Here is the first installment of Jan’s journal:
The countdown was over. The realisation of a decision made six years ago, and planning that had begun twelve months ago was nigh. Day one of Paul and Jan’s Excellent European Adventure had arrived. Who knows what the next five months might hold?
I lay waiting from 3.30am for the 4.15am alarm and bounded out of bed and into the shower. Depressingly, on one of my many recent sleepless nights I had flicked from thinking about my to-do list to thinking that before long it would all be over. Banish those thoughts! It has just begun!
Shower done, coffee gratefully received (thanks Paul), I stripped the bed and cranked up the washing machine while waiting for Ray’s scheduled 5am arrival. By my reckoning that would have us at the airport about 3 ½ hours before departure! To be honest, I didn’t mind a bit. I like to allow a little extra time for traffic, and our early arrival meant we breezed through check-in, security and passport control. Another half hour, I was reliably informed by my very friendly immigration officer, and the queues would have been enormous. Heaps of time for last minute farewell calls and texts, and FB posts.
The flight was memorable only in that it marked the beginning of our five-month adventure; exactly how a flight should be. We were comfortable (well I was anyway); well watered and fed; and entertained.
Singapore is one of my favourite places. It’s a mixture of a thoroughly modern city that hasn’t shed all of its history; with its cultural enclaves it is a wonderfully eclectic place. On this trip we stayed at Days Hotel on Balestier Road. Last year we stayed less than a kilometre away in the southern part of Novena where all the hospitals are. That part of Novena is modern, a medical hub. Balestier Road, on the other hand, takes you back to colonial days. Modern buildings are interspersed between the single-storey shop houses and five-foot ways. The 24-hour Balestier Market sells all sorts of tucker, but we had found a BBQ noodle shop in the opposite direction and dined there, sitting and watching Balestier life go on around us.
Days Hotel is next to Zhongshan Park, a small space of pristine lawns, benches, and paved paths inlaid with tributes to Dr Sun – a communist revolutionary. Behind the park is the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, one-time headquarters of the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance led by the aforementioned Dr Sun. The hall became the HQ of the Japanese Military Police (Kempeitai) during the occupation of Singapore in WWII.
Next door is the Sasanaramsi Burmese Buddhist Temple. The Lonely Planet Guide (LPG) describes the temple as “a towering building guarded by two ‘chinthes’ (lionlike figures) and housing a beautiful white-marble Buddha statue, decorated somewhat bizarrely with a ‘halo’ of different-coloured LED lights.” That’s a fairly accurate representation.
The Buddha was carved in Myanmar in 1915 and transported to Singapore in 1918. The temple where it is presently housed was built in the 1990s. The inside of the temple is typically ornate; white with gold paint trim; and motifs depicting demons and other supernatural beings challenging the Buddha. There’s even a statement expounding the benefits of donating to the temple. It goes like this:
- He will be reborn in Human and Celestial world;
- He will get a shelter when he makes a wish;
- He will free from fears;
- No poisons or evil spirits for him;
- He will have sweet dreams;
- He will have serenity and concentration;
- He will attain Arahantship (Nibbana)
I have clearly been misled by my readings of the teaching of Buddha, because nowhere that I have read does it say I can achieve nirvana by simply donating to a temple. But hey, I thought I’d have a bob each way just in case, and placed a few shekels into the donation box.
It may sound like I am a cynical non-believer, but that isn’t true. In fact, because this is my journal, I’m going to step onto my soapbox for a sec. Buddhism isn’t a religion and Buddha isn’t a God; by his own admission he was a guide and teacher. However, perhaps in order to achieve broader appeal, or in response to the inherent human need to worship, Buddhism has taken the form of a religion.
Despite the gaudy lights, the Sasanaramsi Burmese Buddhist Temple really is a peaceful refuge from Singapore’s unrelenting busyness and a truly appropriate place for some quiet reflection.
After the longest sleep I have had in weeks, day two got off to a leisurely start. I ticked another item off my to-do list (Cambridge accommodation sorted) and we headed for the Jurong Bird Park. After nearly two hours which included walking to Novena MRT; withdrawing cash (which ended up being $1,000 SD after Paul accidentally hit the button twice on the ATM); purchasing our tickets; taking the train to Raffles Place and changing to the East West line for Boon Lay; finally finding the bus interchange after we had to be redirected by the men at the bus stop on the street outside the shopping centre, we kind of lost motivation. I think the accumulated exhaustion of the last few weeks finally came to rest on us and we just turned around and went back to the MRT. We didn’t need crowds and birds; what we really needed was some peace and quiet.
We had passed a lovely looking place called the ‘Chinese Garden’. The LPG doesn’t give it a good wrap, but in our weary states, and needing a walk ahead of our 15-hour plane ride, we decided to take a look. Had I read the LPG before visiting the Chinese Garden I probably would have given it a miss, but it turned out to be the perfect tonic for us. We meandered along the paths past the eight Chinese heroes to which the park is dedicated (including a woman who pretended to be a man and went into battle and kicked a few arses – you go girl!; and, of course, Confucius); skirted Jurong Lake to take in the 13-arch bridge; walked through the fragrant garden (which admittedly wasn’t terribly fragrant in the middle of the day, but was pleasant nonetheless); took a little time for reflection in a pavilion on the lake (watching fish, turtles and goanna swimming by); taok shelter from an afternoon storm under some bamboo; and made a break for the protection of the seven-storey pagoda which afforded an excellent view of Singapore through the rain and lightning.
It turned out to be the perfect way to spend our day in Singapore. After a kindy nap, supper in the noodle shop, and a stroll along Balestier Road we were collected at our hotel at 8.30pm for the next leg of P&J’s EEA!
Change is an excellent airport. We checked in seamlessly (except the bit where I left my glasses at check-in and had a minor panic as I foresaw 15 hours on a plane without being able to read or even see the TV screen); changed $855 SD, left over from the day’s outing and ATM mishap, for Euros; and headed for security and immigration. Despite the serious faces you typically encounter through these official processes, I always try to maintain a friendly demeanour. It usually works; I’ve only been detained by immigration once, well twice actually, but both times were in Johannesburg.
My smile certainly worked this time anyway. The official at passport control was telling everyone to take a Changi lolly. When it came to my turn I took my lolly, while smiling and making chitchat. When the official handed back my passport he plonked a handful of lollies in it. “Special present for you. Have nice day.” Naturally I selected ‘excellent’ at the little booth where you are asked to rate your experience.
How best to describe our first day in Barcelona? I guess it would be fair to say it had its ups and downs. Fifteen hours is a bloody long time to spend on a plane, but Carole had scored us an aisle and a window with a spare in between so I got to get heaps of stuff out of my backpack and Paul got to stretch out a bit more than usual.
A couple of hours out from Milan I started thinking about our arrival in Barcelona. More particularly, about my complete lack of Spanish and our landlord’s lack of English. So there I was, furiously learning a few key phrases on the inflight language thingamajig. Previously I had communicated with Celia by copying her emails into Google Translate and then deciphering from there. I wonder again, where would we be without the Internet and Google (they both deserve their place in the lexicon).
As it turned out, lack of language was one of my lesser worries that morning. Our arrival goes like this:
- Touchdown, immigration, luggage collection, customs. Smooth as.
- Coffee at the airport to work out transfer arrangements. Good cheap coffee and 15 minutes of free wi-fi. All good.
- Headed down for the green bus to T2 and the rail interchange. Jan has a few issues on the escalator with her bloody great big 27kg wheeled duffel bag that’s nearly as tall as she is. Paul spies a blue bus to Plaça de Catalunya – should we have caught the blue bus? Possibly.
- Walked over to the train station. No issues going up the escalator, but a bit of trouble on the down. Sign of things to come? Probably.
- Train at platform; people everywhere; very helpful man lifts Jan’s bag up the foot or so to the train. “Thank you.”
- Standing on the train waiting for departure. Very helpful man is beckoning more and more people into our carriage. It’s getting pretty squeezy. No worries, only three stops and we’re off.
- Arrive at Barca Sant and work our way to the door. Paul off first, but his wallet somehow ends up on the floor of the train! Very helpful man assisted by very helpful woman give wallet back to Paul. “Thank you!”
- Jan tries to disembark. Very helpful man is blocking the door helping others to disembark. Door starts beeping and closing. Jan does last minute push while Paul reaches in and drags her from the carriage. Don’t think my bag is going to make it.
- Doors re-open, and Jan and Paul are safely on the platform. Phew!
- Jan reaches into front of bumbag. No train ticket. F**K!
- Jan runs back to the carriage. Train hasn’t moved and doors still open. “Ticket?” Very helpful man and very helpful woman say “Ah” in unison. Very helpful woman gives Jan a ticket. Very helpful man gives Jan HER ticket. Jan holds very helpful man’s hand with both of hers. “Thank you. Thank you.”
- Paul asks nice man at ticket control for directions. Head for the L3 (green line). All good.
- Paul and Jan are following the signs for the L3. Paul says, “I’ve forgotten what station he said.”
Jan replies calmly but firmly, “What the f**k do you mean you’ve forgotten what station he said?!?!”
- Paul and Jan find a really big board with a map of the network. Paul says, “I can’t see our station!”
Jan says, “That’s because it’s at the intersection of the glass tiles, no wonder you couldn’t see it.”
Paul says, “Ah, and there’s the station the man said”, pointing at the end of the green line.
Jan says, “Cool, we just need to catch a ‘Trinitat Nova’ train on the L3 line and get off at Liceu.” Easy as!
- Paul and Jan set off to follow the signs to L3. Round a couple of corners to the escalator. Only up. Bugger. No lift. Only stairs. “Shit!”
- Jan struggles down the stairs with her 27kg bag that’s almost as tall as she is. Ugh.
- Round another corner. More stairs! Jan struggles some more. People offer to help. “It’s OK.” Paul offers to help. You’ve got your own bag, and that bloody great big heavy camera backpack. “Nah, I’ll be right.”
- Round another corner. More bloody stairs! Jan wants to cry. Young and very attractive Spanish gentleman picks up Jan’s bag and carries it down the stairs. Oh, OK then. “Thank you.”
Paul says, “I offered to do that.”
Gosh he was gorgeous. “Darl, you’ve got enough stuff of your own.”
- MORE stairs! Paul goes down then comes back up and carries Jan’s bag down. He wasn’t as gorgeous as you. Jan says, “God, I hope there’s no more bloody stairs!”
- Another corner. Yep, another flight of stairs. “What’s that? It’s a lift!” YAY!
- Only a minute and a half to wait for our train.
- Train arrives at Liceu. “Paul, this way, I can see a lift.”
- Lift opens onto La Rambla. Jan looks around and catches her breath, “Gosh Paul, it was worth it. This place is gorgeous!”
It’s 11.10am. I had told Celia we would arrive around 11am. We are pretty much on time. The GPS finds the satellites and Paul directs us the 150 metres around the corner to our apartment. We stand on a corner and orient ourselves. “Yep, that looks like the picture on Google Earth. Hey look, there’s number 11 Union.” Just then the door opens and Marcelo, Celia’s brother, beckons from across the street. We’ve made it!
Marcelo doesn’t speak English, but he’s really strong (he threw my bag onto his back and carried it up the stairs to our first floor apartment), and he’s got this app on his phone where he speaks and it translates what he says into English. I’ve got to get one of those.
The apartment is old (everything here is), but it’s had some reno work and it’s spotless. It’s also got two ‘balconies’ that overlook the street, so when it’s all closed up it’s like a big dark cave, but when open, it’s light and airy. It’s also got a front loading washing machine with all the buttons labelled in Spanish (who’d have thought??). “No worries”, says Paul, and promptly downloads the instructions in English.
We desperately need to stretch our legs and get some groceries, so after sorting out a bit of stuff, we head down to La Rambla and turn right. By now it’s midday and there are people everywhere! There are stalls selling cheap trinkets, postcards, maps of Barcelona, Gaudi books, and necklaces and wrist bands. These are interspersed with art stalls and blokes who do amazing portraits and caricatures in less than ten minutes. In amongst all this are al fresco restaurants with deals for Sangria, tapes and pizza or Paella starting at €9. They’ve really got Spanish cuisine covered!
But the place has a wonderful feel. La Rambla is lined with Plane trees (I think also known as Sycamore trees?) and old buildings, some dating from the 15th century. Every side street is a narrow alley coursing through row after row of majestic old stone buildings; the wider streets are also lined with trees. It’s breathtaking; romantic!
Paul wants to see the water so we head for Port Vell. The waterfront is teeming with people, and so it should be. It is a spectacular cloudless day in the low 20s. Before long I have peeled off my jacket (we are both still dressed in our travel garb) and I’m absorbing the rays and the atmosphere. Hard to believe how bloody stressful it was a couple of hours ago.
The thoroughly modern port and marina a flanked by superb old military, naval and port authority buildings. And standing right in the middle is Columbus, pointing to the new world atop a 20-metre column.
Moored on the foreshore is the Santa Eulalia, a beautifully kept Barcelona Maritime Museum schooner. The clear blue water with the schooner and the marina in the foreground and the palm-fringed shoreline with a backdrop of an almost endless row of those magnificent buildings really is spectacular.
I fear my vocabulary simply doesn’t contain enough adjectives to describe the look and feel of Barcelona.
We finally tear ourselves away from the water and head back up La Rambla to La Boqueria, or more precisely, Mercat de Sant Josep. The market is bedlam, a bit like fresh food markets the world over. Paul has his first Spanish meal here (breadstick, serrano ham and cheese) and here we provision for the next few days. We bought incredibly cheap fresh fruit and veges and cheese, expensive jamon serrano (dry cured ham), and an obligatory bread stick. Before leaving we try a fresh fruit juice (two for €2). Paul has strawberry and banana; mine is strawberry, coconut and pitahaya (dragon fruit). Not sure it is just fruit juice – it is quite sweet, but it’s also yummy!
We were beyond weary when we left the market but we still had to get some more mundane essentials (toilet paper, washing powder…). When we returned to the apartment laden with our wares, it was with a sense of ease and comfort. The people we had interacted with today had been friendly and gracious. From the graceful spray-painted statue of Sirahil (the keeper of dreams), to the cheap trinket stall holder who directed me to the supermarket while apologising for his English, we had been treated well.
By the time we unpacked our groceries we were just too tired to eat so at 5pm we lay down for a sleep. Mindful of the need to adjust our sleeping patterns I told Paul to wake me when he got up. 30 minutes later he roused me from a sleep so deep I felt it clawing at me, trying to prevent me from regaining consciousness.
Revived, we headed out for a reccie of the Plaça de Catalunya Renfe station for tomorrow’s trip to collect our F1 tickets, and a general look around.
The Plaça de Catalunya is a huge square (about 30,000 sq metres) at the northern end of La Rambla. Considered the centre of Barcelona, it is the place where the old part of Barcelona (Barri Gòtic and El Raval) meets the 19th century Eixample. Statues, fountains, gardens, monuments, people and pigeons all vie for space in the expanse of paved open area. At times the pigeons outnumber the people, at times it is the other way around. People feed the pigeons, children run through the pigeons to send them into a flurry of beating hearts and wings, and other people occupy the garden chairs, chatting, reading, contemplating or just taking it all in. Despite the huge numbers of people who flock to the square at any time of day it never feels crowded; it is an excellent place for some people watching and quiet contemplation, and it is a refreshing respite from the closeness and chaos of La Rambla.
The sun doesn’t set here until 9pm so we had a couple of hours yet to explore. We headed off in search of Palau de la Música Catalana, a couple of streets over, just off Via Laietana. Via Laietana is a major thoroughfare that forms the eastern border of Barri Gòtic. To the east of Via Laietana is the El Born area which includes the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, the Museo Picasso de Barcelona (Picasso Museum), and the Palau de la Musica. Our target tonight was the music hall. We had promised ourselves a little culture while in Barca, and a performance by Spanish guitarist Xavier Coll seemed appropriate. We found the box office and purchased our tickets for next Wednesday’s performance.
Weaving our way back through Barri Gòtic we chanced upon La Catedral. It’s hard to imagine you can just stumble across such a vast building; the centrepiece of Plaça de la Seu, the cathedral dominates the skyline. The building dates back to 1298-1460, but the Gothic façade that we are looking at was added in 1870.
We continued meandering our way back in the general direction of La Rambla and our apartment. It had been a long day that had had a couple of false starts, but had finished strongly.
We had arranged to collect our F1 tickets from Marco’s hotel in the beachside resort town of Santa Susanna, about 1 ¼ hours up the coast by train. The coast between Barcelona and Santa Susanna is dotted with beachside settlements. The water is clean and clear from turquoise to deep blue, and the sand, a cross between coarse sand and tiny pebble; unlike the fine sands of SE QLD, it is very easy to remove from damp feet. But at this time of year the water is still bloody cold and we decided it was sufficient just to dip our toes in the azure Mediterranean (a must do after travelling 17,000 km).
Had we booked our accommodation with GP Tours we would have been staying at the Aqua Hotel Onabrava at Santa Susanna. Judging by the entrance and reception areas, it would have beaten our El Raval apartment for luxury, but definitely not for convenience. No popping out to take in the night time sites of Barcelona if you’re in Santa Susanna.
As well as that, Paul and I were virtually the youngest people we saw. Santa Susanna was a strange combination of campsites, van-sites and cabins on the beachfront separating the row of luxury hotels from the Mediterranean. It felt like a seaside retirement village.
Our tickets in hand, our feet dry and reshod after our foray into the Mediterranean, we boarded the train back to Barcelona. As I said, the coast is dotted with small townships and as we passed we saw people sailing, swimming, sunbathing au natural, walking along the beach, or playing a form of boules. We also saw many rundown or boarded up buildings and a lot of graffiti. We got the sense that this place had seen its heyday, and perhaps hadn’t recovered from the aftermath of the 2008 GFC.
After lunch and a siesta we embarked on an exploration of Barri Gòtic. For someone from a country whose oldest permanent building is just over 200 years old, Barcelona’s medieval district is jaw-dropping.
We headed east from our base on Union Street and started a more-or-less random ramble with our ultimate goal, the cathedral. Our wanderings took us first to Plaça Reial, a picturesque square surrounded by 19th century buildings, and home to Gaudi’s first commissioned works, the lamp posts by the fountain in the centre of the square.
We continued with a circuitous path to the cathedral, taking mostly smaller alleys. Our next stop was Plaça de Sant Jaume, home to the Catalunyan and Barcelona’s governments, then up the Carrer del Bisbe (under an ornate overpass that reminded us of Venice’s Bridge of Sighs), to the cathedral.
At this point the Eyewitness Travel Guide (ETG) had us a bit puzzled. We were standing next to what looked to us like a Roman city wall, but the ETG had it on the other side of the cathedral. Once we had oriented ourselves, despite the dodgy map in the travel guide, we went in search of Plaça del Rei. This square is bounded by the 14th century Palau Reial (Royal Palace) and the Museu d’Historica which houses the entrance to what the ETG claims are the most extensive subterranean Roman ruins in the world. This is where we spent the next couple of hours.
It was past 6pm when we emerged from the Palau Reial, the exit to the ruins. With almost three hours till sundown we continued a relatively aimless wandering around Barri Gòtic. We took a brief sojourn for coffee in a back-alley café and then wandered back to the front of the cathedral and through the market stalls selling second hand goods from cheap paperbacks to opera glasses and flamenco dancer shawls. A busker was playing guitar and, by design or by chance, an elderly couple were waltzing to the music. It was a charming spectacle that had drawn a large, and appreciative crowd.
Heading west by yet another route, this time along La Palla, we found ourselves in the Plaça del Sant Josep Oriol. One side of the square was flanked by the southern wall of the Esqlésia de Santa Maria del Pi, a Gothic church built in the 14th to 16th centuries. It isn’t a pretty building, but the stained glass is quite spectacular. The front of the church faces the Plaça del Pi and boasts a large rose window above its entrance. Unlike the cathedral, this church wasn’t spared during the civil war in the 1930s, and most of the stained glass was smashed during the ransacking. It has since been replaced.
By now we were sight-seed out and headed for home and a glass of vino.