Beautiful Baroque Barcelona

September 2014

I arrived in sunny Barcelona at 11.45am. I had already pre booked the Aerobus which would take me from the airport to Placa Catalunya where I would then get the metro to the Barceloneta stop. Word to the wise, pick pocketing does take place in Barcelona but as long as you keep your wits about you then you should be fine, I wouldn’t recommend backpacks as they seemed to be the obvious target. The hotel I was staying in was located in the Old Town area and was called Park Hotel, it was easy to find as it was opposite Estacio de Franca the large train station. I only had a weekender sized bag on wheels with me so travelling with it was easy enough. The hotel didn’t look much from the outside but was clean and modern inside, I had requested a quiet room when I booked through booking.com and I was given a room towards the back of the hotel further away from the road where the noise was minimal.

It was around 1.30pm by the time I checked in and had settled in my room. The first thing I wanted to do was take a shower and put some clean clothes on as by this point I was starting to melt! It was around 27/28 degrees but felt a lot hotter with the humidity in the city. I then decided it was time to explore, Parc de la Ciutadella was right next to my hotel so was going to be my first stop. It was very pretty with lots of green open spaces and tree lined paths which often led to some beautiful fountains. Barcelona Zoo was also situated here but as I was only there for a few days I decided to give that a miss.

Next I decided to walk to Port Olympic which was by the sea and offered up a lovely sea breeze. From Port Olympic you could see all the way down to Port Vell and it looked so beautiful so of course I got carried away and walked all the way down there! I have since found out that the beach is about 2 miles long so that’s how far I walked in that heat, I must have been mad! I was really hungry by this point so walked back up into the city itself for a bit to eat, I’m not very adventurous when it comes to food I like to stick to what I recognise so Burger King it was.

After refuelling I wanted to explore further, the architecture in Barcelona is amazing and I ended up at Catedral de Barcelona which dominates the Old Town. The magnificent Gothic Cathedral was begun in 1298 but was not finished until the early 20th century. I took some photos of the eye catching façade. I stumbled across some other interesting buildings but my feet had given up by this point so I got the metro back to the Barceloneta and then a short walk back to the hotel. I then planned what I was going to do the next day and had an early night as I’d been up since 5.30am and had walked half of Barcelona!

Next morning I went to the Maremagnum shopping centre where I found out most shops didn’t open until 12 but there were a few little cafes open so I could have some breakfast before catching the hop on hop off City Tour Bus. I had also purchased the 2 day bus ticket online before arriving. Once on the bus I was given some headphones to plug in for English commentary on the places of interest along the way, which was actually really interesting. I decided I was first of all going to get off at Sagrada Familia, it was an absolutely amazing looking building! Gaudi was commissioned in 1883 to complete a Neo-Gothic cathedral. It became his life’s work and he lived like a recluse on the site for 16 years. He is now buried in the crypt. The building is still unfinished and work continues on it to this day. The queue to go inside was insane and I didn’t have all day to wait so I had to make do with taking lots of photos of the outside which included the Nativity Façade and the Passion Façade. I would advise anyone planning on visiting Sagrada Familia to book tickets online before arriving to save a lot of time and to ensure you actually get in.

Then it was time to get back on the bus and head for Parc Guell. Gaudi was commissioned in 1910 to lay out a private housing estate on a hillside above Barcelona. There are also some beautiful mosaic works by Josep Maria Jujol. From the bus stop it is a steep walk up to the entrance so I would advise purchasing something to drink before you head up. It was also very busy when I arrived and I was told the next available entry was not until 2.30pm, I waited in the shade and had a drink and a white chocolate magnum. It was lovely up there but very hot! I entered at The Square which offered beautiful views over the city and the undulating benches covered in Mosaics were very pretty. I took lots of photos before I moved on to the Hypostle Room which was a covered area with 86 columns supporting the square above. The ceiling was formed of small domes and was decorated with some lovely tiles. Then I walked on to the Monumental Flight of Steps, the steps are full of detail such as gargoyles, mosaics and a large brightly coloured Lizard. Then there are the 2 mosaic pavilions which have intricately tiled exteriors, one of them houses the visitor centre.

I then made my way back to the bus where I got off at the Maremagnum shopping centre and had some food at Macdonalds and then did a bit of shopping because it would be rude not to and because I needed some comfier shoes! I had only been wearing some New Look sandals and had managed to get a blister underneath my foot so I purchased some comfy canvas shoes from H+M. I then decided to walk back into the city via the Wave Bridge and then over to La Rambla which is an historic tree lined avenue that has a Monument to Columbus at the bottom of it. I walked my way up La Rambla and passed lots of little stalls selling flowers, gifts and food e.t.c. There were also palm tree lined squares with lovely fountains in the middle, which is what I had pictured when I thought of Spain. I walked all the way up to Placa Catalunya and then got the bus back as close to my hotel as it went and then a short walk back to the hotel for a shower and an early night. I also planned where I wanted to go on the second tour bus route the following day.

The next morning I got up early and headed to Sagrada Familia so that I could get in the front of the queue to go inside. I was right at the front at 8.15am and I new it opened at 9, great. No, it hit 9am and a guy came around to say it was at full capacity and that you wouldn’t be able to get in until at least midday! I didn’t have the time to waste as it was my last day so I cut my losses and got back on the bus to do the orange route.

I passed the Jardins de Mirramar where lots of different species of plants grow even cactus that date back hundreds of years. Then it was up around the edge of the mountain of Montjuic where there were some amazing views over the city. We also passed the Olympic Stadium and the Olympic Diving Boards where Tom Daley has competed,  I recognised it from when we’d seen it on t.v – it’s certainly a pool with a view!

I got off the bus at stop 8 the Art Museum which was an impressive looking building and I then went down the different levels of escalators towards Placa Espanya. There was an amazing multi level fountain surrounded by beautiful Roman architecture. I got some lovely photos, a couple asked me to take a photo of them and I asked them to take one of me in return. Placa Espanya had 2 massive Venitian Towers which were modelled on the bell towers in St Marks in Venice and a large fountain in the middle of a roundabout also by Josep Maria Jujol. There was also a bullring (built in 1899) which has been converted into a shopping and entertainment centre.

I then got back on the bus and decided to get off at stop 15 L’illa Diagonal a large shopping centre which I had some discount vouchers for and picked up a free shopping bag which had lots of different things all over it that were supposed to represent Barcelona. I also had some food in a café in between shopping and then I ended up with a Haagen Daas ice cream. I then got back on the bus and got off at stop 17 La Pedrera (the stone quarry) Gaudi’s greatest contribution to Barcelona’s civic architecture. Unfortunately I couldn’t get any photos of the outside as it was being re furbished but I went inside. Gaudi designed his eight floor apartment block around 2 circular courtyards. The lift takes you straight up to the roof terrace which has lots of interesting sculptures and chimneys and there were some amazing views of the city including Sagrada Familia. The museum “El Espai Gaudi” was on the top floor and had models and explanations of Gaudi’s work. Then there was the apartment itself with it’s old fashioned bedrooms, bathrooms, living room, kitchen and maids room. It was very fascinating. There are no straight walls in the building at all!

I finished the day by getting back on the bus to go to stop 1 Placa Catalunya to walk down La Rambla to do my souvenir shopping. I managed to find something for everyone and at good prices too. Then it was back to the hotel to pack up and get ready to leave the following day. My stay was short but sweet, I had a wonderful time and have some brilliant photos to show for it. It was some of the hottest/humid weather I had ever experienced and my legs were wrecked but it was worth every minute. I would not hesitate to visit again one day.

Sorrento Momento

Monday 31st August 2015

Stepping off the plane at Naples airport I was hit by the heat, it was 8pm and pitch black so I wasn’t quite expecting it. I was transferred to the main terminal by bus as you have to on all flights as Naples airport is very small. Entering the main terminal first it was to passport control which consisted of 2 agents sat behind a small protected desk and 1 of them proceeded to snatch my passport from me, quickly check the photo and then throw it back at me and that was that. My bag came through really quickly and then the reps pointed out the way to the coach transfer, which felt like a small hike in the humidity and dragging my suitcase along behind me. I was then told which number coach to get on and an Italian guy called Claudio put my suitcase in the storage area underneath and I then patiently waited for him to let me on the coach forgetting that it was a left hand drive for him to quietly mutter “it’s the other side” oh yeah.

So I was on coach 17 and Roberta had introduced herself as our transfer rep, she was soon telling us some facts about the area and tying to point out places of interest in the dark. I however was slightly distracted by the insanity of Italian driving. If there are lanes on a motorway surely you stay within the lanes, apparently that’s not how it works if you’re Italian. Also everyone on a scooter seemed to have a death wish. We went through lots of tunnels the newest was very long and had only been open for 1 year. You wouldn’t have thought so to look at it, I am not exaggerating it looked like it had been there for 100 years! Next it was on to a coastal road which was very high up, I could see all the lights below and the most stunning was an extremely large cruise liner anchored in the bay, it’s lights were reflecting on the water and it looked beautiful. Next was on to a “country road” now I live in the country so I am used to country roads but this was something else! The long and winding road comes to mind, there were people to be dropped off at 5 hotels and of course mine Grand Hotel Vesuvio was last.

I arrived at my hotel at around 10.45pm, check in was swift and rather oddly they keep your passport when you check in to register you as a visitor to the country (I’m guessing this is because passport control can’t be bothered) which I wasn’t too happy to do but not much you can do about it. My room was 409 a single room with air conditioning (yes!) and a balcony (lovely) overlooking some lemon groves. The room was overall clean, bright and thankfully cool.

Tuesday September 1st

I had managed to sleep on and off and went for breakfast at 9am. Breakfast was served in a lovely room with great lighting and massive windows overlooking the most amazing views over the bay of Naples, you could see Sorrento where 2 cruise ships were now sitting in the bay and Mount Vesuvius was just visible through the morning haze. After breakfast which was your standard continental I decided to go and take some photos of the hotel. Usually I don’t do this kind of holiday I just arrange everything myself but I had decided to find out what it was like as a lot of holidays to this area are package holidays. With this in mind I went to the welcome meeting at 11.30am where we were given a map of Sorrento and information on all the excursions available. I already had and excursion (Amalfi and Positano day cruise ) booked for Wednesday but I arranged to do another one on the Sunday (Pompeii and Herculaneum). We were told there was going to be a free walking tour of Sorrento at 1pm to get a bit of a feel for the place so I decided to go to that as well.

Walking tour – First Stop was Limoncello (lemon liquor) tasting, I say tasting which is ironic because it was so strong it could burn your taste buds right off! Thankfully it was only a very small amount you were expected to taste and that was enough. Next was on to a lovely restaurant “Risturante la Favorita” which was one of the oldest in Sorrento (1868) part of it was like a greenhouse with lots of plants and then you walk through to the back and there was a large covered veranda with lemons growing on it. Then it was on to Cuomos Lucky Store (1856) which was a store full of wooden furniture and we were given a quick demonstration on how they get the intricate patterns onto the wood. We were shown a table that transformed into a gaming table with several different layers poker table, back gammon, chess and finally opened up to reveal a roulette wheel. Next was down a little lane to Davides ice cream shop where they do 50+ flavours, we were told we could get one scoop for 1 Euro so I chose Vanilla with White Chocolate, yum! Last stop was the Foreigners Club restaurant which has some of the most stunning views over the bay, the 2 cruise liners were still in so was a good opportunity to take some photos. I was also given a complimentary drink of Prosecco and red orange which was nice.

The rest of the day I spent at the hotel reading up on the excursion I was doing the next day and then just reading the novel I had taken with me. The evening meal in the hotel was not what I was expecting, there was a different menu every night and I barely recognised anything on it, I was at least expecting Pizza. I am a fussy eater anyway and when the meals came out looking the way they did and also really small portions needless to say I only ate in the hotel twice, I did however enjoy the ice cream for dessert, thank the lord they had vanilla!

Wednesday September 2nd

Amalfi and Positano cruise day! I was picked up at the hotel at 9.20am a few stops were made to pick up at other hotels before we were dropped off near a lift that was going to take us down to the port. Basically it’s such a long way down the cliff to the port that they’ve put lifts in to make it quicker and easier to get down there. Once at the port there were more people already queuing up to be told which number boat you were going to be on. This process seemed to take a long time, Italian time goes even slower than normal time! Eventually we got our boat, boat number 3 – it was a lot smaller than I was expecting and as someone who has suffered from seasickness in the past I was a little apprehensive, even with taking some precautionary seasickness tablets. There were only 12 people in my group so a small boat was all we needed. We cruised slowly around the coast and our skipper introduced himself as Andre. He kindly pointed out places of interest along the way and popped on some music for us the first song on his soundtrack being the Pirates of the Caribbean theme, hilarious!

First stop was a swim stop, I didn’t fancy it as it was literally in the middle of the sea, I’ve always been a bit afraid of swimming in the sea as you don’t know what’s in it! So the others jumped in for a few minutes and then it was on to our first proper stop Amalfi. I took lots of photos of the coast as we went by. Arriving into Amalfi we were told we had almost 2 hours to explore before we were expected back at the boat. It was very hot, the breeze on the boat had been lovely but as these places are surrounded by steep cliffs they are very much secluded and it makes it a complete sun trap, it was 30+ degrees. I headed straight for the centre which was only a short walk away, the first major thing I notice is Amalfi Cathedral – a beautiful building with it’s many steps leading up to it and the large clock on the left, it looked amazing. First things first I needed to cool down so it was time for an ice cram (you may notice a theme developing here) I sat down at the restaurant in the square opposite the Cathedral where I had a very expensive vanilla ice cream at 7 Euros, I can honestly say at that point it was worth every Euro! Then it was time to go into the Cathedral as long as the climb up there didn’t kill me first. I made it and it was only 3 Euros to get in and a word to the wise if you ever plan on going there make sure your shoulders are covered or you wont be allowed in. I was wearing a dress that covered my shoulders so I was fine, luckily. Inside was just as stunning if not more so! The detail and paintings on the ceilings were amazing, so beautiful.

“Art is the meeting place with mystery, because the beauty of created things stirs up God’s emotions, nostalgia” (John Paul II in “Letter to the artists”)

I took lots of photos which was allowed as long as you didn’t use the flash. There were different areas within the whole Cathedral which included The Cloister of Paradise, The Basilica of the Crucifix, The Crypt and The Cathedral. The Crypt of Saint Andrew was amazing, completely made of marble it was lovely and cool and was very peaceful and the paintings on the ceilings were beautiful. The Cathedral itself was also stunning, massive and awe inspiring I had to take a quiet moment within the seating area just to take it all in. I wouldn’t describe myself as a religious person normally as I don’t go to church but in that place at that time it would be hard not to feel a greater sense of something.

I walked around a bit more and bought a postcard for my collection from one of the little shops on the way back to the boat. Next stop was Positano, it was nice to get back on the boat and have a bit of a breeze to cool down again. As we approached Positano I realised it was just as postcard picture perfect as I imagined it would be. All the pretty coloured houses built onto the side of the cliffs and the church in the centre. Again we had almost 2 hours to explore before being expected back at the boat, it was very hot again so my first stop was to be at one of the sea front restaurants for an ice cool beverage. Luckily lots of the little narrow alleyways were in the shade, there were some beautiful little shops with everything from gifts, clothes and handmade sandals to ceramics and paintings. Unfortunately the church wasn’t open so after wondering around the little streets and taking some more photos I decided to relax in the shade.

Then it was time to head back on the boat, Andre showed us some little waterfalls and some little caves along the coast where we again stopped off for a short swimming stop. By this point I had started chatting to 2 couples that were also on the trip Josie and Ryan a young couple from London and Lyndsey (not very often do I meet someone with the same name as me and spelt the same way too!) and Shane newlyweds from Rugby. We decided we were going to meet up later that night at Insolito a cocktail bar in Sorrento, where I had a couple of slushy Strawberry Daiquiris, my favourite!

I remember feeling so lucky when I was on that cruise, it was like a taster on how the other half live and so very relaxing.

Thursday September 3rd

I had a bit of a lie in after the previous days excursion/cocktail bar evening. I got the complementary hotel shuttle bus into Sorrento at 9.30am and went down to the port to catch the little ferry over to Capri for the day. Again the island looked like something straight from a postcard, just lovely! The harbour was beautiful with all it’s little boats and turquoise blue waters. I decided to head straight for the Funicular which would take me up to Capri Town where I was hoping to spot a celebrity or 2. Once up there, again there was a little church and a clock and some truly stunning views looking down over Capri and the harbour. There were lots of little winding streets filled with every designer boutique you could think of, it was like the Champs Elysees on a much smaller quainter scale. Capri Watch was a dominant brand and was advertised all over the island, I had a look in one of their stores and saw a couple of nice watches but for 200 Euros a piece they were going to stay there!

I bought some little hand made bracelets as gifts for my sisters and of course one for myself. I also had a donut that was the same size as my head, sugar everywhere but so worth it! I went in the little church and took some photos and then stood outside the church in the shade for a bit and used the free wifi from one of the restaurants nearby. Whilst there some guy came over and asked if we (other people were doing the same as me) could all move out of the way of the steps for a moment as they wanted to take a team photo. My ears pricked up and so I got my camera ready as I could see an official photographer and a t.v camera and then the whole National Italian Swimming Team show up! I didn’t know what team they were at the time by they were in an official looking kit and quite a few of them were handsome so I got a couple of photos. It added a bit of excitement to the day anyway : ) shame they weren’t in their speedos because I would have known straight away what team they were then of course ; ) I have also discovered Italians are lacking in manners and do come across as quite rude when you are being served in a shop for example. Obviously there are some exceptions like my hotel shuttle bus driver Maurizio, he always had a smile and a “Ciao” for everyone and is generally a very polite man.

Friday September 4th

I decided to relax a bit today and just spend some time in the hotel and exploring Sorrento a bit more. I ended up walking further than I had before in Sorrento and ended up in a fashion store where I bought some new winter clothes. From looking around I could tell that the colour palettes for autumn/winter here were the same as at home so that worked out well.

I also decided to try some food at an English Inn which was nice, unfortunately I did also receive the life story of some Italian guy sitting next to me who also liked to ask a lot of questions. I had to politely turn down a couple of his offers for a “true experience” one being a ride on his scooter and the second pizza at his nieces party down at Marina Grande. Yeah, so it was time to eat up and get out of there, there’s always one!

Spent the afternoon on a sun lounger listening to some Frank Sinatra. Also a little tip for anyone planning on going over in September, take some insect repellent as I managed to get a few bites on my legs.

Saturday September 5th

Went back into Sorrento in the morning as I had managed to convince myself that I needed the beautiful leather handbag that I had seen in the leather shop the previous day. After all it’s always nice to have a bag that nobody else will have back at home. I also got a few more souvenirs from the little shops in the narrow alley ways. Saturday was the first day that there was any cloud cover and as I was off to Pompeii and Herculaneum the following day I was hoping it would hang around for a bit longer as I had been told there was not much shade in either of these places. For the rest of the day I relaxed in the hotel gardens which had beautiful views over the bay, I read and listened to some music – bliss!

Sunday September 6th

Pompeii and Herculaneum excursion day! I was picked up by coach at my hotel at the very precise time of 7.49am where I was told by Roberta my tour guide that after the last couple of hotel pick ups it would take 40 minutes to get to our first stop Pompeii. Also as it was the first Sunday of the month so we would not have to pay any entrance fees as they are classed as museums and in Italy it is free on the first Sunday of every month to visit the museums, another handy little tip there!

As I walked into Pompeii I wasn’t sure what to expect as I had read the guide books but it still doesn’t become real until you set foot in the place. It really was like stepping back in time! First I walked through a large square area with lots of stone columns surrounding it which led to a large amphitheatre where Frank Sinatra last performed in Italy. Apparently the videos are available online to prove this, I am yet to look it up. We then moved on to a smaller theatre which had original marble flooring and stone sculptures. I was glad I had chosen to do a guided tour as Roberta was very knowledgeable, she had studied archaeology at university and was even part of an excavation team at Pompeii.

I took lots of photos as it was amazing to see all the original features such as stone, marble and mosaics. The street roads were made from massive stone slabs and you could still see the grooves in them from where the chariots used to go up and down them! You could see houses, shops and even a brothel. In some of the houses you could see different eras of decoration, some had beautiful paintings and intricate ceilings. There were also public baths separate ones for men and women, they had tiled floors and what we would now call lockers which were just stone shelves with individual square partitions.

At the forum which would have been the cities main piazza there were lots of stone and marble columns with Mount Vesuvius as a stunning backdrop. Also within some of the buildings here were the plaster moulds of locals that were caught in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. There was the body of an adult, a child and a dog. Weirdly I was most disturbed by the one of the dog. Pompeiis coastline completely changed after the eruption, there used to be a port there, now the sea is some distance away. The residents at the time used to put small pieces of marble in the roads that would reflect the moonlight and guide their way in the dark. We spent 2 and a half hours in Pompeii before we went for lunch, I had fish and chips (it was the most anorexic fish I had ever seen).

Then we moved on to Herculaneum which was 20 minutes away. It was a smaller better preserved site. After visiting both I would say this was my favourite. We arrived at a higher level so we could see the whole site, apparently three quarters of it is still buried under the modern buildings. This site also used to be a port and you could work out where the sea would have been. Again there were houses, gardens, public baths and luckily no brothels (not that they’ve found anyway). Some of the paintings and mosaics here were amazing. There was a beautiful coloured mosaic in one house depicting a Greek God which was common at the time, there were lots of Roman and Greek influences.

The sun had now come out in full force and it was very hot, I was glad I’d taken my hat and a hand held fan to cool me down a bit. Roberta said we were off to see the skeletons next and that they’d only just opened this to the public the previous week. She said they had all gone down there to escape the eruption by boat but had been killed by the extremely hot temperatures – 400 degrees. It was the gas from the eruption that had killed the residents of Pompeii. Herculaneum was buried in a thick sea of mud whereas Pompeii was buried in burning fragments of pumice stone.

Mount Vesuvius is now dormant it’s last eruption was in 1944 during the second world war, they now closely follow what is happening within Vesuvius and say that they could give the local residents a 1 week warning of any future eruption. I had a great time exploring both these sites and I definitely learned a lot.

Overall I had an amazing experience on the Sorrentine peninsula and would not hesitate to visit again someday.