Sunday, 25 January 2015

5 Pictures of an Untouristy Barcelona

If you're tired of the usual posts on Barcelona, featuring the Ramblas, a bunch of buildings designed by Gaudi, and a poorly-cooked paella served in a restaurant owned by Chinese people, read this. In the past six months I have had the opportunity to take long walks in this wonderful city. I came across all sorts of things: ugly, boring and dull neighbourhoods, but also incredibly vibrant places that tourists don't even know about. As any great  European city, Barcelona has enough things to keep you busy for a lifetime. Here are five pictures of a Barcelona that the tourist usually does not see.

Sarrià is a residential neighbourhood in the north of the city. It is a wealthy area close to the hills to the north, quiet and a bit posh. There are no tourists there, yet it is a charming place, with old buildings, churches and cafés. It still retains that pleasant and relaxed atmosphere of village life that has been lost in many other neighbourhoods. There was a small flea market in the main square when I visited, and I spent my time just looking at balconies full of plants and Catalan flags, passing by modernist villas whose name I had never heard of.

Old buildings in Sarriá
In Sarrià I  came across this shop of organic products by chance. For a second, I thought I was in London.
Is this London?

The neighbourhood where I'm currently living is called Clot. It has an urban feeling, it is popular but not sketchy, full of locals but no boring. The main park of the area, called simply Parc del Clot, has been redeveloped using parts of the old RENFE workshops.  I particularly like this piece of street art near the park: I think it encapsulates the atmosphere of this area of the city very well. This is not El Born, the trendiest part of the city where expats live and which they never seem to leave, it is quite different and it has its own vibe.

Barcelona: sometimes it's cute, sometimes it's badass!

The tiles are one of the most charming things in Barcelona for somebody with an eye for details. There are many different kinds of tiles in Barcelona, but they always have a design. These ones are probably the most famous: they were designed by Gaudi, and they are not all the same: being hexagonal, they form a complex pattern that is very nice to see. You can find them in Passeig the Gracia, if you manage to take your eyes off the shop windows!



The neighbourhood of Gràcia is often ignored by hasty tourists, too busy on visiting the Casa Battlò and the Park Guell. Yet Gràcia is stylish, charming and a damn good place to grab a bite. Whether you want Vietnamese food, an Italian gelato or just some tapas to share with your friends, to head there is always a good choice. There are cute little squares, nice cafés, charming modernist buildings and much more. In August there is a festival, Fiesta Major de Gràcia, that attracts crowds. I particularly like this tall green building is Plaça del Sol. What do you think, would you put Gràcia in your sightseeing list for Barcelona?

All of these pictures are deatured in my Instagram account. Follow me: The_Italian_Backpacker

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Lisbon: Sun, sky and poetry

Lisbon is a city famous for its blue skies, and indeed I found only blue skies when I was there in the middle of the winter. Still warm and welcoming in this season, I found Lisbon to be a manageable city: not too big, and not too chaotic, but charming in that Southern European way that I love so much.
It's a city of stone staircases (there are probably more here than I've seen in any other city!), with elevators - cable cars, some of them vertical - that can take you "up a level". For this reason, Lisbon can be a bit disorienting. It's full of viewpoints (miradouros in Portuguese), and built on top of seven hills, like Rome, with the river Tagus that could almost be mistaken for the sea.
View from the Castle of San Jorge
The castle of San Jorge is worth visiting mostly for the views, so I think the entrance fee should be abolished, and the castle grounds converted into a public park. Lisbon is a peculiar city in terms of sightseeing: neither the castle nor the Cathedral are anything special. The charm of Lisbon lies rather in walking around in search of  picturesque corners, admiring the views of the red roofs and the whitewashed houses, enjoying its paved squares, and of course taking many pictures of the photogenic yellow trams.

View of Lisbon from San Jorge Castle

You  hear the characteristic horn of the tram very often, while walking around Lisbon. When it will appear from behind a corner, it will always brings a smile to your face and it will become a familiar view. Of course the trams are not only yellow, but all colours, and some are of  the newer kind. Number 28 is the most famous among the old ones, because of its route: it allows you to see much of the old town from your window seat. I took it one morning, observing the mix of people - tourists, but also old Portuguese men and women  who just bought their groceries - and staring out of the window, enjoying the good weather and the views.  

The famous yellow tram

One of the most characteristic neighbourhoods  of Lisbon is the Alfama, in the old town. This is where the fado was born. It's a popular neighbourhood somehow reminiscent of Naples, with narrow streets, stone staircases and laundry out to dry. Every step hides a surprise in this part of Lisbon: here and there you will find a nice square, and even some ruins from the Islamic period with a spooky tree and  random - but amazing - street art.

A spooky tree grows in Alfama

The Alfama, whose names clearly comes from the Arabic, constituted the whole of the city during the period of the Moorish domination. Getting lost in this area of the city is a real pleasure, but not for your legs, who will have to tackle a lot of stone steps! A pastel de nata in a typical pastry shop might help you here: there are endless places in Lisbon where you can have something sweet, because apparently Lisboetas have a sweet tooth.

One of the many staircases of the Alfama

Streets of Alfama
A corner of Alfama

Street art in the streets of Lisbon

There are some names and events that I heard mentioned many times while I was in Lisbon, either in my guidebook or by locals: Henry the Navigator, the age of discoveries, and of course the terrible earthquake of 1755. The most fascinating monument connected with that tragic event that almost destroyed Lisbon is the Igreja do Carmo, a church which is now in ruins, with no roof. It has been converted into an archaeological museum, and I can assure you that it's very atmospheric to walk between its walls, because it's not everyday that you see ruins of a 18th century church. It's almost as if you time-travelled to a catastrophic future, when ruins don't only date back to the Greek or Roman times, but also to the more recent past.  

Igreja do Carmo

The archeological museum in the Igreja do Carmo

Lisbon is also the hometown of some of my favourite writers. I take great pride in this picture taken with the statue of Fernando Pessoa, one of my favourite poets. The statue is located  in the central neighbourhood of Chiado, in front of "A Brasileira", a café that he used to visit rather often. I really enjoy taking "literary side-trips", since I like reading. Poets are some of my favourites authors to track down, maybe because places are often important in their work. I've visited Keats' house in Rome, as well as  Oscar Wilde's grave in Paris, but I also giggled when I ran into a sign inside a bar in Madrid that read "Hemingway has not been here".  

With Fernando Pessoa

The famous Elevador da Santa Justa was being restored when I was there, so you couldn't see anything from the outside. You can either pay for a ride and for the terrace, or enter from behind the Igreja do Carmo and only pay for the terrace. I would advise you to skip the actual ride, as you don't see anything special, enter from behind the church and go straight to the rooftop terrace. Be warned: this is only one of the many viewpoints in Lisbon, and you have to pay to enjoy it. The Miradouro das Portas do Sol is equally beautiful, in my opinion, and completely free of charge. 

View from the top of the Elevador da Santa Justa

Oh, and if you're one of those people who chases sunsets wherever they're travelling, Lisbon is the place for you. From all along the river Tagus you can enjoy amazing sunsets over the red suspended bridge, with a view of the statue of the Christ redeemer on the other site of the river. As a matter of fact, if the suspended bridge is reminiscent of San Francisco, the statue of the Christ is similar to the one in Rio de Janeiro, except there is no Pão de Açúcar and no bay, but a wide river delta and some cool open-air bars where you can sip a drink while watching the sunset.

Sunset in Lisbon

What do you think about Lisbon? Is it a city that you would want to visit?

Saturday, 3 January 2015

My Most Exciting Travel Moments of 2014

Making it to Ait Benhaddou. It was one of my dreams to travel to this citadel at the edges of the desert. It is featured in so many movies that when you arrive there it induces a feeling of déjà-vu, and still you can't believe that you're actually there, staring at this most exotic of the exotic places in North Africa. Our young guide with a blue turban, the alleys of this ghost town made of sand and straw, not to mention the incredible light will be impossible to forget and are one the highlights of my trip to Morocco. 
In front of Ait Benhaddou, in Morocco
Trying new food and finding out unexpected gems. As I'm sure it is for you, food is always a big part of my travel experience. This year I tried food in Morocco, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Spain and, of course, Italy. Between finding out about the vibrant Asian food scene in Munich and trying out knoedels, gulash and Bauerngroestl in Austria, the German-speaking countries I visited this year were a real surprise in terms of taste buds, and not at all boring, as some people will make you believe. 

Asian food in Munich, Germany

Ticking off Neuschwanstein Castle from my bucket list. As cliché as it may sound, I have a bucket list of fascinating and enchanted places that I really want to visit, and this fairy-tale castle was at the very top, together with Lake Bled, which I visited in 2013. The trip I took to some of the jewels of the Bavarian Alps - Neuschwanstein Castle, Linderhof and Oberamerggau - revealed to be jam-packed with magic. I loved learning about Ludwig and his crazy romantic ideas!

Checking out Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany

Seeing the Sahara desert. I also have a bucket list of landscapes that I want to see at least once in my life: an ocean, a desert, a rainforest, a volcano up close, a canyon, a mighty rainfall, a geyser, and so on (it might be a never-ending bucket list!). Riding a camel, sleeping in a tent in the desert, eating a meal prepared by Bedouins, climbing a dune: I had the opportunity to do all of these when I was in Morocco earlier this year.

On top of a dune in Erg Chebbi

Riding tram n.28 in Lisbon. What would Lisbon be without its yellow trams? My last day in Lisbon started with a ride on this old tram. I managed to find a seat next to the window - not an easy thing these days, since the tram is one of the main tourist attractions of the city - and watched Lisbon unfold in front of me, as the tram went up and down the famous hills of the city. 

Women enjoying Lisbon and tram n.28

Moving to Barcelona. When I decided to move to Barcelona almost on a whim last July, I  didn't know what to expect. Will I find a job? Will I like the city? Will I have the time to explore more of Catalonia and Spain? Yes, yes and yes. Barcelona is pretty exciting by itself, but since I arrived, I have been to Tarragona, Sitges, MontserratZaragoza and Girona. My favourite place outside of Barcelona? Probably Montserrat, a breathtakingly beautiful mountain with a monastery tucked onto a rock - a place that should receive a lot more recognition from international tourism.

The mountains near Montserrat

What were your most exciting travel moments of 2014?

Sunday, 28 December 2014

A day in Belém - the best Lisbon has to offer

I can't believe how many tourists miss Belém, located 15-25 minutes away from the centre of Lisbon by tram. It is an area filled with important monuments - from renowned museums to religious buildings and gardens - and it's very nice if you just want to take a walk.  Here you can see one of the best things that Lisbon has to offer: a dive back to the time when Portugal led the way to the discoveries of other parts of the world. It was perhaps my favourite part of Lisbon, more than the Alfama or the Chiado, and this is why I want to write about it first. The weather helped me: even though it was December, the sky was blue and clear, those famous clear blue skies of Lisbon that poets write about.

I caught the tram - n.15 to be precise - from Cais do Sodre train station, near my hostel. The tram was crowded and the journey a bit uncomfortable, but I met an old Portuguese man who spoke perfect Italian, and taught me many things about Portugal and Lisbon. We passed the famous suspended bridge, Ponte 25 de Abril, which takes its name from the date of the Carnation Revolution and that looks so much like the Golden Gate Bridge. Just the day before I had enjoyed an amazing sunset involving the bridge, from the banks of the river Tagus.

Lisbon Sunset
As soon as I got to Belém, I found myself in front of the first of the many attractions of the area.  I know that I would love it, and I did: the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos was on my top three things to visit in Lisbon. Not only it has a distinctive architectural style not to be found in any other European country - the Manueline style - but it is also beautiful and elegant. The most striking element is the southern portal, so full of intricate decorations and almost blinding in its whiteness. Founded with the money coming from the trades with the colonies, the monastery was built in the 16th century to offer spiritual assistance to the navigators who left from the harbour nearby.

The western portal

Detail of the portal
Detail of the portal

The cloister of the monastery is all a game of shadows and decorations. I spent half an hour just admiring every nook and corner of it, especially the shadow and light on the walls.

The cloister of the monastery

From another angle

After visiting the monastery, I decided to enter the church adjoined. Here are buried famous Portuguese people, like the poet Camoes and the navigator Vasco da Gama. This church left an impression on me with its slender pillars, the ceiling high above, and its whiteness.

The church of Santa Maria de Belém
After visiting the monastery, I took a short walk to visit the Monument to the Discoveries, with all the statues of the explorers who left from this area. From here you have a magnificent view of the suspended bridge, but it's also a perfect area to walk around and enjoy the sun.

Monument to the Discoveries and Ponte 25 de Abril in the background
The Tower of Belém is maybe the most famous monument of all Lisbon and it's the jewel of Belém. Built as a defensive tower, it resembles a piece of the chessboard. The white of the limestone and the location, close to the riverside, makes it look almost unreal, as if you were in a fantasy movie or a fairy tale. It's a pleasure to visit it: there are so many intricate details and the view is amazing. José Saramago, in his book "Journey to Portugal", mentions Carlos Queirós, a Portuguese poet,  who in a moment of unbelievable humbleness wrote: "So isto fazemos bem, torres de Belém" ("There's only one thing we do well, build towers of Belem"). Saramago dismisses Queirós's humorous opinion, but he is one who dislikes and criticizes most Portuguese works of art in his travelogue about Portugal. Not the Tower of Belem, though, of which he writes: "the traveller cannot understand what military use this exquisite piece of jewellery could have had, with its wonderful lookout turrets facing the river Tagus, much more suited to watching naval regattas than for positioning cannon to help repel any invader" (p.330).  
In front of the Tower of Belém
Tower of Belem
View of the river fom the Tower
The tower in all its whiteness

After visiting the Tower of Belém I looked for a place to have lunch, as my stomach was beginning to groan. I decided to trust the Lonely Planet and I stopped at Floresta, where I had a plate of grilled sea bass with boiled vegetables, a simple but delicious meal al fresco (yes, it was warm enough!). It is a habit of Portuguese restaurants to bring you some bread, cheese and butter at the beginning of each meal. You will be charged for it, but don't worry, it won't break the bank! 
After lunch I decided to indulge myself and visit the Berardo Museum of Contemporary Art, situated just a short walk away. It's completely for free and it hosts masterpieces by Warhol - his Portrait of Judy Garland - and Dali, like a version of his famous lobster telephone.
Dali's lobster telephone
And of course a trip to Belém would not be complete without a stop to eat a pastel de nata, the simple but delicious Portuguese sweet that was born in this neighbourhood, in the kitchens of the monastery. I have eaten many pasteis de nata during my stay in Portugal, and I can assure you that the one from Fábrica de Pasteis de Belém was the best: crispy on the outside but creamy and tender inside. Even though this is an old and very famous pastry shop, with rooms decorated with azulejos, it was not at all expensive. One pastel de Belém costs around 1€. 

Pastel the nata with tea in Belém

Did you enjoy Belem? Would you make sure not to miss it when in Lisbon?

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Zaragoza - Offt the beaten track in Spain

On a random weekend in October I decided to take a last-minute bus to Zaragoza, because for as much as Barcelona is exciting and full of surprises, I also want to explore other parts of Spain. Zaragoza is the main town of Aragón, the region to the west of Catalonia. Situated halfway between Madrid and Barcelona, Zaragoza is not a touristic town, but it harbours great treasures, especially if you like architecture and history.
The bus ride went smoothly, also because I had the chance to admire the Catalan countryside and the desertic area between Lleida and Zaragoza. There were absolutely no villages, no trees, no signs of human life in this part of Spain, and I also enjoyed a sunset that seemed to come straight out of a Western movie. I was surprised because I did not expect a real desert just a couple of hours away from Barcelona. Sure, Castille - the area around Madrid - is arid but it is nothing compared to this.
When I finally arrived in Zaragoza, I found myself in the futuristic Delicias bus and train station, which seemed like a cathedral in the desert. Too impersonal and big for a medium-sized city like Zaragoza, I felt a bit intimidated. When I emerged from the tunnels of the station it was dusk, and the landscape around me was surreal: white ramps leading to nowhere and glass buildings, plus no hints of where the town centre was. The following day, before taking my bus back to Barcelona, I took a picture of this strange area of the town by daylight.

Futuristic buildings near the Delicia bus and train station

The main square of Zaragoza, Plaza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, is considered one of the most beautiful in Spain. By night it's magic, it's lit and the atmosphere is great. The cathedral, built on the site of an appearance of the Virgin Mary on top of a pillar (hence the name Señora del Pilar), is huge. Inside you can see people kissing the famous pillar.

Church of Nuestra Señora del Pilar

Zaragoza struck me as as a lively city: at dinner time everyone's out for a caña  (a beer) and a few tapas, while during the day flea markets make the atmosphere cheerful.  

Flea market next to the church of La Seo

The Catedral de la Seo seems like a regular church, until you turn around the corner and have the feeling that you just switched Spain for Morocco.

Detail of Catedral de La Seo

If there was one thing that I absolutely wanted to visit in Zaragoza was the Aljafería palace, the former siege of the Aragonese kings and an outstanding example of mudéjar architecture, which is the style that was born from the joint tastes of  the Muslim and Christian inhabitants of this part of Spain. I really enjoyed my visit to the palace: even though it is not as elaborate and beautiful as the Alhambra in Granada, it is well worth a visit. Moreover, I have always been fascinated by the Catholic kings, "los reyes católicos" as they call them here in Spain. Isabella and Ferdinand kept moving during their reign, but the Aljafería palace retains their crown room. The symbols of the joined kings of Castille and Aragon, a yoke and a bundle of arrows, is everywhere in the palace. Originally built in the 11th century when Zaragoza was part of the Muslim kingdom of Al-Andalus, in many parts it is a Moorish palace, not much different from the ones I visited in Marrakesh or Andalusia.

Door leading to the prayer room in the Aljafería Palace
The tourists here were mainly Spanish, even though the Aljafería Palace is, together with other buildings in Aragón, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Courtyard of the Aljafería Palace
Of course there are corners of Zaragoza that have nothing to do with mudéjar architecture or with religion. To be honest, I found it a rough town in some backstreets. It was there that I snapped some pictures of some cute graffiti that looked like it was made to cheer up and valorise this area of the town.
Graffiti in Zaragoza
Some more graffiti art in Zaragoza

My trip ended with a bag of "frutas de Aragón", which I put next to Catalan "panellets" in this picture. "Frutas de Aragón", the ones wrapped in paper, are a characteristic sweet made with fruit confit that is covered in chocolate. You can imagine the taste!

Frutas de Aragón vs. Panellets


Would you like to visit Zaragoza? Do you ever take random improvised trips just to explore new areas of a country?

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Introducing colourful Girona - a town with character

I'd like to introduce you to the colourful town of Girona, located a little bit more than an hour away from Barcelona. You can easily get there with the train (I paid 24€ for a return ticket), and you'll also enjoy views of the gorgeous Catalan countryside on the way. Girona is famous for the Ryanair airport, that's for sure, but also for these picturesque houses along the river Onyar, and for the charm of its cobbled streets.
The famous houses on the river Onyar

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Tackling poverty and tourist exploitation in Morocco

Morocco is technically the first third-world country I have visited. It's really true that even if you have watched documentaries, read books, and in general you know about the problems of this part of the world as much as you want, it's quite another thing to be there and see it with your own eyes.

Man sleeping under a cart in Essaouira

On the morning of the second day of our bus tour to the Sahara region, we stopped in the countryside near Todra Gorge. This part of central Morocco is truly beautiful, but also quite poor. We walked through irrigated fields where traditional herbs are grown. Here, old women still cut the grass with a sickle, and take the bunches on their heads, while donkeys are used instead of tractors. A child - perhaps six or seven year old - was begging for money: "un dirham pour favour, mademoiselle, pour manger, merci beaucoup". He spoke very little French, but had probably learned this sentence by heart. When he understood that we were not going to give him any money because he was supposed to be at school, he asked for "bon-bons", sweets. It has been estimated that around 28% percent of the population of Morocco is still illiterate.

Even though I was prepared for this, the encounter left a mark in me. This boy was waiting for groups of tourists - perhaps every day - just to ask them for some change. After that, an old lady who was cutting grass approached us. She spoke only Berber, but she said something to our guide, who explained that she was eager to have her picture taken with us while cutting the grass with a sickle. I felt a bit weird: was I really going to take a picture of myself together with an old Moroccan lady cutting grass? I took it as a chance to finally have a portrait of somebody. I am very shy about asking people for pictures. Two or three pictures were taken of the others on the tour smiling next to the old lady, but when my turn came - I don't know, perhaps she saw my awkwardness - she put the sickle in my hand and asked in a kind of French that was clearly learned by heart "vous pouvez me donner un stylo, mademoiselle?". "Do you have a pen to give to me, young lady?". I didn't have any, and I felt mortified, but also weird.

Woman and donkey in the countryside of Morocco
This attitude of making a tourist attraction of oneself for a little money is widespread in Morocco. Artists and performers in Jemaa el Fna, the main square of Marrakesh, often aggressively ask for money after seeing  that you snapped a picture of their traditional snake-charming or of their traditional costume. This is why I don't have many pictures of the performers in the square. Apart from the fact that I often found myself without small change, I don't want to take part in the exploitation of animals or in the "spectacularization" of oneself in a way that I find so fake. What is ironic is that some men, selling vegetables by the street or sitting at their doorstep, don't want their picture taken, and shout at you, even if your intention was not to take their picture but that of the door behind them, or the cat sleeping inside their cart. I was not prepared for this contrast.

Scared by the reaction of many Moroccan people and too shy to ask for portraits, I started taking pictures of people from behind, so that their faces are not recognizable. I feel that this does not intrude too much in their lives. I find the pictures to be beautiful, because Morocccan people, especially women, wear very colourful clothes. This didn't always work, however. When I tried to snap this picture, one of the two ladies turned around and gave me this look. I guess she wasn't happy about being photographed.

Women in the countryside of Morocco

Another thing that really concerned me during my trip to Morocco, and that I had never considered before a trip, are how animals are treated. Soon after my first night in Morocco, I figured out that animal rights are not really in the mind of most Moroccans, at least in the not in the touristic areas of Marrakesh. In Jemaa el Fna, a place that is incredible as much as it can become annoying, I saw monkeys on a leash, a vulture, and snakes being charmed. After learning that the mouth of some of the snakes are stitched to stop the poison, I refused to take part in any show on the square that involved animals. Sometimes I felt that us - Western tourists - were being fed touristic bites that involved things we were expecting from Marrakesh. I loved the city and I loved Morocco, but sometimes when I  stopped to think about certain things, I found lot of material for further thought.

Snake charmin in Jemaa el Fna
In the desert, we took a camel ride. I wonder how the camels were treated: sometimes they seemed to be annoyed, but perhaps it's just their in their nature to look as if they are pissed off all the time. After all, it mustn't be very funny to take giggling and Instagram-obsessed tourists up and down the dunes every day.

A camel in Merzouga, Sahara desert

I have also experienced what many people complain about: feeling like a walking ATM. Being a tourist in a country that's poorer than yours is not always easy. Some locals will take you for a dupe who will pay whatever sum of money they ask for the poorest quality service they can get away with. This is not unique to Morocco or to third-world countries, however, as it is unfortunately relatively common in Italy, too. Too often tourists are seen as someone who's there for one day only, or for a few days at the most, and then will never be seen again in that town.

Being offered tea in a Berber house/carpet shop

Managing to stay happy while travelling to difficult places isn't always easy. Morocco is a country of contrasts, where luxurious palaces with incredibly decorated interiors are juxtaposed with littered streets and beggars. Trying to be compassionate, and to understand people, what they go through, how they live, what they think is the key to have a happy stay in a country that sometimes get on your nerves. If it's true that there will always be people who consider tourists as a mere way to make a lot of money by selling poor-quality products,  I've also met many people who are genuinely committed to teach you about your country, that make you feel welcome and that  make you want to return to Morocco again and again. I think that the key is to stay positive and not be discouraged by the difficult situations you may encounter.  If I had more time in Marrakesh I would have loved to visit a charity institution. If I'm taking another trip to Morocco - I still want to visit Fez and Chefchaouen at least! - I'll make sure to do that.

Me in front of a door in Essaouira: looking happy!
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