Monday, August 31, 2009

On being a Spectator at The Tour of Waterford - and Ireland

Yesterday hubby Jan completed a charity cycle of 100km or 60 miles ( you can convert it accurately on my little converter widget at the sidebar!). It was his second year doing the Seán Kelly Tour of Waterford Charity Fun Cycle, and last year he also did the 100km. He loves cycling and as there is no cycling club in Lismore he goes it alone and times his journeys and can compare past and present times.

He raised €140 for the designated charity, the Irish Cancer Society (ICS), and last year over €100 for the National Council for the Blind in Ireland (NCBI). By today the ICS had taken over €30,000 in sponsorship raised through this cycle tour, and I think it is one of their biggest single fundraisers.

It is also the biggest Fun Cycle in Ireland, with 3,480 cyclists taking part in the three distances, the 50km, the 100km, and the 160km for the real pros. This takes in a number of challenging mountain passes across the Comeragh mountains, and hubby didn't even consider doing it. He is in it for the fun and the exercise and fitness is a welcome by-product, not the end in itself. We are all proud of him for doing this and he is delighted with his achievement.

His route took him from Dungarvan - start and endpoint for all three routes - to Carrick-on-Suir (home town of Seán Kelly of the Tour of Waterford and one of Ireland's best-known cyclists who was on the international circuit for years) and Clonmel, and back to Dungarvan. It was a filthy day, with lashing driving rain for a large part of the day, and an Irish mist for the rest, to ensure a thorough drenching, and yet the spirit of the cyclists never seemed to flag. I waited by the finish line for an hour or so watching the straggle of cyclists coming back in high spirits to the cheers of the onlookers, and there was a great buzz.

Being a fun cycle the only rules were that helmets had to be worn, and there was a motley crew of machines from top-class racers to tandems (including a blind cyclist with a buddy)and mountain bikes to high nellies with wicker baskets on the handlebars, more befitting a sunny country lane and floral frocks than splashing on Irish roads in the driving rain. Plenty of kids took part and there were cycling club members from all over Ireland and a number of cyclists from overseas, looking at the number of foreign registered camper vans and cars with bike racks.

The WLR-FM blastercaster was there with commentary and music and there was a huge backup crew in the sport hall in Dungarvan providing tea and soup and sandwiches for the returning heroes and heroines. The last time I was in this hall was at the Local and European Elections (see the blogpost) back in June, when it was transformed into the Count Centre and was full of high drama and tension. Today it was thronged with a different melée but equally colourful and noisy. Jan collected his Certificate of Achievement here before we went home.

The first few photos show Jan after the Tour, with another Labour Party Councillor, Ger Barron, and also with his Certificate.

The more high-profile Tour of Ireland was held over three days in August and came to Lismore on Day 2. There were over 100 cyclists from the well-known international teams that take part in the famous European tours like the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia and the Spain's La Vuelta. The Peloton whizzed by Lismore Castle and didn't go through the town and a crowd gathered to cheer them on. As Lance Armstrong was taking part in the race there was a buzz of celebrity around, though unless you knew his colours you would be challenged to pick him out! I managed to get a few photos but they are a Jackson Pollock-like blur of colour and individual identification is impossible.

You can see the Tour of Ireland Peloton in these photos, and Lance Armstrong's Astana Team car with spare bikes was the next best thing to getting his photo!

There is a nice photo of Lismore Castle on a rare sunny summer's day, as the Tour of Ireland passed by. It is nice to see it surrounded by lush trees compared to the starkness of the winter photos I took in earlier posts like here.

So we have had quite a bit of cycling around here lately, and maybe it will inspire the government to promote cycling by providing more realistic cycling lanes in urban areas. Currently they are a joke, going nowhere and many that stop suddenly at a traffic light and that are shared with the bus lane. Cycling is a bit of a Russian Roulette activity, it is so dangerous as the urban cyclist is often seen as a nuisance by motorists and there are a number of fatal accidents every year.

Compared to our fellow-Europeans like the Dutch and Danes, who seem to accord cyclists great respect and services, we have a long way to go. Despite having Green biking ministers in government, there doesn't seem to be much happening on that front, but then they are so hapless in every undertaking and have lost so much credibility since joining the Coalition, that they probably would make a total mess of any new venture, even promoting cycling.

I guess we're on our own here, I don't have a bike any more after years of cycling in Dublin as a student when it was my mode of transport, I haven't been persuaded since returning to Ireland twelve years ago. Now I enjoy my onlooker cheerleader status.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Chocolate Chip and Pecan Cookies

These are delicious - crunchy and chewy all at once (a bit like that old Harry Enfield comedy sketch on Armadillos for the Dime bar ad - crunchy on the outside, smooth on the inside!) Although these are a little bit crunchy on the inside too from the addition of the nuts! Here's the video clip for those who remember Harry Enfield's classic sketches and even for those who don't!

Back to serious stuff now
This recipe is an amalgamation of a few different choc chip recipes I have in various books, and my variation is the addition of chopped pecan nuts.
Walnuts are another alternative. In either case, they are delicious cookies and much nicer than any shop-bought ones. But then what cookies can beat good home-baked ones?

  • 6 oz/175g plain flour
  • 6 oz/175g sugar - I use 4 oz dark brown and 2 oz white mixed
  • 4 oz/125g butter -soft, room temperature
  • 1 egg - optional
  • half-teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (bread soda)
  • quarter-teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 6 oz/175g chocolate - milk or dark - in chips or chopped up good quality chocolate - not cheap cooking chocolate
  • 2 oz/50g chopped pecan nuts - lightly roasted in oven for about 5-10 mins at 100 degrees centigrade - careful now - don't burn them!
  • Simplicity itself - just bung all the ingredients - except the chocolate and pecans - into a bowl and mix them well with an electric mixer.
  • (I use the hand mixer for these as it's faster than setting up the Kenwood, but that's irrelevant once the mix isn't too heavy for your machine. Why, you can do it by hand if you prefer the creaming-butter-and-sugar method, but that's too labour intensive for a lazy slob like me!)
  • Then add the chocolate chips and nuts and mix in well, preferably with a spoon or knife as the mixer can chop them up too finely.
  • Bake in the top of the oven for about 15 mins until golden brown, being careful not to burn them.
  • Cool on a wire rack
  • Sit down, and enjoy with that essential cuppa tea - or even coffee - and a good book or blog to read!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mugs and a Milestone - my 50th Blog Post

I just realised that I have posted 50 times to this blog since I started just after Christmas last year, this being my 51st post!

I didn't think when I started that I would keep going as regularly as this and even find stuff that I would like to write about. What's more, I didn't really expect that anyone would be remotely interested in reading my rambling streams of consciousness. So it is very nice to have come this far, without any pressure to meet deadlines or targets, and to just write on whatever is of interest to me, whenever the notion takes me.

Blogging has opened up a fascinating new world, with new virtual friends in the blogosphere among the readers and commentators, and those of you who follow the blog. It is always fun to get comments and feedback on the various posts, whether they are recipes, politics, or social commentary, or just travel and events in my life that I enjoy sharing with you. I am amazed at the quality of most of the blogs I read and the humour and pathos that is evident in much of the writing.

It's great to see the maps dotted with visitors from every corner of the globe, and to see the diverse origins of my visitors. Having lived in a number of far-flung places in my life, it is fascinating to see how much of the world is totally unknown to me, and then it is especially nice to connect with people in the countries I know and love, particularly Tanzania - Lynda's was one of the first blogs I read, as the Africa theme caught my eye.

So to mark this momentous occasion, I will share the photos of the eclectic collection of Barcelona mugs brought home from the Costa Brava and Barcelona in recent holidays. They are inspired primarily by the weird and wonderful architect and designer, Antoni Gaudí.

I know the ones in my previous post were wacky enough to grab attention, so these may whet your appetite even more. I love the asymmetrical one, it is totally wacky, and has stood on a shelf more as an objet d'art than a functional cup since I brought it as a present for hubby. Mind you, he prefers a more substantial coffee cup - but then this is aesthetically in a league of its own.

As I write this it is quite late at night, and I am sitting at my laptop with a nice cuppa tea and a choc chip and pecan cookie -recipe to follow soon! - while toasting and thanking all my blogging friends for the camaraderie and commentary you have provided in the past 8 months.

I really appreciate all the time you take to read and comment and generate debate in so many areas. So don't forget - keep in touch and keep on blogging!

The Gaudí Mug Collection - cups, mugs and a tankard - highlighting places in Barcelona linked with Gaudí like Parc Guell, Sagrada Familia, and Casa Batllo. The chimneys of La Pedrera (Casa Mila) are on one mug, and the recurring theme of mosaic tiling characteristic of Gaudí's Parc Guell features heavily.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

On cheap shopping and cheating at bread-baking

A few weekends ago I baked some delicious yeast bread. Nothing unusual in that, except that I felt a bit of a fraud as there was an element of cheating involved. I am not beating myself up over it, rather I felt a bit chuffed at how tasty it was given that this should be the nemesis of true home-bakers everywhere - Bread Mix! This was bread mix with a difference though, as it turned out closer to home-baked bread than I'd expected.

My (potentially!) guilty secret is out - the breadmix came from Lidl, that ubiquitous German store that has, as I told Lynda in a comment on her post, revolutionised shopping in Ireland in the past decade.

Lidl and its rival, fellow-German chain Aldi have hit the Irish multiples where it hurts - on their bottom line. The good news for the hapless consumer who was previously held to ransom by the cartel-like inflated prices of the Irish multiples was that their entry to the marketplace led to real price wars, and drove down prices across all food and non-food goods. Tesco upped the ante with a huge discounting campaign but they are coming under fire for cutting Irish suppliers in favour of cheaper imported products from the UK. Of course with the recession in full swing there is fierce competition for our dwindling paypackets at the checkout, and we are certainly voting with our feet.

There was a terrific price war in the border towns last Christmas, when there was a mass exodus from the Irish Republic (our Official Title) to Northern Ireland (where, being part of the UK, everything is cheaper) and a number of retailers south of the border went bust. Suddenly loyalty was being touted as a virtue and we were being guilt-tripped by the government to shop local and buy Irish. As this was seen as rich coming from a government mired in corruption and scandal on a daily basis, it was greeted with due derision, and rightly ignored.

The protection of Irish jobs, workers and businesses suddenly became a patriotic priority and a civic duty, but as the government were at that moment bailing out banks and developers with our taxes and doing nothing to look after the small businesses , the cynics and sceptics among us became even more despairing.

In the case of Lidl, there was huge snobbery about its potential impact on the Irish "housewife" who was patronised in the media as someone needing protection from herself should she be tempted into the dens of iniquity that these cheeky interlopers represented. Luckily most people aren't fools and could spot a bargain at 100 miles, so flocked in droves to the newcomers. Result- Irish tastes expanded to accommodate the exotic smoked meats and cheese that we could previously get in expensive chi-chi delis or smuggle back from our annual sun holiday.

Nowadays there's a certain perverse cachet to shopping in these stores, and many a yummy mummy is seen loading up the still-ubiquitous SUV in the car park with her purchases. Hard to credit that it's only a couple of years since the chattering classes wouldn't be seen dead in these shops, seeing them as the preserve of some underclass who actually had to watch the pennies. Now that conspicuous consumption - and even the SUV is disparaged as an "Axle of Evil" - is becoming increasingly vulgar in these frugal and recessionary times, the discount supermarket's day has finally arrived. Those of us who always shopped there are having the last laugh at the discomfort of those who make excuses when spotted on the premises, e.g. I'm only here for the marvellous extra virgin olive oil, darling!

In case all this sounds like the death-knell for the small shopkeeper, the corner shop still has its place in every village and suburb, and it is great that there are Farmers' Markets springing up all over the country. Ireland's cookbook industry is thriving, and cookery programmes are being syndicated globally, so all is not utilitarian drabness and a throwback to wartime rationing.

Back to the bread - this wasn't meant to be a polemic anti-government rant (did enough of them earlier in the year and nothing has improved since) - I hasten to add that bread mix does not equate to short cuts.


1. The yeast, flour and salt are pre-mixed but the warm water must be added and the mix kneaded with dough hooks in the food mixer (or a bread maker if you have one - I don't so can't speak with authoritiy here).
2. Then the dough is left to rise in a warm place for 3-40 minutes, and again kneaded down, and put in oiled bread tins to rise for another 30-40 minutes.
3. I use bread tins instead of making rolls or a shaped bread, as it is a wetter mixture than my own home made bread, which is much easier to hand knead after mixing, and it holds the finished shape better in a tin.
4. Baked for about 40 minutes at 200 degrees Centigrade, then turned out and cooled on a rack, it is delicious warm with butter and jam, as toast with your breakfast boiled egg, or whatever takes your fancy.

Top Tip

To really get the best from this bread, a nice cuppa tea is essential. I have some funky Gaudí-inspired mugs from Barcelona - the triangular one was a gift for my son, which I secretly covet - and they are guaranteed to cheer up anyone, even on the most miserable Irish summer's day.

As those of you in the know will agree, that's no mean feat this year.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

More Videoclips from Much Ado About Nothing in Lismore Castle - and an embedded tutorial

The videoclip I included in my post on Much Ado About Nothing from Off the Ground Touring Company in Lismore Castle last week got very positive feedback from many of those commenting, so I thought I would add two more clips I uploaded to YouTube to this blog post. These are taken after nightfall, so the atmosphere is totally different to the daylight of my last post's clip.

This is a scene from the play, plenty of passion and high emotions going on here between the characters as they plot and scheme their romantic intrigues

I have only just recently learnt how to upload clips to YouTube and am pretty chuffed with my techie abilities so this is just to give me more bragging rights! Uploading takes time, much to my surprise, as I thought a clip of a minute or two would be uploaded in similar time, but no, takes about a half-hour on our broadband (maybe yours is faster, ours is about 7mb which is reasonable I believe - as I haven't a clue what that means, only that it's faster than the 3mb we had initially). You see, I discovered with the last post that I could actually embed videoclips in the body of the post, not just in the sidebar, which I had been doing.

This was the grand finale - a rousing song-and-dance routine to Anything Goes, they got the entire audience up dancing for this one in an encore and it was a great end to the evening

It's really simple, (said she with the 20-20 vision of hindsight) - all you do is copy the code from YouTube where it says embed (at the side of the clip under the description) and paste said code in the body of the text where you want the clip to appear. It only shows up in Preview mode, and all you see in the Compose window is the gobbledegooky Html code, which looks like it shouldn't be there.

Those of you who know all this can smirk smugly, and those who don't will thank me as you can now go on to embellish your blogs with your favourite videos.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Much Ado About Nothing - Shakespeare in Lismore Castle

Last Monday night the long-awaited annual play from the touring UK company, Off the Ground, was held in the courtyard of Lismore Castle. This is their 15th year and they have been coming to Lismore for a number of years as part of their Irish open-air tour. They are a troupe from England who are extremely professional and innovative and they bring the classics to the masses, ensuring that their interpretations have universal appeal to all ages.

This year they did Shakespeare's great comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, but not as you know it! This was no mediaeval Italian court setting, rather it was a High Society 1930s setting, with tuxedos and floral frocks in abundance.

The evening can frequently be hijacked by our inclement weather, but this year we were lucky as it stayed warm and dry, if dull. So the blankets and umbrellas weren't needed, though they were brought along by the punters who knew - from bitter experience - to be prepared for all eventualities.

The audience come from far and wide, with many children who sit on the ground at the edge of the "stage". Many bring picnic hampers and lots of dainty crackers and cheese with wine, so posh nosh is much in evidence, as we try to recreate a mini-Glyndebourne experience in Lismore.

As I am always rushing after work my basket tends to have a mix of whatever snacks are around the house, and perhaps a stop at the shop en route for the sugar rush snacks favoured by whatever kids are coming along with teen daughter like packets of crisps - Tayto or Pringles - that crackle embarrassingly during the performance, bars of chocolate and pick'n'mix sweets, and cartons of orange juice. The girls brought a duvet and pillows to sit on, and wraps and sweatshirts to keep the midges at bay.

As you can see from the photos and video clip, the play was not as the Bard intended, with its modern setting and the interspersing with song and dance routines, but it is a perfect evening's entertainment, with everyone joining in the fun, and at the last dance the whole audience was up dancing with the cast. They remain true to the script and it all works - so you never really think that this was intended for an Italian Court setting, with aristocracy from that period.

The great thing about Off the Ground is that they really engage with the audience and make the often scary classics accessible to all. They are a young troupe and the same core members are now like old friends, and we look forward to the show every year. I have been introduced to Shakespeare plays that I would otherwise never have seen or known the storyline of, and many other greats as well. Last year's play was Cyrano de Bergerac, the year before The Merry Wives of Windsor, and others have included Twelfth Night, Robin Hood, Swing in The Willows, and King Arthur and the Round Table.

If they come your way, make the effort to see them as you will be richly rewarded. If it is in the setting like Lismore Castle or another of the eclectic settings they visit in Ireland, it's an added bonus. Either way, wrap up well, bring a bit of food and a drink, and sit back to enjoy a great evening.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The view from my laptop - thoughts from the kitchen table

I was inspired for this short post by Lynda who posted a lovely photo of the view from her desk. She mentions the banana trees on her wonderful African horizon, something that I miss since we left Tanzania over 14 years ago, yet which is still as fresh in my memory as if it were only last week. To bring touches of the tropics into our lives in an Ireland that seems to be in a constant rainy season (to paraphrase Aslan on Narnia - here it's always raining but never summer ) we have some banana trees in our garden and another banana plant in our sunroom. As I use the kitchen table as my desk, this is the view from my laptop. It is incredibly calming to look up and see an enormous banana tree with two suckers, both sprouted since we got the plant about 2 years ago, and we delight in seeing the speed at which it grows. It has nearly reached the vaulted ceiling in the sunroom now, and I am curious to see if it will grow much taller or actually produce a flower and fruit! I know if it flowers that is the end of that plant, so in a way I hope it doesn't until the suckers are much bigger.
The first two photos show the view - standing and sitting - from my laptop

In the garden we have a number of tropical plants in a bed near the patio, just outside the back door from the sunroom. There's a hardy banana tree, again with two suckers, a plant that dies off at the first frost and starts to grow anew every summer. This year we couldn't tell if it had survived the frost and snow of the winter, as it had completely died off, so we were very pleased to see it putting up green shoots around May. The speed at which it grows thereafter is very impressive, and we live in hope of a nice purple flower and a bunch of bananas sometime in the future.

We have two palm trees in the garden and two more in pots. Even though they are hardy, we bring them indoors for the winter, as they are nice fan palms and brighten up the place. We also have various bamboo in the garden, all near the patio and house, and a row of lavender brings a bit of Provence into our lives. It might seem a bit sad and silly to try to recapture our years in Africa and Asia through the plants in the house and garden, it is a very effective way to bring back happy memories and instantly transport us to our bush shamba in Rukwa, and to the banana and coffee shambas of Kagera, near Uganda.

Indoor banana tree, grown an extra leaf in the past week; garden banana - taken today and exactly one month ago - how much it's grown! ...and spot the bamboos
To recapture another aspect of our African lives, strangely enough the Ikea bentwood chairs in the sunroom evoke our early years there just as much as do the banana plants. I wrote about our Ikea - Africa connection in my post here - quite rational, in case you might think all those years in the tropical sun has somehow fried my brain.

The beautiful capiz shell hanging lamp you see in the corner is from the Philippines, where hubby lived before we met. It had been waiting for a home for nearly 30 years before it found its niche among our jungle greenery. At night the light reflected in the glass casts a warm glow over the entire area.

From my laptop vantage point I can see our shelf of African and Asian memorabilia, each piece carrying a store of memories and places, including the Tinga-Tinga paintings which Lynda will know all about - she has even blogged on that particularly Tanzanian art form. We have many more artefacts that have no display space, and I will have to work out some kind of museum-like rotation to do justice to the Ethiopian icon paintings and Bangladeshi brassware and Lao silk wall-hangings that have yet to see daylight in this house.

Perhaps another extension is the answer as the sunroom is maxed out on memorabilia - the struggle goes on as we strive to balance desirable minimalism with an acceptable level of clutter. I hope the photos give a sense of my lovely vantage point as I write this post and browse the web.

Ethnic artefacts - paintings from Tanzania: Tinga-Tinga poster and paintings, village scene and Kilimanjaro/elephant market paintings; batik of Ugandan musical instruments; Lao pan pipes and flute, African mbira (thumb piano) and Rwandan banjo.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Barcelona - from the Bus Turístic and beyond

I already wrote here that I went to Spain last month for a short holiday to visit our son and his partner in Malgrat de Mar, a beach resort town on the Costa Maresme (which I always thought was the Costa Brava but is technically one town away from the start of the Costa Brava which goes all the way from Blanes up to the French border near Dalí's house in Cadaqués at Port Lligat). While there we met up with an old friend from my nursing days and her two teenage girls, and spent two days with them in Barcelona, doing the whole tourist thing.

Barcelona is a beautiful city with a great history and heritage. Artistically and architecturally it is probably unsurpassed in Spain, with its Gaudí buildings and the links with Miró and Picasso, and its pride in hosting the 1992 Olympic Games. I had been to Sagrada Familia, Gaudí's iconic and unfinished cathedral, and Casa Batllo and La Pedrera in a previous visit so was happy to visit new places this time. As I went to Camp Nou, the home of Barcelona Football (soccer) Club, with the kids in 2004, I didn't return this time.

We had both been intrepid travellers in the past, having backpacked all over the Subcontinent (India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka) between 1978 and 1980 when we lived and worked in Bangladesh, as well as doing Europe on Inter-Rail in our student days. So this was our first opportunity to do some sightseeing and it took us right back to our hippie trail days! As we had done all the major Indian and European cities at breakneck speed and packed in every major must-see sight in a few days back then, we didn't see why this time should be any different in Barcelona. Hence our plan to pack in as much as possible in the few days we had together.

To see Barcelona when time is limited, there is probably no better way than to take the ubiquitous Bus Turístic, the open-topped buses that ply the streets from morning to night. There are 3 colour-coded routes, red, blue and green, and at €27 for a 2-day ticket it is pretty good value. We both spent about 5 hours going on a recce on all 3 routes just to get a feel for the city and a sense of orientation, flagging what we would revisit over the few days.

We spent an afternoon at Tibidabo, the mountain to the north of Barcelona that makes a natural city boundary, and tried out some of the various rides in the amusement park. This park is not at all glitzy or Disney-esque, but has been around for years and has simple carousel rides and a 1929 white-knuckle ride - sedate by todays' rollercoaster standards - on a plane that goes out over the clifftop, a thrill at the time when airtravel was not the everyday cattletruck experience that it has become. We went to the top of the church of Sagrat Cor (Sacred Heart) where for €2 a lift takes you to the roof and you can walk further up to the statue on the top. The views were spectacular and I could see Montserrat where I had been a few times in previous years. That is a monastery atop a rocky outcrop - the serrated mountain or Montserrat - and is another great day trip about an hour from Barcelona.

To get to Tibidabo you have to get the Tramvia Blau (a lovely old wooden tram) and a funicular railway to the top. These are always good fun, although the funicular at Montserrat is much steeper and vertigo-inducing. Tibidabo features in the film Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which I have yet to see, and the city is capitalising on the connections. My first encounter with Tibidabo was in The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón where a lot of the action takes place, and as that is set in the pre-Civil War days it shows how long the park has been a Barcelona attraction, pre-dating tourism and somehow making it more real than theme parks and interpretive centres.

We spent a pleasant few hours in El Poble Espanyol, a Folk Park that was built for the 1929 international exhibition and should have been dismantled but was left there as it was so popular. It showcases house types from all over Spain, and is a really tranquil oasis in Montjuic, the mountain on the coastal side of Barcelona, which also housed the Olympic Stadium, now the home of Espanyol football club, Barca's nemesis. We took a short cable car ride to Castell Montjuic, a fortress where Catalans were executed during the Civil War for opposing Franco, now housing a military museum, which has amazing views over the port, and we took another cable car across the bay, from Miramar on Montjuic, over the port and harbour, to the Blue Flag beach of San Sebastian. This is my kind of scary ride, as I don't do white-knuckle park rides, and being suspended in a glass box 80 metres above ground and sea is quite enough thrill for me.

This cable car also features in the climactic closing sequence of The Angel's Game, Carlos Ruiz Zafón's new book, which I read on this holiday. His books are a bit too much magical realism for me, but they evoke Barcelona beautifully, and for this they are perfect location books. I have read Antony Beevor's seminal History of the Spanish Civil War and Giles Tremlett's The Ghosts of Spain on previous Spanish holidays. These books, along with George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia are must-reads for anyone interested in some background history on Barcelona and Catalan nationalism and where it all fits in today's Spain.

Another wonderful place is Parc Guell, which Gaudí also built but like the Sagrada Familia, never finished. While Gaudí is loved now as an incredibly talented maverick artist, he was probably too avant-garde for most of his patrons or their wives. This may be why Casa Mila (La Pedrera) was controversial for having no right angles or corners as well as breaching city planning laws, and along with Parc Guell has more curves than a Hollywood starlet. We wandered all over the park and posed on the famous curvilinear tiled bench atop the doric columned hall, which was to be the market.

Placa Catalunya
at the top of the Ramblas, the tree-lined main drag in Barcelona, is a good jumping off spot for soaking up the atmosphere of the city. We wandered around there both evenings, went shopping in La Boqueria market, and the old city or Barri Gotic, enjoying the nocturnal buzz of street jugglers and mime artists and onto the Rambla de Mar, the Boardwalk on the waterfront. The Ramblas is notorious for pickpockets and inflated prices, which we found out when a mediocre meal of tapas and paella on a terrace there cost twice what we had expected or would have paid back on the Costa.

Two days was nowhere near enough to do justice to Barcelona but it was terrific to spend some time with an old friend and catch up on the years, and the Bus Turístic was the way to go; definitely to be recommended to anyone planning a break in this lovely Mediterranean city.

To see all the photos from my holiday, click on the Picasa slide show on the sidebar - Spain 2009 - and enjoy the journey with me!