on the grass, as well as rowing boats in a small enclosed space below the monument of King Alfonso XII. We also walked past and saw Palacio de Velazquez and Palacio de Cristal, both of which I think are exhibition spaces for the Reina Sofia now.

Row boats and the monument of King Alfonso XII.

After having a rest at the hostel, we intended to head for dinner and some flamingo dancing. However the tour company which previously arranged the flamingo dancing program seems to have gone out of business (and we only found out at the last minute), so we had dinner at the same place we did last night, more delicious Paella!

Link to full gallery of today’s pictures here.