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September 15th 2012
Published: September 15th 2012
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Such a beautiful horizon


Like a jewel in the sun’

Freddie Mercury got it right; though the written words do not have the famous “Barrrrrrrcelonaaaaaaaa” accompaniment. Landing in Barcelona and experiencing the heat, the sun, the blue sky, and the skyline is truly spectacular. I had a few memories from my previous trip to Barcelona in 1990 but I had many more from watching the 1992 Olympics. You could never tire of looking at the Barcelona horizon and if anything sums it up it was the Diving competition from those Olympics where the competitors seemingly floated over the city as they completed their dives; no indoor pool will ever beat that atmosphere. We spent a great deal of time high up in the Montjuïc area, which looks out over the harbour and gives the most fantastic of views. At the highest point is Montjuïc Castle, a bastion that has large WW2 guns still facing out to sea. We walked from our hotel up to the top via Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, past the 1929 constructed Estadi Olímpic, through the 1992 legacy parks and Place d’Europe, and onwards near the Botanical Gardens. I must admit that tourists were at a premium on the pavements – most take a bus, drive, or better still use the cable car that travels up the city side of the hill. We felt comfortable in what we were doing if not that comfortable in what we were wearing. I had also overlooked telling Narelle on my walk the day before I had taken a wrong turn and ended up climbing a section of scrubland, which for all my knowledge could have been a Spanish Mafia dumping ground, so I had given her the map.

It is free to enter the Olympic Stadium and even after 20 years it is one of the most popular attractions in the city. When I visited in 1990 you could only look through a gate and imagine what it was to look like for the Games. Today you can walk inside, buy a beer, sit above the track and soak in the atmosphere – if that had been the case in ’90 Kent, Blake and I may have still been there. On first impressions it is quite small and does not compete with the 100,000 seat capacity Nou Camp, home of FC Barcelona. It may be the last Olympic Stadium that has uncovered seats in a real throwback to old time stadiums; it is from the same era of the LA Coliseum, which hosted the 1984 Olympics and has the same type of simple layout. In a nice touch they have left the Olympic cauldron high above the entrance – who will forget the archer “lighting the flame”. The entire Olympic area is fantastic and a great arena for future generations to develop and aspire for greatness, where have I heard that message in the past few weeks? The only sad sight was the diving arena. It had been built for one thing and on any other day just it does not seem quite right. The actual pools are in fabulous condition but the surrounds need some TLC, which should be coming soon as the 2013 FINA World Games will be held in Barcelona and the unrivalled Piscina Municipal de Montjuïc will be used once again.

Our hotel was very central and we could easily move about the city from it. When we arrived they had kindly upgraded our room for no apparent reason other than they wanted to. The receptionist even asked us if this was OK. We took it and found out that the upgraded room was massive and was also closer to the roof top pool, which we used every day. Our first piece of reading in the hotel was the warnings in regards pickpockets. Apparently if pickpocketing was an Olympic sport then the Romanian imports in Barcelona would clean up – who knows if there is a stand down period to compete if you have represented another country. Basically if you are a tourist you should not look like a tourist, never consult a map in public, carry very little money and hide everything. They even give tips on techniques that may get you – the “Ronaldinho” technique uses the style of his goal celebrations and your wallet goes missing as a stranger hugs you in the street claiming you are an old friend. We were lucky as we never saw any of this or even felt threatened as we wandered the Red Light district after dinner one night. We did however see thousands of tourists who looked like tourists, held maps, held wallets full of cash, and bags and cameras around their shoulders. My only explanation for the lack of perceived pickpocketing action was that the pickpockets had an away fixture this summer and were holed up in London for the Olympic pickings.

With that advice on-board we wandered to pickpocket central Las Ramblas along with the other 35,000 people who stroll this street every hour. We toured the famous Gaudi inspired monument La Sagrada Família, which is still working towards its finishing date of 2026; some 144 years after construction began. I toured it in 1990 and looked over it again on this visit. It really is the most stunning of buildings and nothing that we have visited in the previous 4 months comes close to matching it in construction styles or beauty. They will have one of the great parties in 2026 when it’s finally topped off. We meandered through the Gothic Quarter and sat watching the world go by outside a café in a small lane; sat in the square early evening and enjoyed tapas (after securing our bag to the table and putting my ‘phone in a pocket on the instructions of the waiter); went to the top of the old bullfighting arena, which is now a shopping mall with the original façade surrounding it and a series of cafés above that give the most panoramic of views. I could not fault Barcelona and really enjoyed our time there. Yes, they have economic problems and a high unemployment rate – at nearly 24% the highest in the industrial world and a staggering 53% rate for ages 16-24; shops and businesses are closed but they still look after their very important future commodity, their tourists. It was certainly a great precursor to our next destination.

After our short but enjoyable stay in Barcelona we had an even shorter experience on the plane to Menorca. It takes all of 35 minutes to fly to Mahon and that means Kindle time is at a premium; in fact I managed three pages before the seatbelt signs went back on and we began our descent. It is a stunning flight over the sea and we had a great view of Majorca as we got closer to our destination. It was after 6pm when we arrived but the heat hit us straight away – we were also overdressed as we had put on our heavier clothes to lighten the weight in our bags. The locals call Mahon by the name Mao and this is where we caught up with friends from Shropshire, Richard and Ann; they retired to Menorca nearly 10 years ago and have enjoyed all that the island community provides and they were looking forward to sharing a small slice of it with us. They had visited us in NZ last year during their magnificent Round-the-World in 80 Days trip.

The population of Menorca is approximately 90000, which swells in the high season by three times that figure. We were visiting in the last weeks of the season and for what would be Mahon’s fiesta weekend. It is an island steeped in history with prehistoric sites, Roman ruins, castle ruins, and a British influence left over from a period of British rule in the 1700s. The island sits surrounded by the most vivid blue sea and is dotted with numerous settlements, all built up with white walled houses and terracotta tiles roofs. Richard and Ann chose their house with the desire to be able to sit down at the end of any day and watch the sun set in the West; they have fulfilled that desire and on our first night we were able to share in that view while enjoying a glass or two of pomada the local drink of Xoriguer gin and lemonade. Around their town of Binibèquer there are stunning bays and beaches with the clearest water I have swum in – we joined the morning ritual of swimming and feeding the fish with bread. The fish seem to have got used to it and are very friendly and were seemingly unworried by our presence. It is pretty easy to swim here year round with less than 50 days of rain in a year.

The 6th – 9th September of each year is Mahon’s fiesta to celebrate Festes de la Mare de Deu de Gracia and we were lucky enough to arrive with many others from the mainland to experience it. There is quite a programme of events from markets, musical acts, art exhibitions, which are all accompanied with a good amount of drink. In fact the local gin is very popular and available everywhere and in a complete reversal of the supply of Pimms for the Jubilee weekend in the UK, the gin is heavily discounted in the stores. We attended three events on the fiesta weekend. Firstly we went to the ‘Jaleo’ where many of the 150 registed claxers (riders) paraded their horses through the town. ‘Jaleo’ translates loosely to commotion or pandemonium and that was exactly what we got. I have been reading the debate in regards new rules for the Santa Parades in Auckland and the fact that lollies can no longer be thrown, or water guns squirted and have no idea how the people involved in those decisions back home would cope if they saw ‘Jaleo’; perhaps they would be jabbering messes in the corner. The horses involved are adorned with ribbons and expertly paraded around the town. They are basically on top and amongst the thousands of people that attend and their ‘party trick’ is to do the ‘bot’, which is when the rider gets the horse to walk on its hind legs. As they rear up the locals rush in to try and touch the horse’s heart – if you do it is considered good luck. We were lucky enough to be at the Town Hall steps where they entered and immediately reared up above us, it is quite staggering how good they were and how common sense amongst the crowd exists. No one was hurt or pushed aside – it was allowed to happen. As the horses rear up there is shouting and cheering of encouragement, which spurs the riders to go as far as they can. One rider must have gone twenty metres with front legs aloft. All the while a band plays and the crowd sing “Volem Vi”, which translates to ‘we want wine’. It was like nothing else I have attended – happy, laughing, cheering people all having the best of time all in very close proximity to each other. The only safety message I saw was that the event was not that suitable for the infirm or children – fat lot of use that message was. Children loved it and I saw two people in wheelchairs.

The ‘Jaleo’ concluded with the horses and riders entering the square and continuing to show off their equestrian skills. They turned circles, reared up and seemingly conjured up the image that they were dancing amongst the masses. It was an incredible spectacle, which also showed that the pomada made many spectators less fearful of a horse’s hooves, kicking legs, or the whole horse falling over! We left them to it at this stage and went and ate at a wonderful outdoor restaurant overlooking one of the small harbours with fishing boats and yachts tied up alongside. However, later that night we were back amongst the horses as they raced the length of a street. It was not a street cleared of people rather the fiesta crowds just stood and talked until the horses began, and then there was a quick clearing of sorts as the horses dashed through, then just as quickly the crowds surged back onto the roads. There was no way this party was to be stopped by some horses racing – they just became part of the party! It was an incredible mix of sound with the sound of the hooves on the cobbles, the roar of the crowd, and the rush of air as they galloped past. At both events during the day the noise was deafening but nothing like the noise of the fireworks at midnight on Sunday. From an island within the harbour a twenty minute display took place with the sounds of the fireworks booming across the town and echoing off the natural amphitheatre. Most of the town, be they young or old, had come out to watch and it was quite an event and a real end to the fiesta for another year.

Just like Ros and Mac have done in France, Richard and Ann have a close circle of friends who live locally. We were lucky enough to be taken by their neighbour Robert on a harbour cruise on his boat. Robert displayed none of his eighty years as he skippered the boat up the channel and ensured that we evaded the Barcelona ferry. We got a first-hand view of the inner harbour and the castles and fortifications that line the cliffs, including a fortress situated high on the cliffs at the entrance to the harbour that has 15” Vickers guns in place. We cruised close to El Larareto the quarantine island that over many centuries was used to stop infectious diseases from reaching Menorca; millions of people were shipped there and sadly not all of them left. Many of the ships and boats they arrived on were then towed out to sea and burnt out to cull the rats. The island was still used up until the end of WW1. The trip round to the Binibèquer was stunning and gave us a different view of Menorca – we could see small townships, solitary homes tucked away, a huge house owned by the UK stair lift magnate, and Richard Branson’s house, which juts out into the harbour and is accessed by a causeway. Although we saw none it is a celebrities getaway with Steven Spielberg, the Spanish Royal Family and Branson taking holidays there. I am sure they have no troubles with excess baggage allowances or Spanair styled collapses. To compare what we had seen from the water we went for a drive up the island’s largest ‘mountain’ El Tor, which ‘towers’ 358m above sea level. On a clear day you can see all four corners of the island, we struggled with the haze and what looked like threatening skies but it was still the most wonderful of views. At the summit is the Sanctuary of the Verge del Toro where we stood in a chapel built at the highest point – a highest point that thankfully is accessible by car. It is one of the great roads up and it was no surprise to hear that pro-cyclists head to Menorca to train on the El Toro climb.

On our final night in Menorca we ate a duck, chicken and prawn paella cooked and prepared by Richard. Robert and Diane came to share in the paella after getting back from taking the boat out. The paella was accompanied by some chilli salsa made by Ann, which was amazing and had quite a kick. All their homemade produce, be it the vegetables from the garden, the orange jam, the black plum gin, the orange gin, or my favourite the piccalilli (YUM!) were well received by us. One of the funny stories they told us is that people like their marmalade so much that they can arrive home and find bags of oranges on their steps – a not too subtle hint to make some, and quickly! Richard’s homemade Pork Pie has also become a firm favourite amongst many on the island. With their tours and admin work with Menorca Britannia, Richard’s photography, their quest to go somewhat self-sufficient, working on their magnificent garden, a real desire to enjoy life and what it throws at them they have a very special place on this planet. We were treated to a wonderful weekend in a place that we may have missed if we did not have such good friends there; we are thrilled they suggested visiting. We may have only been there for 2 ½ days but it was an effort to tear ourselves away – I will miss the early morning swim, the local pomada, watching the madness of a true Spanish fiesta, and more importantly miss the hospitality of Richard and Ann. They are wonderful ambassadors for Menorca and I can only recommend the apartment that they rent out above the beach – contact me for details!

Roll on London!

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