Monday, September 26, 2011

Barcelona Diary (Sep 2011) Bullfighting

Yesterday ( Sep 25, 2011) more than 600 years of history came to an end in Barcelona as the city hosted its last ever bullfight.  It delights me to know that after this, no Spanish fighting bull or "toro bravo" as the breed is known, will be killed in the name of sport, art or tradition again, at least in Barcelona.

The Catalonians are understandably proud to be the first region in Spain to ban bullfighting.   Supporters of the sport claim that they (Catalonia) did it just to have one more thing to differentiate them from the rest of Spain, but activists insisted that it was voted out because it was a barbaric sport and had no place in an enlightened society.

Above:  Barcelona's only remaining Bullfight arena, the Plaza de Toros Monumental. A very striking building made of bricks in the Mujedar (Moor) and Byzantine style.  The ban will only affect "bullfighting" and not other sports in which the bull is involved, like "correbou" where the public chase bulls through narrow streets, or "bouembolat" where festivities involve attaching mini fire torches to the bull's horns.

Correbou (not my own picture)

Bouembolat :  is a tradition that was first started in the Valencia region of Catalonia.  In days of old it was not uncommon for people to be fatally charged by bulls as they walked along poorly-lit streets.   To prevent accidents like that from happening, it was decided that bulls would be fitted with fire torches and that way, not only would they light up the streets but it would also warn people to their presence.  Nowadays the lights aren't necessary but the tradition continues. Photo courtesy: Josep Llouis Sellart

Arenas de Barcelona, with its beautiful neo-mujedar architecture, used to be a bullfighting arena but has now been converted into a shopping plaza which houses an excellent Desigual store.  For the uninitiated, Desigual is a Spanish clothing store, known for their colourful, ultra-urban fashion with  their headquarters and flagship store in Barcelona.  More on Desigual when I post about shopping in Barcelona.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Barcelona (Sep 2011) Gaudi's Casa Batllo

What's the first thought that comes to your mind when I mention Barcelona?  If you thought "Gaudi" you would be with the majority for Gaudi is synonymous with Barcelona.  Everywhere you go in the city, you're never too far away from a Gaudi casa or sculpture. Infact, the road we lived on in Barcelona, Las Ramblas, has several little Gaudi sculptures, photos of which I will include later.

Gaudi's work, which has been described as "Catalan Modernisme" is supremely original.  Apparently he was inspired by a nationalistic search for a romantic medieval past and there are elements of medieval and surreal styles in a lot of his work.

Below are pictures of Casa Batllo.  I fell in love with this Casa the minute I laid eyes on it because it looked like a house out of a fairytale. Later when I was reading up on the house I discovered that this apartment block was designed to symbolise the legend of St. George killing the dragon, whose scaly back arches above the main facade.

Facade: It is said that when Salvador Dali saw the curving walls and windows of Casa Batllo he observed them as "representing waves on a stormy day".  Because the spindly columns were sometimes compared to tibias, Casa Batllo was also called "House of Bones"

Dining Room: The bulbous forms in the ceiling of the Batllo family's dining room are thought to represent the splash caused by a drop of water.

The Main Drawing Room:  "One side of this room is formed by stained-glass windows looking out over the Passeig de Gracia. The ceiling plaster is moulded into a spiral and the doors and window framed undulate playfully."
The interior skylight at Casa can't tell from this photo but the blue gets more intense as you travel upwards.  This is so that the intensity of light is equal no matter which floor you go to. Gaudi was a genius!

Attics:  Don't the arches give one the sensation of being inside the skeleton of a large animal? 

Some people say Gaudi created Casa Batllo after reading Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea" and wanted the house to appear as though it were under water.  In this case, the mosaic pattern could easily pass for a colony  of brightly-coloured molluscs.

One of the most talked-about features of the house is the Dragon's Back and Cross.  The Cross was made in Mallorca but was damaged in transit . Gaudi apparently liked the cracked facade and refused to send it back for repairs. 
Another view of the cross but this time with the chimneys.  Chimneys were usually an unseen, hidden part of the house but Gaudi liked to show them off.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Barcelona Diary (Sep 2011) The Catalans, Barcelona Harbour and Montjuic Cemetery

Today I'm going to take a break from the Paris Diaries and visit Barcelona (by special request.)

Everyone's heard of the friendly, fun-loving, fiesta-mad Spaniard so it is with great excitement that we boarded our plane for Barcelona, but as we found out in Paris, stereotyping can be dangerous and misleading. The Parisian, we found out to our relief, is not rude as everyone, including travel writers, would have us believe, but it was time to put the Spanish people to the test!

I guess our first mistake was to think that all Spanish people are alike.  Spain is made up of many distinct regions and Barcelona is the capital of the Catalonia region of Spain and thus home to the Catalans who do not like being called "Spanish".   They have a distinct culture and language and following the death of Franco, the region was granted political autonomy by the new democratic government.  Going by the Spanish stereotypes it would be safe to say that Barcelona is probably the least Spanish city in the country.

Sadly, the Catalans do not get very good press in the rest of Spain. The Spanish people see them as being fiercely nationalistic, mean and unfriendly.  When we asked a Catalan friend to explain why this may be so, he said that Catalans were a reserved people who took time to make friends and that reservedness is often mistaken for being unfriendly.  He seemed to think the Spanish habit of embracing anyone and everyone as a new best friend was tacky and superficial! :)

We weren't there long enough to make an accurate observation on the Catalan character but I will say they seemed very reserved - they would speak only when spoken to and at times seemed rather abrupt, but their dedication to style, looks, aesthetics and so on is admirable!    Barcelona is, without a doubt, a confident, progressive city - one that preserves its past proudly but which is also tirelessly self-inventive.  If you read its history and observe its architecture it's plain to see this is a region of proud, confident people who are not afraid to think outside the box.  I'm going to post pics of some of the buildings we saw around Barcelona and you can judge for yourselves.

The drive from the airport into the city was quite interesting with the thriving port on the right and the beautiful  Montjuic cemetery in the hills on the left.   The cemetery seemed to run for acres and acres (I read later that it was 57 acres of  cypress forest) and is a resting place for some of Barcelona's most elite citizens and also a fabulous place wherein to observe architecture of many different styles and periods.  However, what's challenging is the lack of information on this cemetery in most of the guide books.  Turns out the Catalans don't like to take tourists to this place because they consider cemeteries morbid and the idea that a cemetery can be a tourist attraction is rather distasteful to them.  Still, if one has the time, I think it might be a great place to visit for the art (the mausoleums are truly wonderful) and also for the beautiful sea views. Unfortunately I only saw fascinating glimpses of it from the taxi.

For more photos of the Montjuic Cemetery go here

Today Barcelona has a truly awesome waterfront, which wasn't always the case. Until a few years ago, the city had turned their backs on the water (literally) with all the development taking place away from the sea.  As a result, the beaches were grimy and areas of bad repute and the harbours were home to cargo and container trade only.

Over the past two decades dramatic changes have taken place along the waterfront.  Cargo ships have been moved to the south of the city and old dockyards have been given facelifts and now serve as promenades or parks.  Beaches have been cleaned up and landscaped.   

Beach in Barceloneta.

Barceloneta was once a scrappy fisherman's village but it is now furnished with landscaped beaches, boardwalks, terraced outdoor cafes specializing in seafood, fountains and so on. I took this picture just to get a glimpse of the original Barceloneta.

Standing on a hill in Montjuic with the harbour behind me.  Cruise ships are a common sight at the harbour here.

Another view of the harbour
One of the nicest things to do in Barcelona is to grab a funicular from Montjuic and take an aerial tour of the city. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Paris Diary (Aug-Sep) Page 3 Grand Mosque of Paris

It's possible that one of Paris' best kept secrets is its Grand Mosque.  Open up any guide to Paris and you will be floored and impressed with write-up's on the Louvre, the Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower and so on, and so should you be because they are marvellous sights, but after our trip to Paris my family and I have unanimously decided the Grand Mosque is a "must-see".

Built in the Hispano-Moorish style this mosque is a splendid showcase of North African architecture which stands out even more because it is planted among rows of French-style buildings.  The minaret is about a 100ft high.

You have to pay to enter the Mosque but it's all so worth it. I could star at this intricate mosaic work for hours.

This is the entrance to the Courtyard, Hammam and Tea shop.

The Courtyard, with its fig trees, fountains, hookahs and mint tea, is the perfect place to relax.

It all began with the tea shop selling North African delicacies like Turkish delight, almond cakes, baklava and so on.  The tea place got so popular that a full-fledged restaurant serving Couscous, Tagine and so on, followed suit very quickly.


Some fried chicken, Tagine and Couscous with a glass of very sweet, very nice green mint tea. Bon Appetit.

The only off-putting thing about the visit was the number of beggar women outside the Mosque. I guess it's the same of any place of worship, but these women, many of them in sunglasses to protect their identity (?) were a little intimidating!!! 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Parisian Chic: A Style Guide by Ines de la Fressange

 As a woman preparing for a trip to Paris one of my most invaluable reads was Ines de la Fressange's "Parisian Chic: A Style Guide".  Parisian chic is legendary and so is their intolerance for sartorial sins.  I didn't want my vacation getting off on the wrong foot so I invested in Fressange's book and what a good decision that turned out to be.  Fressange,  Karl Lagerfield's muse and supermodel in the 80's, lays out in a very easy-to-read manner all the DOs and DON'Ts of Parisian style. Among her many invaluable tips are these ones:

1)  Never look rich. Bling, glitter and logos are absolute no-no's when it comes to the Parisian woman.  She is uninterested in sporting labels just for the sake of it. Her definition of luxury?  "A brand that guarantees good taste, rather than an all-too-obvious price tag.   

2) Like the Parisian, be a fashion icon in your own right, worship no idols.  "The secret of good style is to feel good in what you wear."

3) NO Fishnet T-shirts, flip-flops, running shoes and Hello Kitty nightgowns. 

4) And don't you ever wear bras with a transparent bra straps or you will make a Parisian woman's toes curl with disgust. A stylish, visible bra is far matter how big or small your bust, not wearing a bra is always a mistake.

5) Forget Botox and don't dress like a teenager - trying to look young is the quickest way to look old!  

6)  The Little Black Dress"The little black dress is not simply an item of clothing, it's a concept. It's abstract, it's universal — which means there's one that's perfect for everyone ... Today the Parisian has several little black dresses, just as she has several pairs of jeans: each is a variation on a theme."

7) Here are Inez's 7 key pieces for a magnificent wardrobe (print and paste to your closet door like I did)

a. Men's Blazer (fitted, fitted, fittted)
b. Trench Coat
c.Navy V-neck sweater (pref. cashmere)
d. Tank Top
e. Little Black Dress
f. Jeans (straight-leg are the safest)
g.Leather Jacket 

Ines de le Fressange

9) And finally, the GOLDEN RULE:  Never follow convention; never be bland; never neglect yourself.

Here are my impressions of the Parisienne:

She is not good-looking in the way we have come to define good-looking  - symmetrical features, big eyes, full lips, defined nose, high cheekbones and perfect teeth.   But when you see her you just know this is a woman who is confident in the way she looks and doesn't need to resort to trends to be considered attractive.  She possesses a certain something - call it an innate style if you will - that always sets her apart from everyone else.

In my observations I found the Parisienne to be  conservative by nature.  No ultra mini skirts or low necklines for her and the make-up is very subtle too. She is not fond of artificial talons, infact, gel nails which are so popular here are considered vulgar in Paris.  She wears her nails short and usually varnished in a pale pink colour. Natural is in and perhaps that is why you don't find Parisians rushing off to get lasered and botoxed. Infact, in the time that I was there I didn't come across a single clinic for cosmetic surgery, I'm not saying they don't exist, just saying they aren't that popular or lucrative perhaps.

The women (and men) do like to be slim though...if I were to wager a guess I'd say the average dress size would between a 4 or a 6. Apparently  they don't like to work out (they call it an 'American pastime', but they love to walk and cycle.  They are also very heavy smokers and appear to start young.

Oh and how they love their scarves!!!   There were three items of clothing I saw almost every Parisian don - a scarf, a blazer and a pair of ballerines.  They seem to favour vintage scarves and each woman has her own favourite way of tying it.  Olivier Magny who wrote "Stuff Parisians Like" said this about Parisians and their scarves, 

" The choice of scarf is a determining social qualifyer of both style and 'class sociale'.  So is the way someone chooses to tie his scarf. Parisians know their scarf will characterize them, identify them, position them, rank them, classify them, distinguish them. There can therefore be no messing around  when it comes to choosing a scarf" pg 217.

Ofcourse, my observations here are just generalizations, meant simply to provide a general snapshot of the beautiful women of my new favourite city.  Sure, there are exceptions, but not too many so if you're a Parisian who doesn't enjoy wearing a scarf, or ballet flats for shoes, I'd love to hear from you! :)


Paris Diary (Aug-Sep 2011) Page 2 The Seine and the Notre Dame

 When anyone says the word "Seine", the first image that comes to mind is "bridge", and that's because no less than 37 functional bridges can be found over this beautiful river.  The best way of admiring these bridges, some of which are extremely ornate and beautiful is to take a cruise down the river in a Batobus. If possible try to do it at night so you can see the "City of Light" in all her glory.

One of the oldest bridges in Paris "Pont de Neuf"

The beautiful Alexandre Pont III Bridge (above and below) is perhaps the most ornately decorated of all the Paris bridges.  The beautiful detail took my breath away.  The bridge was built to commemorate the friendship between France and Russia and was named after Tsar Alexander

"Love padlocks" on the Pont des Arts Bridge (one that links the Notre Dame to the Left Bank).  Each of these locks bears the name of a couple in was really fun to see some of the names and read the messages of love eternal! :)  When your river boat passes under this bridge you will be asked to make a wish and to kiss the person to the right of you....apparently your wish will come true if this is your first visit to Paris.  Needless to say I did it!!!  

I once read that every Parisian is in a relationship.  To be single is to be a loser. I guess that tells me every Parisian is an eternal romantic...perhaps that also will explain why it is so common to see so many kissing couples all around the city!

 Getting ready for the night cruise on the River Seine...Paris is absolutely gorgeous at night with just about every building all lit up.

La Conciergerie: The building where Queen Marie-Antoinette was imprisoned while she awaited execution. 

The Notre Dame at night and a group of Parisians spending their evening on the Seine. Look
to the left of the picture and you will see one of them waving to us.  Little groups of people hang out
by the Seine all through the day but it is at night when the area comes to life with little bonfires, guitar playing, cook outs....we even saw a Tango dance competition taking place.  This is where all of Paris seems to come to for a little R &R.

The Notre Dame from the Pont des Arts Bridge.  Of all the buildings in Paris I was most excited to see the Notre Dame ( I suppose you could blame Victor Hugo and his "Hunchback of Notredame" for that). The day we visited this ornate church was a very rainy day. The sky was perpetually overcast and grey and the colours of the pictures reflect the weather...sadly.

The famous South "Rose Window" facade of the Notre Dame...the darn thing is 43ft high!

Notre Dame detail...can you spot some of the gargoyles?  These gargoyles are actually rainspouts!  Stay tuned for the gargoyles made famous by the Hunchback of Notredame.

Voila, here are the famous Notre Dame gargoyles (some of them at least). I must be honest and tell you this not my pic (courtesy Euro travelogue) but I borrowed it because what is a photo blog about the Notre Dame if you don't have gargoyles in them? I could have had my own picture if I was prepared to walk up the 387 steps to the top of the South Bell tower but after walking 10 kms all around Paris on a daily basis,believe me I had no energy for the climb.  They are beautiful, aren't they? The next time I will get up close and personal with them!

Well, this concludes page 2 of my Paris Diary.  I hope you're enjoying the walkabout through Paris with me.  Most of the photos were taken by my daughter but with two different cameras. One was a regular 'point and click' and the other, a Nikon D5000.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Paris Diary Aug-Sep 2011 (Page One)

This year I thought I'd do something different with my vacation photos. Instead of cramming them into an album and posting them to FB which is what I usually do, how much better to write a blog post and post some of them here instead.

Like most of us do, I read a lot of books in preparation for our trip to Paris and each one left me feeling more despondent than the other.  No, it wasn't the food and it certainly wasn't the fashion that had me troubled...what left me quaking in my boots was dealing with the Parisian!!!  You see, in almost all the books I read, the Parisian was made to sound like an evil character from a Grimm's fairytale.  Over and over I'd read about their rudeness, their impatience with foreigners, their agile ability to jump queues and then pretend to be deaf when you protest.  Also, I wasn't looking forward to shopping in Paris because I had been warned that once you touch something in their exquisitely-laid out stores you may as well have bought it.  I wasn't even looking forward to eating in one of their drool-worthy restaurants because the rudeness of their waiters is legendary.  However, the appeal of the land of Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Claude Monet was strong enough to overcome any trepidation I might have had an off I went, the brave little soul that I was!

As we arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport I noticed a plane-load of chic, scarf-wearing French students who were apparently just returning from a weekend trip to London.  They seemed no different from teenagers anywhere else in the world...or so I thought, but as I continued to observe I realized they seemed friendlier and more touchy-feely than most other groups of teenagers that I have watched, and when they were ready to part ways, all the French boys gently kissed the girls three times on their cheeks and said goodbye. Ofcourse, this is the City of Love, and so I shouldn't be surprised, but hadn't I read that Parisians were impatient and rude, I was certainly seeing no sign of that here. 

I booked our family into an apartment in the heart of the Marais district.  This was the first time we were opting for an apartment over a hotel and I was both nervous and excited.  Most apartment buildings in the heart of the city are built around a courtyard the entrance to which is usually a big brightly-coloured door on the main road like in the picture below.

I cannot recommend apartment living in Paris nearly's the closest thing you'll ever feel to being a real Parisian!

I'm glad I chose the Marais arrondisement to live in....we found it to be a chic, fashionable district with lots of upmarket clothing stores, parks, boulangeries and restaurants.  It is known to the center of Parisian gay life and is also home to one of the oldest Jewish Quarters in Paris.

Rue de Rosiers, in the Jewish Quarter of Le Marais is well worth a visit for its marvellous falafel shops. As you walk along the famous cobblestone paths of Rue du Rosiers, you will be called out to by the falafel shop owners asking you to taste their wares.  Oh, and speaking of cobblestones, the French seem to love them, they're EVERYWHERE, even their new roads seem to be built like the roads of medieval Paris. How do the women of Paris walk these roads in their high heels? I tried and failed miserably!

At a Cafe/Brasserie in La Marais.  Sitting at a cafe with a cafe creme and a brioche watching people as they go by is probably one of the nicest things to do in Paris and believe me, with the amount of walking we did, I made sure to make a cafe stop once every 3-4 hours. Wish the coffee was worth the stop though. We've travelled almost everywhere in Europe and take it from me, Paris has the worst coffee!!!

The Fred Perry store in the Marais.  I took a picture of the store simply because it had at the window the clothing line that Amy Winehouse had  finished designing for them just before her unfortunate demise.  Seeing her designs in the window was a poignant reminder of the great talent she was.

Shopping in Paris is a great experience and NO you do not have to buy anything you touch!  This is one city where window shopping is a real treat because people go to great lengths to make their display windows fun, quirky and a work of art!  By law shops are required to display the prices of everything displayed at their windows, so it's easy to get a sense of whether you want to step inside or not. The picture (above) is of the flagship Louis Vuitton store on the Champs Elysses.  I did step inside only to be shocked at the number of Chinese customers!!!  They seem to be on a buying spree in Paris. I also saw a whole lot of them lining up to buy Longchamps bags at Galeries Lafayette.

But don't let your fondness for window shopping stop you from going into the department stores.  Here we are the Galeries has got to be one of the most beautiful department stores I have ever been in, so eat your heart out Dubai, your malls don't hold a candle to this classy store!  And, surprise, surprise, the shopping was pretty good too (price wise).  Galeries has an excellent epicerie on the topmost floor and after you have bought French mustard, pate and bon bons, you can walk up to the roof top terrace for a breathtaking view of Paris!

Oooh, that lovely Belle Epoque style!  Apparently the store was modeled after a Middle-Eastern bazaar.  Wish I had more details. 

The beautiful dome at Galeries's truly worth a visit.

And  the lovely view from the roof top.  Spot the Eiffel Tower in the distance.

This is the first page from my Paris Diary 2011....I hope to have a few more pages before we head for Barcelona, I hope you will stay with me.