Thursday, 31 July 2014

Barcelona: why it's my favourite city

Planning a holiday is simultaneously one of the most exciting and most stressful things. We had 5 days; we wanted something sunny and chilled; but, most importantly, we wanted to go somewhere where there was plenty to do and see. After much deliberating and scouting every holiday website possible, we finally settled on Barcelona. A city on the beach.

To set the scene: going to Barcelona was the most anticipated holiday of all time. It was the light at the end of the tunnel following a long, tedious, soul destroying exam season, and our first holiday together. You could say that I had high hopes for the holiday, but that would be an understatement. I wasn't prepared for it to be anything less than perfect, and Barcelona surpassed every expectation I had...and more!

After landing in Barcelona, and navigating our way through the airport and to the train station, I discovered the first thing I love about Barcelona (and actually Spain in general): you can buy a train ticket that 2 people can use, i.e. you can put it through the barrier twice. This seems utterly mundane, but seeing tourists constantly struggle in London with Oyster cards (which requires a family of 4 to buy 4 separate Oyster cards) it was such a relief to discover that travelling was going to be so straightforward, and inexpensive.

After discovering our lovely little hotel, and a coffee refuel, we headed towards Las Ramblas. It was amazing to be immersed in such a varied city. As with any European city, there was a collaboration of old and new, quirky and traditional - but Barcelona seemed to do this extremely well, with Gaudi's unique and beautiful influence dispersed all over the city.

Casa Batlló - Gaudi's architectural treasure
Feeling very little next to Catalonian statues

Barcelona has a shady reputation for crime, particularly pickpockets. I'd been warned to be careful and I was aware of keeping my bag close to me, as one is in any busy place but there was nothing that seemed untoward or made either of us feel uneasy. Wandering down Las Ramblas, I experienced the second reason I love Barcelona: I didn't fear Barcelona's bustle, I loved it. We were surrounded by postcard stands and flower shops and ice cream in every flavour imaginable. It was busy without being hectic, and there was a refreshing lively atmosphere.

En route to Las Ramblas
We soon became very aware that Barcelona was full of other young people: mainly Spaniards, interspersed with few (relatively inoffensive) stag parties. I'm sure that this isn't the case all year round, but the city certainly felt very youthful in pre school holidays/post elderly cruise ship tourist June. This vibrant, youthful population carried with it a breezy, tolerant culture: the third thing I loved about Barcelona. It was liberating to be somewhere which felt so free, and to be surrounded by progressive people as well as a physically modern city. It is this collaboration of dynamic people and place that made me think Barcelona was one of the very few cities I've visited that I could perhaps, one day, see myself living in.

Celebrating discovering Barcelona's Arc de Triomf, a hub for cyclists, with an excited selfie
Barcelona is famed for its food markets and, although we didn't quite make it to its most distinguished 'La Boqueria', we sampled a slightly smaller one. We suddenly found ourselves consumed by hundreds of different types of ham and cheese, every fruit and vegetable imaginable, and a tropical pop-up garden centre. Thinking that small, independent greengrocers and delis are the British alternative of these enormous, varied markets, I became extremely jealous of the Spanish way of living and the abundance, and choice, of such fresh food. Still full from our breakfast pastry feast, we sampled the world's tastiest juice and began our day of sightseeing!

Colourful fruit and veg stalls at the market

Simon models the juice in the jungle of potted plants
Barcelona's food experience (my fourth love) does not end at the markets. Most importantly, and surprisingly, Catalonian pastry was incredible. Walking down some of the side streets near our hotel, we were constantly welcomed by bakeries and patisseries offering a huge range of very reasonably priced sweet and savoury breads and pastries.  As such, we indulged in croissants, and pastries full of fruit, or chocolate, or coated in nuts every morning for breakfast. For two of the world's biggest pastry fans, this was the dream.

Pastry picnics in the sun

After long days of sightseeing, we often didn't set out for dinner until 9-10pm (which made us feel very Spanish!) So by the time we reached the city centre, we were starving and didn't spend too long browsing the plethora of restaurants - but we came across some real gems! Jamon Experience is perhaps the most notable: a shop/restaurant/museum, in the centre of Las Ramblas, dedicated to Spanish ham. We stumbled across it on our first evening, and couldn't get enough: ham platters, ham sandwiches, books of ham, and even cones of ham! We vowed to eat ham every day of the holiday.

Ham and Estrella, in true Spanish style!

Kid just loves the ham!

We flitted between the different Tapa Tapa chain restaurants, which seemed to be everywhere! Whilst it almost certainly wasn't the cheapest way of eating tapas, it was tasty and the menu so we could try different dishes each time we went. However, were tapas restaurants all over Barcelona, so if you have the stamina to search for a cheap, traditional, back street one - I'm sure you'd have a much more authentic experience.  For me, someone who is not a huge fan of meals and would much rather pick at food, tapas dinners were perfect; I could try lots of different dishes knowing that Simon would finish off anything I didn't eat! But, maybe it's not for everyone: a few days in, we did find ourselves craving a meal, rather than a table of snacks.

Settling down at Tapa Tapa on our first evening

Tapa Tapa roof selfie (second table down, top left hand corner!)
And our last, but definitely not least, food recommendation is Brazilian/Peruvian restaurant Foc in Barceloneta. A small, quirky garden setting amongst a string of restaurants, Foc is certainly a hidden treasure (thankfully, we were lucky enough to have it recommended to us). Despite it being packed out on both visits, we were squeezed in by extremely friendly staff and experienced great service, fantastic food and a very extensive cocktail menu! It was the kind of place you can, and we did, spend all evening; there was an extremely vibrant and welcoming atmosphere, and we sat for hours without feeling like we were being shuffled out. The evenings spent in Foc are some of my fondest memories from Barcelona.

Foc, Barceloneta

Watermelon mojitos and cheeky slogan straws
Finally moving on from the Barcelona food experience, the fifth reason I love Barcelona was because of its coast. Whilst neither of us were fussed about going on a completely chilled, sunbathing beach holiday, we chose to go to Barcelona, partly, because of its beachside location. We spent one afternoon on the beach and frolicking in the sea. Although a lovely beach, with kids playing in the sand and groups of people playing volleyball, the descent into the sea was extremely steep and very quickly got too deep for me to stand - not quite ideal for playing in! My favourite thing about Barcelona's coast was its promenade. Lined with restaurants, ice cream shops (namely Eyescream and Friends!), beach bars and surf shops, we felt very separated from the cultural centre, as though we'd entered a new, exotic location! 

Beach volleyball competitions

Night time beach wanderings
Despite my initial apprehension, Simon persuaded me that it would be fun to hire motorised scooters and ride along the promenade...and I'm so glad he did. After a shaky start, with me driving my scooter into my own leg, we were soon zooming up and down Barceloneta, weaving in and out of those venturing to beach, and exploring the beautiful coast that we'd never walked far enough to see. With cycle lanes along much of the length of the coast, manoeuvring the scooters wasn't nearly as terrifying as I'd anticipated - and if I can manage it, I'm pretty sure anyone can! Although we we only braved the coast, those hiring scooters were permitted to ride all over central Barcelona - and, for £25pp for 2 hours from W4NTED, it was undoubtedly the best and most fun way to see Barcelona. 

Biker gang!

Finally getting the hang of stopping/not injuring myself
Number 6: the culture. Culture is such a broad term and, because of the sheer amount of things to see and do in Barcelona, it covers a lot of ground. We stayed in Barcelona for 5 jam packed days, but we could have been there another 5 and still not seen it all. Armed with our guidebook, we spent breakfast on our first day marking the places we wanted to go on our map, and planning out a vague itinerary. Our first destination was Park Güell. Famous for its Gaudi influence,  Park Güell is located 5(+) escalators up a hill in north west Barcelona. The trek up is undoubtedly worth it, revealing vast, extraordinary views over the whole city. There was something very peaceful about Park Güell; it feels very removed from the lively city, providing the perfect setting to enjoy a leisurely bimble. However, even in off peak June the queues to see the Gaudi mosaics up close were far too long to be worth bothering with. Instead, we explored the rest of the park and made our mark on the fence posts, before cooling off with an ice cream in the shade. 

The views over Barcelona from Park Güell

Romance is dead

Gaudi architecture at Park Güell
Our second 'must-see' destination was the Sagrada Familia, and nothing could have prepared us for quite how impressive it was. With building commencing in the late 1800s and still not complete today, the enormity in itself is something quite unique. We booked tickets online in advance (which I would highly recommend doing) and just rocked up and when straight on in at our time slot. Magnificent inside and out, the Sagrada Familia was nothing like I've ever seen before (or I imagine that I'll ever see again). With huge stained glass windows, streams of coloured light flowed into the church creating an overwhelming ethereal ambience - only to be intensified by the high, intricate ceilings, designed to look like treetops. The museum, attached to the Sagrada Familia, was definitely worth a visit. Whilst there are information boards in the church, the museum provides a fantastic insight into the history of both Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia; the stages of building; and some curious construction models.  We left feeling somewhat moved by the grandeur of the Sagrada Familia, and having enjoyed a really rich learning experience.

The Sagrada Familia - still in construction!
Admiring the inside of the church

Streams of coloured light from the stained glass windows
The final, well at least the definitive final, reason Barcelona is my favourite city is because of the magic. The city is home to the most magical thing I've ever seen (even more magical than Disneyland): the Fountain of Montjuïc. We'd both been told that there was no way we could leave Barcelona with seeing this show, and I would say the same to anyone else visiting - it certainly is phenomenal. Pitching up at 10pm on a Friday evening, we were faced with crowds of people. The fountain was huge, seen very clearly from quite a distance, but I hadn't realised that it would be so popular. We edged gradually closer to the fountain as the show begun, and were captivated from start to finish. The music and lights moving in perfect conjunction with the water was so graceful, forming a perfectly romantic setting. Photos and videos don't quite capture the wonder of this magic fountain: it really is something you have to see for yourself. 

The approach to the fountain, with the Palau Nacional in the background
Perching on the edge of the fountain

The list of reasons why I loved Barcelona could go on and on. As well as days spent sightseeing, or afternoons at the beach, we visited the zoo, the Gothic Quarter, Ciutadella Park and generally spent a lot of time wandering around and soaking up the feel and sights of the city. Barcelona is a city with so much to offer, and a fantastic destination for a European city break or even a week long holiday. Whilst my experiences of the city are perhaps a little biased, with it being the most amazing first holiday with my boyfriend (and an incredibly anticipated post longest uni term EVER holiday), it leaves so much to be admired and cherished. I would unreservedly recommend the city to anyone, and I only wish I'd been able to spend more time there. 

We walked along here every day. It's my favourite place in Barcelona.



Wednesday, 16 July 2014

We Will Rock You?

Nabbing a ticket just weeks before We Will Rock You was due to leave the West End, I was excited to see exactly what it was all about. I'd never seen the production before, and wouldn't exactly call myself a Queen fan, but had been promised by numerous people that it was definitely worth a watch. 

I was disappointed. 

Elton creates a futuristic setting: a time when everyone dresses the same, speaks the same, and listens to the same music. Instruments are banned. But, in the depths of iPlanet, the Bohemians are opposing this characteristic cloning and and take it upon themselves to find the one remaining instrument on the planet. They bring back rock. 

Anticipating the start of the show

Of course a musical which is created on the premise of stringing together a load of Queen hits is likely to have haphazard plot, but this was just too arbitrary and tenuous for my liking. I didn't go and see We Will Rock You for an intelligent and complex story, but equally I didn't go to see a Queen tribute band. For me, the most glaring flaws did lie in the written musical, rather than the performed one. As a long time fan of Ben Elton's writing, I expected something a little more credible; I was frankly surprised that he had written a musical which seemed to be so lacking in conviction, and had a sub-plot as simple and narrow as a superficial romance. 

However, credit where credit is due. Brenda Edwards played a brilliant Killer Queen. Consistently astounded by the power and depth in her voice, Edwards' talent is undeniable. Coupled with extraordinary dynamism, and an excellent portrayal of a sassy dictator, the Killer Queen proved a solid grounding for both the cast, and musical as a whole. Comparatively, our heroes Galileo (Oliver Tompsett) and Scaramouche (Rachael Wooding) were somewhat lacklustre, unable to offer the same exhilaration as their enemy. Our Bohemian friends Meat (Amanda Coutts) and Brit (Rolan Bell) were of great support to Galileo and Scaramouche, spicing up their roles (and their romance). They were central in injecting humour, dusting commendably current jokes over the entirety of the show. This combination of some really strong, and some fairly weak, acting - but unanimously incredible singing - gave rise to a very mixed performance. 

All in all, We Will Rock You was ok. But just ok. It's clearly a very high budget show, and the staging, lighting and effects were undoubtedly spectacular. It isn't enough, however, to throw money at a show with such a weak storyline and a disappointing calibre of acting. Perhaps I would have appreciated the show for what it is a little more if I were an unrelenting Queen fan, but as it stands - We Will Rock You was an empty promise. 


Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Bringing the countryside to the Capital: London's City Farms (Vauxhall)

London often feels very far removed from the countryside I grew up in. However, dotted around around London are 15 city farms - offering urbanites the chance to experience a working farm and help introduce children to farm animals. Staying close to home in South London, Vauxhall City Farm was the first on our list...

Vauxhall City Farm - Riding School
Located just around the corner from The Oval, Vauxhall City Farm is squeezed into an essentially residential area. Naturally limited by space in an urban environment, the site is efficiently divided between a petting zoo, an ecology garden, stables and, across the road, a riding school. Initially excited by the obligatory rabbits and guinea, which you could stroke through the wire fence, we moved on to much greater things: horses. Whilst perhaps not the highlight of the farm for me, Vauxhall City Farm's horses strongly support the learning-driven initiative. Offering partially subsidised riding lessons for children and the disabled, as well as Pony Club Stable Management classes, the farm's integrity does not lie predominantly with the animals labelled as tourist attractions. 

Designed to teach children about an unspoilt natural environment, the ecology garden is complete with a pond, a bog and a wormery. Sitting in this wild garden, suddenly it seemed very strange that we were only 10 minutes from Central London - but perhaps this distance from the bustling city is what makes city farms such unique experiences.

Imitating this happy chap who loves the ecology garden

As we visited the farm at the beginning of March, I was insistent that I wanted to see lambs. In fact, lambs were the only thing I wanted to see - lots and lots of tiny, springy lambs. And these ones did not disappoint. Greeted by a handful of the smiliest, speckliest lambs I've ever seen, they were extremely tame and we were able to stroke them through the bars (but they were much too excitable to hang around for long!)

However, my favourite part of our Vauxhall City Farm visit was the goats. Shameless and relentless, the goats jumped up onto the railings as visitors walked by in hope of a snack! Living in an enclosure with a shifty looking alpaca, the goats were extremely friendly and gentle - genuinely excited to see people, and more than happy to be stroked (...even if it was only triggered by a constant yearning to be fed!) This goat was our favourite, but we weren't quite sure why he only had one horn...

We moved on to see ducks, geese and a turkey gathered around the pond. And next, a couple of happy, snuffly pigs. Finishing off in the vegetable garden, Vauxhall City Farm leads an active horticultural group - with evidence of a multiplicity of different vegetables being grown on the farm.

As well a fantastic collection of really well looked after animals, it was the riding volunteers, and co-operative vegetable gardens that helped give this farm a real community feel. We left, even as visitors, feeling like we'd been part of a really positive local initiative; one which educates as well as entertains, and provides an authentic rural experience for those living in an urban centre.


Saturday, 24 May 2014

Dirty Dancing, Piccadilly Theatre

At a loss one evening in London, an impromptu decision to go and see Dirty Dancing was a brilliant one.

Playing at the Piccadilly Theatre, in the heart of the West End, 'The Classic Story On Stage' only has a presence in London until March 2014 before launching its second UK tour in recent years. The bustle of Piccadilly Circus offers an element of charm and glamour that you don't quite get with theatres outside of London. The theatre and its location becomes, in itself, an experience - prefiguring the charisma and spirit of the show.

I don't know why I hadn't seen Dirty Dancing before now. As a regular theatre go-er and a long-time fan of Ardolino's Dirty Dancing, I'm unsure why the stage production had never been a priority for me. Perhaps I was worried that it wouldn't compare: that the stage Catskill Mountains wouldn't compare, and that Patrick Swayze was the only Johnny!

But, from the second the show opened, it was set to be impressive. It's 1963 and we're introduced to the Catskill Mountain Holiday Camp. Baby (Jill Winternitz) is holidaying with her family - and they are surrounded by a group of doting holiday entertainers, including Johnny Castle (Paul-Michael Jones) the 'bad-boy' dance instructor. Unimpressed by the dire range of organised activities, Baby acquaints herself with the Camp staff. Baby and Johnny's relationship is, initially, an uncertain one. And then a languorous one. And then an inevitable one.


 Jill Winternitz's Baby was everything it was supposed to be: naïve, endearing and admirably ballsy. Coupled with Paul-Michael Jones' suave performance of Johnny Castle, the two established a really strong lead - from which the entirety of the production developed. However, the real star of the show for me was Charlotte Gooch. Penny is a notoriously difficult character to play. Gooch entwined the peppy showgirl with a suddenly vulnerable expectant mother impeccably, offering a compelling sensitivity - that which is so hard to portray in such a large theatre. James Coombes should also be recognised for his extremely honest depiction of Mr Houseman, Baby's father. Establishing himself as a character who can be trusted, Coombes' Mr Houseman proved a sincere voice of reason, grounding the musical in authenticity.

As far as musicals go, Eleanor Bergstein's script offers relatively few songs, at least relative to the amount of dialogue. Though often criticised for this adaptation, I think I preferred it. It enables Dirty Dancing to offer something that other musicals tend to lack: a really solid storyline. This creates an environment through which the audience can truly empathise with Penny, and genuinely root for Baby and Johnny's happy ending.

By the very nature of the musical, of course the dialogue is intercepted by a plethora of exciting dance numbers.  Kate Champion's choreography is impressive in its scale and stamina, if not slightly predictable in its construction. Despite a cast of undeniably skilled dancers, my main criticism would be that Charlotte Gooch (Penny) is relied upon to carry the large majority of dances. In the grand scheme of the production however, all dance numbers are remarkably slick and fast-paced.

I wanted to love Dirty Dancing on stage as much as I loved the film. And I almost did. Tipple successfully captured the outwardly rosy, but implicitly troubled, tone - aided by an extremely talented and powerful cast. Combined, this produced a thoroughly enjoyable and captivating performance. 

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