Tag Archives: travel

Barcelona streetlife: Carrer Baluard, Barceloneta (Metropolitan)

Barceloneta Market, Barcelona

Carrer del Baluard in Barceloneta is the sort of place you might once have expected to see tattooed sailors lurching out of bars, grubby-aproned fishwives gossiping as they thwacked the heads off merluza and children playing in the street under the watchful eyes of the neighbourhood matriarchs. It’s still a bit like that now.

Even today, there’s a strong feeling of community in this working-class area of fishermen and port workers, despite it having undergone a massive transformation since the city started preparing for the 1992 Olympic Games.

Running parallel to Passeig de Joan de Borbó, C/Baluard cuts through the heart of Barceloneta alongside the fancy new market building in Placa de la Font and on towards the sea.

Pilar Montolio at Can Maño (no.12) – a raucous and popular tapas bar – has seen it all. She grew up among the bubbling pots of home-made stew and frying fish in the kitchen of Can Maño, which once belonged to her grandmother. She now runs the place with husband, Francesco and dad, Bernardo. They serve a regular crowd of old-timers, office workers and tourists. “Barceloneta has changed a lot” she says. “Flats are small here and people move out to get more space. There used to be more locally-owned businesses like this one but now there are Pakistani-owned supermarkets on almost every corner.”

Down the road at Floristería Lola (no.44), Agustina Perez and Carmen Saez are happy with the changes that have been made to the area. “The square is much prettier now and there’s even a Michelin starred restaurant (Els Fogons de la Barceloneta – Placa de la Font)” says Agustina. “But to honest, she continues in a conspiratorial whisper, “I like the food in La Cova Fumada.”

Sardines, La Cova, Fumada, Barcelona

And who doesn’t. Lovers of this spit and sawdust tapas bar at no.56 want desperately to keep it a secret but can’t help enthusing about it. Even Josep María Solé, the owner of La Cova Fumada is happy to keep it hush-hush. The bar has been in the same family for 65 years but they still haven’t got round to getting a sign above the door. His mum (a good but strict boss we’re told) is responsible for churning out plate after plate of succulent sardines, freshly-caught fish and the bar’s signature dish, la bomba. Made from crushed potato and mince meat, the bombas are wrapped in breadcrumbs, deep fried and then smothered in fiery garlic and chilli sauce.

Next door is Comestibles Sant Carles (no.58). A veritable haven for foodies, the airy shop sells healthy food, wine and French and Italian cheeses. Their €6 take-out menú del dia is a big hit with beach-going gourmets.

A few doors down and the waist-expanding continues. New kid on the block, Eike Philipps from Germany owns the organic ice-cream shop, Rosa Canina (no.52). In partnership with his brother Reimar, this tiny Barceloneta shop is the little sister to their two stores in Berlin. Reimar – the Willy Wonker of the operation – makes the ice-cream in Germany and it’s really quite something. Made without milk, preservatives or artificial ingredients, flavours range from rich vanilla to mango lassi and raspberry with basil.

Barceloneta’s market has been around since 1884 although the current building and spacious remodelled Placa de la Font are new. Stall-holders however, have been serving the residents of C/ Baluard for years. Eva Vidal Lladó of the Martinez fish stall loves the new space. “It’s a local market” she says, stopping – as if to prove a point – to greet everyone who passes by name, “although we do get a lot of tourists popping in during the summer.”

Baluard bakery, Barcelona

Across the road from the market is Baluard (no.38). It’s only been open for three years yet many devotees claim it bakes the finest bread in the city. Owned by Anna Bellsola (who trained in Italy and France and has baking in the blood), the shop does a brisk trade in loaves, baguettes, croissants, pastries and cakes. “Bread should taste like bread” insists Anna. “We use good basic ingredients with proper yeast and bake it here on the premises.” It’s definitely not a job for the work-shy. Some of the seventeen strong team start baking at 1am and the shop is open from 8am to 9pm, 6 days a week.

A far cry from bread buns is Creart (no.3), a tattoo and piercing parlour that’s been inking skin for the last nine years. About 90% of the clientele are local and are charged anything from €50 upwards for a tattoo. According to owner Tony Ramallo, piercings aren’t as popular as they used to be but there are still some brave souls who pay good money to have metal put in some (ouch!) very private places.

Iris: objetes de regal esoterisme (no.11) isn’t the kind of place you’re likely to find on Passeig de Gràcia either. Run by a collection of friendly folk, the shop offers courses in tarot card reading, homeopathy, Bach flowers, Reiki, angel workshops and candle magic. Pop in for a browse or a chat and you may be told things you never expected to hear, like your future chances of finding love for example, or the fact that candles talk to you.

Stranger still is the extensive range of dog clothes on sale at Dog in Fashion (no. 68). Owner Rosario Hidalgo has been catering to pampered pooches for the last three years. Dogs of all shapes and sizes come in for a wash, trim and pedicure and while they wait, owners can browse the doggie boutique.

Turn right out of the shop and C/Baluard looks like any other narrow street in Barceloneta. Washing hangs from tiny flats, surfboards and bikes perch precariously on balconies and stern-looking elderly residents smoke in doorways. But 200 metres further on, the street suddenly stops and countless bronzing bodies and the never-ending blue of the Mediterranean are right there in front of you.

First published in Metropolitan magazine, July 2010

C Baluard, Barceloneta


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Barcelona blog: Benvinguts!

Barcelona modernista chemist

Barcelona: It’s been a while, but I’m back. I spent 4 years in this great city before an aching heart and itchy feet took me to the big mountain ranges and red wine of Chile. After a year in the shadow of the Andes, I returned to European shores in January to be met by a gregarious Scottish customs official, heavy snow and comforting roast dinners. I dallied for a while in Windsor (living round the corner from the Queen) before fate and a temporary contract at a magazine brought me back to the Catalan capital. Barcelona sure is one hell of a magnet.

Not much has changed. The streets and houses are still being noisily drilled. Old ladies still dye their hair burgundy. Little shops that sell nothing but coat hangers, door knockers or shower curtains are holding their own against the giant shopping malls. People are still smoking like chimneys and wearing too cool for school specs. Kids eat giant croissants in the street at 6pm. Women clean the same rectangular shaped patches of pavement in front of their buildings, swivelling their mops dry between two hands as if trying to start a fire. And tourists, prostitutes and bag-snatchers still rule the roost on La Rambla, with not a Catalan in sight until the clubs chuck out at 6am.


Barcelona’s streets are just as filthy as they once were, despite being washed day and night by an army of cleaners who wilfully hose you down when you’re wearing flip-flops. And that’s all some people wear. I’d forgotten about the naked men. I caught a glimpse of one them taking a stroll by the marina the other day, but sadly it wasn’t the guy with the tattooed speedos.

Nothing has changed on the beach either. Women whip their tops off without a moment’s hesitation, while South American men, unused to such pleasures at home, can be easily recognised by their propensity for wearing dark glasses and lying on their fronts.

Prices have shot up while I’ve been away but the bars and restaurants are still full and somehow people seem to manage. Unlike in Chile, there’s a large middle class here. The rich aren’t as well off as the wealthiest Chileans but there’s not the grinding poverty either. No one can afford to buy a flat so the theory goes that you might as well accept it and go out and have fun.

Barceloneta beach, Barcelona

One thing I never liked about Barcelona was that people didn’t smile much. It took me ages to get this, but people here just don’t feel the need to grin like fools at strangers. It can smart when you smile at someone’s cute baby or happy dog and the owner scowls back, but that’s just the way it is here and you best get used to it if you’re going to stick around. It’s simply too darn hot to be warm and fuzzy all the time and Catalans don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves – at least not unless FC Barça are playing.

As a city, Barcelona shows you affection in the same way my dad does. It doesn’t scoop you up into a big, slightly suffocating bear hug like South America would. There’s no firm English handshake and a fight to buy a round. In Barcelona you just get the equivalent of one of my dad’s shoulder squeezes and a self-consciously mumbled “aye, yer not so bad lass”.

I’ve missed it.


Filed under barcelona, blog, Travel blog

Stuff your rucksacks with pens, bras and the Economist

www.stuffyourrucksack.com puts travellers in touch with charities that need help

BBC TV presenter Kate Humble came up with the idea for stuffyourrucksack while stuck in a small Saharan village. Invited to a local school, the kids asked her how many hours it would take to travel by camel to England. Wondering out loud about how camels might cross the sea and whether they were allowed on ferries, a little arm went up: “What’s the sea?” The teacher asked her if she had a world map. Humble was humbled. If you grow-up in a land-locked country with no access to maps, books or the internet, how do you learn about the ocean? If only she’d known the school needed a map, she could easily have stuffed one in her backpack and opened up the world to a bunch of kids somewhere near Timbuktu. www.stuffyourrucksack.com was born.

The idea is simple. Small charities (or travellers who know about them) use the site to post wishlists of things they need. You check the site to see who needs what near your next destination, pack a few bits and pieces for them and then see what the organisation do when you drop them off. Travellers can feed back on the places they visit and are encouraged to keep their eyes peeled for more organisations that deserve support.

“The beauty of it is that it gives equal value both ways” says Humble. “The community benefits from something they actually really need and you get a local experience that you just can’t buy or get out of a guide book”.

Marybeth Gallagher from an after school programme in Namibia says: “The children have benefitted greatly from this website. I cannot begin to tell you how much loot people have hauled from all parts of the globe to donate to our kids. They have also come to visit and to spread the word about our work. It’s a brilliant idea!”

The site is currently getting a revamp and due for a re-launch in May. The hope is that it becomes a vast self-policing message board between travellers that extends to include more information about volunteer work. Aware that many big projects need volunteers to commit to 6 months or more, Stuffyourrucksack wants to hear from smaller organisations that would appreciate even just a few hours help as travellers are passing through town.    

To give you an idea of what you could be stuffing your backpack with, here are just a few ideas to get you started:

A doctor in Chiang Rai in Thailand needs ibuprofen

A charity that helps street kids in Guatemala needs more sleeping bags

A deaf school in Kenya wants toys

An animal hospital in Sri Lanka needs dog collars

A school in Cambodia needs English teachers (minimum 1 week)

A hospital in Malawi wants cell phones

A school in Cuba would love some musical instruments

A university in Macedonia is desperate for copies of The Economist

A school in China needs balloons

An organisation in South Africa wants your bra

And if you’re travelling across the Sahara, there’s a school out there in need of a map…

Visit www.stuffyourrucksack.com for more information and join them on Facebook.

Read the article on Matador or here.

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10 things that make Britain weird

Photo by Spratmackrel Flickr

Britain is a strange place. Especially when you’ve been out of the country for 5 years..

 1. Ice-Cream Vans

When you think about it, ice-cream vans are pretty strange. For those in the dark, ice-cream vans are trucks that drive round the neighbourhood selling Mr Whippy to young kids and they play a song from loud-speakers as they go. It’s always a really rubbish song like ‘Greensleeves’ or ‘The Entertainer’ and it usually sounds like it’s been recorded at the bottom of a well by narcoleptic rabbits. The ice-cream van round my way came by on Tuesdays and Thursdays, much to the excitement of Sandy the Labrador who lived two doors down. No matter how fast I ran, I never managed to beat Sandy to the queue. After bouncing up and down excitedly for a while, he would stand patiently in the queue with his bowl between his teeth, waiting for his two free scoops of vanilla. I loved that dog.

2. There are no bins in London

 In Central London a few years ago, a South American friend was looking for a bin. “They took them all out” I said, “…they were worried the IRA would blow them up.” He thought I was winding him up, but no, it’s true. Since the IRA ceasefire, we’ve made new enemies and we’re still bin-less.

3. This Coffee is Hot

Britain is obsessed with health and safety. It’s impossible to have fun in this country now without some jobsworth filling out a risk assessment and deeming it dangerous. Hot water is labelled ‘HOTTTT!, wet floors are ‘WETTTT! and concerts are LOUDDDDDDDDD! How we ever managed to hold our forks or leave our houses of a morning before all this nonsense is anyone’s guess.

Photo by Frankly Richmond

 4. Sunshine makes the front pages

 “OMG! SCORCHIO!” The sight of a thermometer hitting 30 degrees in this country is enough to have journalists and photographers scurrying to the beach to snap happy looking Brits getting their kit off. Good weather is so shocking in this country, it’s news. Go figure.

5. Don’t Walk. Oh Ok.

One of the things I loved about Chile was its people’s utter disregard for the law. Underneath a large sign saying ‘STRICTLY NO CAMPING OR PARKING’ would be 32 cars, a bus and about 50 people having a barbeque. ‘One-way street signs’ were thought to be advisory rather than obligatory and CVs were rampant flights of fancy. Here in Britain, we take the law seriously. We’re a nation of Rainmen stuck on the pedestrian crossing with the sign flashing ‘Don’t Walk’. They banned smoking so we stopped. They put cameras everywhere so we drove nicely. They made so many laws that we have to go on ‘blow-out’ holidays to Spain, Greece or the Czech Republic where we throw-up, black out and offend the locals. They’ve legislated so much; we’ve forgotten who we are.

6. Must-have moisturiser on sale now!

In other countries, people have hobbies. Of a weekend they go skiing, play bowls, visit the country or have long lunches with family or friends. In England, we go shopping. When we’re not actually in shops, we read magazines that tell us what we should be buying if we want to keep our friends and find a mate, we fill out credit card application forms and we show other people what we’ve done with the rent money.

7. How much?

I know tourists have been saying it for years, but sweet Jesus England is expensive. After earning Chilean pesos, the prices here actually make my eyes water. Last week, two newspapers and four stamps cost me £8. I started taking the shirt off my back assuming they wanted that too. In London pubs, I implode into a ball of Northern rage and have to be dragged out screeching ‘How much?!’ at the bar staff.

Photo by DavidHC Flickr

8. Which Northern Line exactly?

Whoever came up with the Tube map in London must have taken a lot of drugs. Poor tourists have it the hardest. On the Tube they have to remember to stand on the left in the corridors but right on the escalators, struggle with anarchically pronounced place names like Leicester Square and then have to figure out the map. Here, it’s not enough to know that you need to go south on the Northern Line, you also need to know which branch. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve confidently hopped on a train only to find myself shamefully having to sneak a peak at the map and ending up in Essex.

9. No alcohol=No fun

It’s a fact, but we British are completely incapable of having a good time without alcohol. We get all geeky and awkward without a pint in front of us. Once started, we also have absolutely no idea how to stop.

10. We worry about stupid stuff

Do my pores look big in this? Does decaf skinny cappuccino give you cancer? Will that reality TV star’s ex-boyfriend’s next-door neighbour win Celebrity Big Brother? Is that I-Phone application any good? Who cares? We do apparently. For want of anything better to worry about (we live in a relatively rich democracy devoid of big weather or regular natural catastrophes after all), we find other insignificant things to fret about. I have absolutely no idea why.

 And 5 things I’ve missed:

1. Everyone’s a comedian.

2. Living in a cultural melting pot of different nationalities, races and religions.

3. People aren’t afraid to look different. Fashion is anarchic here.

4. New music is treasured (even if the BBC has got some balls trying to get rid of alternative radio station 6 Music, the backlash against them makes me proud to be British).

5. Old ladies struggle onto buses and 10 people offer them their seats.


Filed under blog, britain, england, Travel blog

20 Random Acts of Kindness for Backpackers (Matador)

Photo by Daniel Gasienica

Imagine a hostel in which revellers tip-toe silently through the dorms, cups of tea appear beside your bed while you’re in the shower and your bill has already been paid when you go to check out. Inspired by Danny Wallace’s book ‘Random Acts of Kindness: 365 Ways to Make the World a Nicer Place’, here are 20 ways to spread the love this February. 

1. Do the washing-up in the hostel, even when it’s not yours.

2. Write up your top tips for nearby places and post them on hostel notice boards.

3. When you’re hostelling with friends, invite solo travellers out for dinner and drinks.

4. Travel with a plug-in mosquito repellent and keep the dorm mossie-free. Raid do a good one.

5. Offer to guard other peoples stuff at bus stations while they buy their tickets.

6. Buy a CD from a local busker, copy it onto your itunes and leave the CD in the hostel.

7. Pack some biscuits and a magazine from home and give them to a compatriot who has been travelling for ages.  

8. When you’re heading out for a heavy night, leave your toothbrush and whatever else you need out ready on your dorm bed so you don’t have to rifle through you backpack at four in the morning.

 9. Offer to make the hostel reception staff a cuppa.

10. Call or Skype your friends on their birthdays. It’ll mean all the more that you’ve remembered to call from the Amazon.

11. If you’re next to a nervous flyer, keep them talking during take off and landing to take their minds off the flight. Hold their hand if need be.

12. Rinse the hostel shower after use and clean the plughole.

13. Use cloth bags for your stuff rather than plastic ones. Your dorm mates will love you for not rustling in the morning.

14. Pack a few pairs of extra ear plugs and offer them to people trying to sleep in noisy dorms.

15. When you get on a local bus, pay for the person behind you too.

16. Buy a bag of dry dog food and feed the strays as you wander around a new city.

17. When you leave a country, give your left-over currency to travellers heading in the other direction.

18. Support new businesses that aren’t in the guidebooks.

19. After you take photos of other travellers, email them your pics. If you take a great shot of a local, consider printing off the photo and taking them a copy.

20. Call your mum and tell her where you are.

Got one of your own? Add your random acts below.

 See it on Matador here.


Filed under Travel articles

Arequipa, Perú – home of homicidal taxi drivers, nuns and Inca mummies

Arequipa's Xmas tree

I think I’d make a good Peruvian taxi driver. I have zero patience, I’m always in a rush and if I can’t get a cup of coffee, I really do want to kill people. I’ve got the car for it too. My old Skoda is just the ticket, although I might need to break the exhaust off to really fit in.

Unlike Chile, Perú is in one big hurry. I noticed it the moment I crossed the border. Whereas Chileans will wait patiently for 3 hours to buy a sandwich without so much as looking at their watch, Peruvians can’t be doing with dallying. At the border they yelled for the bus driver to drive faster, they shouted at the poor soul loading the bags onto the bus, and they stamped down hard on the first sign of faffing amongst fellow passengers.

The only people not in a rush, begging for change outside the church

I wasn’t sure I was going to like Arequipa when I arrived. It had taken forever to get there on a bus without air-con, I smelt horrific after the journey and the first thing I saw in this busy city was a man throwing a well-aimed rock at a stray dog. I thought it wasn’t going to be my kind of town. I was wrong.

Arequipa is noisy and impatient but quite lovely. Ok so the car drivers would rather see you bounce off their bonnets than wait a millisecond for you to cross the road but the city centre is full of handsome squares, dazzling buildings of white volcanic rock and great bars.

Get me to a nunnery

I’d arranged to go drinking with Marco, a local Couchsurfer who was happy to show me round town after he finished work.  As I checked in at the Casa de los Pingüinos (a lovely mini hotel with hostel prices), I failed miserably in my attempt at explaining the concept of Couchsurfing to the matronly Dutch owner.

“So you’re meeting a Peruvian guy you’ve never met before that you know very little about”


“And you’re going to drink alcohol with this man”. 


 “And you don’t know where he’s going to take you”.

 No. But it’s OK, he’s a Couchsurfer. 

“But you’ve never met him!”

 Yes, I know. But he’s a Couchsurfer. It’s OK. He’s got good references. Honest.

 She looked at me hard, squinting her eyes as if trying to memorise my features so she’d recognise me when the police scooped my body out of the nearby canyon. When I further tried to explain that Couchsurfing was a network of over a million people who let complete strangers stay in their houses for free, she turned pale. She clearly didn’t plan on expecting me to return alive and able to pay the bill later.

As it was, and as expected, I had a great night with Marco and his mates. Perú might not be as rich as Chile, but you wouldn’t know it from the bar scene. On a mid-week night just before Christmas, the bars and clubs were busy with a young crowd. Out on the streets, friends congregated and passed round bottles of rum, women sold cigarettes out of suitcases on street corners and buses rumbled along the cobbles, young boys yelling out the destinations as they went.

I ate my first falafel in a year in a great Turkish joint called Istanbul, had happy hour mojitos in Brujas and ended up drinking Cusqueña in a club where there appeared to be as many people on the stage as off it. Thanks to Marco, a musician who clearly knew absolutely everyone, I was introduced to half the city.

Surprised by my safe return, the hostel had had to hurriedly set me a place for breakfast the next morning. With only 24 hours in Arequipa (hardly time to do it justice), I set out early to see the sights.

The convent

First up was the Sanctuaries Andean Museum to see Juanita, the incredibly well preserved mummy of a young girl who was sacrificed by the Incas on the summit of the nearby Ampato Volcano. She was found by a team of anthropologists in 1995 and the museum shows a 20 minute video reconstructing the moment she was ritualistically clubbed over the head before everyone is whisked off on a guided tour. It was all fascinatingly grotesque and it once again made me glad I hadn’t been born an Inca. Too many steps and if the volcano kept erupting, too much chance you might get clobbered to appease the gods.

For a nanosecond I considered becoming a nun in Arequipa. The Santa Catalina Convent was so gorgeous I almost stayed, until I realised I wouldn’t be able to get Pinot Grigio, Radiohead or internet access. I’m not normally the least bit interested in religious buildings but this is a city within a city, as colourful as a Mediterranean village with hidden gardens, flowerpots and quiet courtyards. Closed as a working convent in 1969, it’s now open to the public and has an elegant restaurant tucked away inside that does tasty salads.

More Santa Catalina Convent, Arequipa. All photos Natasha Young

Around the old town, Arequipa is a mite touristy (it’s a common stop off on the way to Cusco) but walk a few blocks in any direction and you find the real Perú. There’s no H&M, Starbucks or KFC round here, just small shopping galleries, tiny shops with old-fashioned counters and busy markets. The people here are proud of their city and consider it and themselves to be different from the rest of the country. It’s Perú’s answer to Barcelona, and just like the Catalan capital, I loved it.


Filed under Arts Previews, chile, Travel blog, Uncategorized

Chile: Puerto Montt – worse than Mansfield

Puerto Montt. Photo Natasha Young

The Lonely Planet were being kind when they called Puerto Montt a ‘grimy transport hub’.  It’s a hole of a place and even worse than Mansfield

Puerto Montt. Photo Natasha Young

It should be nice. There’s a giant volcano towering over it,  salmon galore and it’s the centre of the lake district but it’s truly horrible. Transient workers look for work in the salmon industry or cement factories and hotels charge by the hour.

Puerto Montt. Photo Natasha Young

Puerto Montt. Photo Natasha Young

If you have the misfortune to find yourself there, stay in the bus station with your rucksack to the wall and pray your bus connection arrives on time.

I left the bus station for a few hours to have a look round.  You quite literally have to step over grubby overalled men sleeping in the street with their flies open to cross the street. As you do,  men yell at you out of car windows and rubbish blows into your face.  It’s got a leery, unpleasant vibe to it as if you’d somehow accidently walked into a mining town roadside bar dressed as a stripper.

Puerto Montt. Photo Natasha Young

Check out the pigeon on the left, walking all over the produce and nibbling as he goes. Photo Natasha Young

Meanwhile, less than 20 minutes down the road is the divine Puerto Varas with friendly folk, lakeside views and good food. You would have to pay me a million pounds to live in Puerto Montt. Per hour.


Filed under chile, Travel blog