Towers and Tapas

 

Carcassonne. For Liam and I that word brings to mind battles, strategy, occasional defeat, and most importantly, countless victories. For Carcassonne has been one of my families favoured tabletop games for the last 8 years. So when the opportunity came up to visit the actual town, how could we not? Carcassonne is one of the most popular tourist destinations in France, and it is clear to see why. The ancient walled city with towers and turrets is reminiscent of a fairytale land with princesses, knights and dragons around every corner (and all Carcassonne players know how much you don’t want to meet the dragon).

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There are two main (impressive) entry portals into the citadel, the one on the left below shows the entrance over the drawbridge and the other picture was the inspiration for the illustration on the standard game box. The hilltop has been occupied since before the Romans, as it has exceptional views over the surrounding countryside and was thus easier to defend from. The internal wall still has sections remaining that were built by the Romans (clever folk).

As mentioned, it is very much a tourist city, but don’t let that dissuade  you about visiting, as you can see below there are plenty of authentic locals who go about their day to day tasks as normally as possible.

On the second day we ventured into the interior castle, the final defence between the ruler of the city and whichever army at the time was attempting to take control. It was in here that the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc spent most of his time attempting to accurately restore the castle to its former glory. During the mid 19th century the city was in such disrepair that the French government decreed the city was to be demolished. Thanks to the work of Eugene and others we are able to visit and enjoy the city even after all these years. 

The ancient city is not huge, and it is easy to explore in a day or two. We came across some excellent traditional food and local wines. Liam’s favourite dish, that still gets a mention every now and then, was a Cassoulet, a slow cooked casserole consisting of white beans, duck, pork sausage and meatballs. Once again I had carbonara and it was also tasty.  The church is worth a visit also, the details in the architecture are a lot of fun. Who doesn’t love a good gargoyle?

From the citadel’s ramparts you can see a more modern city sprawled around the base of the hill. This city is also named Carcassonne as it was founded by folk who were living in the citadel. There have been some tension between the two over the centuries, especially when one was prosperous and the other was not, and unfortunatley a lot of the tourists who come to see the citadel don’t take the time to venture into the city below.

We did have time to wander through the city and were rewarded with fantastic christmas decorations, markets and a temporary iceskating rink in the main square. What we also found was a bakery selling ‘macalongs.’ Now, I am no cook. Nor a baker, not even a ‘foodie,’ and I had never come across one of these tasty treats. It was made of the same things as a macaroon, but it was long (maca-long) like an eclair and had tasty cream and whole raspberries in the centre. Delicious. If they’re common I have been wasting my life away without these treats.

Carcassonne was our final stop in France and the next morning it was time to jump in the car and head South to sunny Spain and say goodbye to our little Peugeot, whom we were dropping off on our way into the city.

For the most part the drive was uneventful, right up until we got to the French side of the border where they had created a checkpoint on a tiny island in between two bridges over the gorge. The police were stopping every car and obviously searching for someone specific. We clearly didn’t fit the profile and were waved straight through, much to our relief.

This relief was short lived because as we crossed into Spain a group of Spanish paratroopers with huge machine guns skidded out across the road and stopped us and the other cars at gunpoint. At no stage did they say what was happening but we could almost make out an incident playing out around the corner. A couple of cars seemingly wanted to run the blockade but were immediately stopped at gunpoint. After a few minutes they jumped in their vans and flew of down the road without saying a word and we continued on our way. A somewhat unnerving beginning to our time in Spain.

After bidding an emotional farewell to the car (Jess), we got a cab into our awesome hotel in the city centre just off the Placa de Catalunya. We wasted no time heading down Las Ramblas (the main promenade in the city) to the waterfront before heading out into the night in search of tapas.

The food in Barcelona was consistently amazing and we ate so many delicious things. This was one of those times where we didn’t have the presence of mind or patience to take any photos of the incredible food. Looking back at it now I regret it, at the time I genuinely couldn’t justify waiting those extra five seconds to take a photo. So good, as was the sangria.

The next day we broke the last remaining rule we had set ourselves when starting on the trip… We had already been audioguide people, then we were follow the umbrella people. The last of our traveller dignity was lost as we became hop on-hop off bus people. In Barca however I would almost deem this a necessary evil and give us a pardon, it is an enormous city and with only a couple of days to try and cover it all the busses were a good option and the commentary was good, even if mostly focussed on the 1992 Olympics.

The first planned stop for us was The Sagrada Familia, the iconic partially completed cathedral that was to be Antoni Gaudis greatest masterpiece before he died and someone else continued the work in a different style.

To me it looked like an enormous mess and we had visited heaps of churches on the trip. All of those credits were cashed in at this point and I was able to successfully convince Jess that our time and money would be better spent at the Gaudi Park.

Park Guell was originally designed as an urban housing development which was incredibly unsuccessful. At this stage it was handed over to our friend Mr Gaudi who converted it into a park full of incredible sculptures and highly artistic buildings with many featuring his iconic mosaic style.

It was a cracking day and as the park is situated on the hill you get incredible views over the city. Whilst it is a big tourism hotspot the amount of people allowed inside the park at any one time is carefully  controlled so it is actually quite peaceful and you have the time to walk around and check it all out without being jostled or losing an eye to a selfie stick. We really enjoyed it and would recommend it highly amongst the experiences we had in Barcelona, as you can see from the photos there is a fair bit in there to see!

The next day we took a different route on the bus and headed out to the western side of the city, the first place we jumped off was the panoramic area near the gondola station that had incredible 180 degree views of the city and the harbour.

We ended up deciding against the gondolas as literally no one was using them and they were crazy expensive… Potentially we missed out on something amazing but at the same time it allowed us more money for tapas.

We skipped the Olympic Stadium as some other travellers had warned us it was a complete ghost town and all you do is wander around unguided and with no information and that there wasn’t much there. We took that on board and headed to the Barcelona Pavilion, designed by Mies van der Rohe as the German pavilion at Expo 1927 and considered one of the ultimate pieces of modernist architecture. It was disassembled after the expo but the city of Barcelona decided to have it rebuild in the early 80’s and by 1986 it was open to the public once more.

It may not be for everyone but if you are the sort of person that loves an episode of Grand Designs or thumbing through an architecture coffee-table book it is unmissable. Incredible clean lines, perfect use of light and materials and the original home of the iconic Barcelona Chair (Don’t sit in it, they don’t like that at all).

Right next to the pavilion is a fountain belatedly known as the Magic Fountain. It is so known because in the evenings once it gets dark it is used for an incredible water and light show set to music. We were there in the middle of the day and it was pretty much just a regular fountain. Alas no magic for us on this day…

In Spain bullfighting has been a tradition for many years however over the decades more and more people had become disillusioned with it due to the cruelty towards the bulls. The region of Catalonia voted to ban bull fighting and since January 2012 and it is illegal for bullfights to be conducted anywhere in the region. Barcelona had a couple of giant bullfighting arenas which have now been converted into concert halls and giant retail centres.

Next was the Nou Camp experience, a self guided tour of  Barcelona FC’s home ground. Over the past decade Barcelona have undoubtedly been the dominant football team in Europe, they have an enormous iconic stadium and some of the best players in the world so I was quite excited to check it out. Unfortunately I almost lost an arm before we’d even made it across the tunnel into the museum… Typical Suarez.

One of the first sections of the museum was their trophy room, I sadly got to see the two Champions League trophies that Barca won by beating Man United in the final as well as see where our heroic treble win in 1999 was commemorated. Whilst our victory was over Bayern Munich the match was played at the Nou Camp, it was one of my happiest and purest moments as a sports fan so it was great to have the opportunity to walk around the ground and relive the memories.

Unfortunately we got held up in the press gallery and I was drilled with some hard questions about our current form, at that point I stormed out down the tunnel and onto the pitch. Their tunnels have recently been done and are fairly epic, the corridors for both the home and away dressing rooms are mirrored with images of all the teams greatest triumphs and the tunnel itself is decorated with a mural celebrating their iconic players and biggest victories.

We emerged from the tunnel and came out pitch side before climbing up through the stands and into the commentary box. They were playing on loop highlights of iconic commentary drawn from decades worth of massive moments at the stadium. They had commentary in a variety of languages, I doubt it would surprise many to learn that the Spanish language commentators were by in large the more excitable of the bunch. From there it was exit through the gift shop (successfully navigated without purchase) and back onto the bus and into the city centre.

Barcelona is an incredible eclectic city with buildings from every architectural period, including many from Gaudi, crammed in next to each other. It is a really interesting city to walk around explore, particularly the Gothic Quarter which also includes many of the old Roman ruins. We decided to head off with a guide recommended by our hotel for a walking tour in the evening and were really happy we ended up having our weird and wacky evening under the guidance of Yolanda. The tour group consisted of ourselves and one other lady who left halfway through, so we definitely didn’t lack for attention. We saw some great stuff and got some incredible local background on some of the weird traditions and the dark history of the city. We also got some great tips for the next day such as the underground museum, you take an elevator down deep under the city and walk through the excavated Roman ruins at their original street level. Really interesting and worth a look if you have the time.

My absolute absolute favourite thing about Barcelona however are the Christmas Markets and all of their crazy traditions. if you walk around these markets as a visitor it seems like the weirdest stuff you have ever seen, then someone explains it to you and it gets even weirder. But amazing.

Number one are the Caganer, little pooing figurines that everybody buys to put in their nativity scenes. In Catalonia, much as in France and Germany, people take their nativity scenes very seriously and have incredibly elaborate setups complete with many handcrafted figurines and objects. However here it is also the tradition to have a peasant with a red hat defecating in the corner. The practice goes back to the 18th century  but over the years people have expanded their taste in caganers and it is not unusual to see footballers, popstars, politicians or even a stormtrooper.

The absolute king of Christmas however is Caga Tio, the christmas log. A little piece of wood with a face and legs that children are given in early December. Their job is to keep it warm with a blanket and feed it lovingly until Christmas Eve… At which point they beat it with sticks until it poos food and presents. Amazing tradition, please check out the video to see more! Here is a translation of one of the most popular versions of the song:

“Tronca de Nadal,
Caga torrons,
pixa vi blanc,
no caguis arengades,
que són massa salades
caga torrons
que són més bons!”
Log of Christmas,
shit nougats,
pee white wine,
Don’t shit herrings,
they are too salty,
Shit nougats
they are much better!

On our final afternoon in the city Jess went exploring to chase down some of the things Yolanda had pointed out to us on our walking tour the previous night. High on this list were the “Holy Geese” that are kept in a courtyard in one of the churches. The location is known as “The well of the geeses” and the thirteen white geese are kept as a tribute to the cities patron Eulalia who was martyred as a thirteen year old by having thirteen tortures visited upon her (incluing being rolled down the street in a barrel filled with knives and broken glass). Jess also found a pretty great place to watch the sun set on our final night in the city.

Our final night in Barca consisted of a nice dinner and an early bed time as we had to be up super early the next morning to fly to Germany and begin the final phase of our holiday. Our brief taste of Catalonia had been full of food and fun and we can’t wait to return to Spain again in the future.

Thats all from us for now, thanks for reading!!

JT & LF


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