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Monserrat & Barcelona, Spain

11 May

 Think I’m getting used to going out every night, though I’m running late for breakfast this morning aMonserrat in the distancend I still can’t get used to having a big breakfast. I’m running late because Noah, God bless him, remembers it’s Mother’s Day and sends me a message asking when he can ring. So I have a chat to him on skype before going down to breakfast.

 Today we have an optional excursion to Monserrat, a monastery high on a jagged mountain about an hour out of Barcelona. A local guide named Mar, which is the Spanish word for sea (or perhaps it is Mer, pronounced Mar) arrives on her scooter and boards our bus. (She tells us she has a brother named the Spanish word for Sun.) Mar has a sense of humour and is more like Agatha, our guide in Paris.Housing on the way to Monserrat

We had seen the mountain of Monserrat on our way into Barcelona the day before, and we see it on the skyline soon after leaving the hotel. The bus meanders up a winding road as Mar tells us about Monserrat. There is a monastery, which still has a selective school for boys who sing in a famous choir, and a basilica near the top. On the way is a convent as well, which she points out as we approach. She tells us there is a secret underground passageway between the monastery and the convent.

The bus parks a short way from the monastery and Mar leads us up to it, giving a commentary on the little walkie-talkies we’d used before. She points out a steep railway car to the top, called a funicular, but advises us it takes 20 minutes up and Lookout at Monserrat20 minutes back, so we have to make sure we allow enough time to get back by 11. Steve, Jenny and Aurora and me decide we want to go up to the top. Jenny checks with Mar, if it’s OK to catch the one that arrives back at 11, and Mar is cool with that, saying they’ll wait a couple of minutes for us to walk back to the bus.

We have a quick look in the basilica and it is magnificent. We then race over to the funicular and buy our tickets, but have to wait while the driver has a smoke break before it goes.

The view at the top is amazing. The mountain of Monserrat has these exposed rocky columns that stand vertically, forming unusual shapes. It’s a little hazy today but we can still see Basilica at Monserratfor miles.

The funicular is late going back down, so we have to rush like crazy to the bus. Steve takes off like a rocket to ask them to wait for us. Aurora follows, and Jenny and I bring up the rear. Jenny is older than me, and looks to be in fantastic shape. She is slim, well-groomed and good fun but she says her lungs operate at only 65%. I tell her I have good lungs but crook hips so we just go as fast as we can. When we make it to the parking area, in our fluster we race past the bus and have to backtrack.

View from the topLooking down the funicular


The bus is late now but Mar doesn’t seem too worried. She does look worried, however, when we arrive in the centre of Barcelona, expecting to meet up with Ashley, our Tour Director and the rest of the people and there is a road block due to a parade. Police divert the bus, and we sit in traffic, watching horses, carts, donkeys and piles of hay parading down the streets where we want to go. Mar is madly ringing Ashley, and at once stage hops out of the bus to argue with a policeman, trying to convince him to let us go down a particular street, but he just shakes his head obstinately.

Chaotic parade Eventually we reach the meeting spot and Ashley and the people who didn’t take the Monserrat tour board the bus. Ashley, ever the diplomat, is clearly displeased and, in a very nice way, whinges about how we’ve lost an hour. Mar is pursing her lips and shrugging her shoulders and I hear Steve speak up to take the blame, explaining that the funicular was late returning, even though we’d asked about timing before we went.

 After things calm down, Mar tells us more about the architect, Gaudi, who designed the famous Sagrada Familia Church. We had heard about Gaudi and seen some buildings designed by him in Madrid. Gaudi, though famous, dressed casually and did not live a high life. The poor fellow was run over by a motor car (in early 20th century, before there were many cars on the road) and it was some time before he was identified. Sadly, he died a couple of days later.

Sagrada Familia 1By now we are running late. Everyone is hungry and dying to pee, but Mar ushers us off the bus and down the street to walk a few blocks to Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) Church. This church, the first part originally designed by Gaudi, is still not finished. There are 4 towers built but there are 10 more planned. One side of the Church represents the birth of Christ, one the death and another the resurrection. The 4th side is the main entrance. Gaudi died before the design was finished, so the remainder has been designed by other architects. Gaudi is truly unusual in that his designs are organic, rounded, representative of nature. Some people refer to him as gaudy, and yes, I could probably agree with that. It seems he goes over the top, even plopping carvings representing fruit on the top of points, “for decoration.” Unfortunately Sagrada Familia is inconsistent, a mish mash of styles, marvellous, but not what I’d call elegant. With the poor economy in Spain, the completion of it will be dependant on donations.Sagrad Familia Gaudis Influence

Sagrada Familia other influences

An amazing fact that Mar tells us: there are more tourists that pass through Spain than the population of Spain. And unemployment at the moment is around 24%


It is just a quick look at Sagrada Familia, rushing around following Mar’s “lollipop”, her blue flag on a stick that she waves above her head as she marches.

Back on the bus, they take us to the old quarter for a look around. By now everyone is even more hungry and bursting to pee, as the time allocated for a pee stop at Sagrada Familia had been used up. Luckily Mar agrees to delay the tour of the old quarter for 20 minutes while we grab a bite to eat and use the toilets of the places where we buy food. I just buy an ice cream, so that I don’t have to wait for food, and use the toilet of a restaurant anyway.


We meet again, look at a cathedral built in the 14th century (I think) and many other old buildings. We pass street performers playing unusual instruments, and the ever-present gift shops.

After the tour we have the option of staying in town for a couple of hours and Steve asks if I want to hang out. I’m glad to have the benefit of a male’s sense of direction – I get lost as soon as I turn a corner.Musicians

Just a few others take up the option. I want to go back to where there were musicians playing and listen to them some more. It is lovely peaceful music – a trio playing a harp-like instrument, a flute or saxaphoney thing and a strange metal instrument like an upside-down wok. They are offering a CD for sale and I’m still deciding whether or not to buy one when I’m further up the alley, then go back to ask the price. Jenny & Deb say they’ll continue on and maybe we’ll catch up with them later. The musicians are just packing up and I snaffle a CD for 10 euro. We wander in and out of gift shops and each buy something to take home. We come to a square with tables outside of coffee shops and look around for a table. All of them are full but one is being vacated.

“Someone’s already got it,” Steve says as I point it out. But there are people leaving another table and I move quickly towards it. Not quickly enough, though. A woman with a child pushes a trolley in front of me, blocking the way and claiming it for herself and her husband. I could duck around and beat her to it, but I’m not going to fight and graciously leave her to it. I’m rewarded for my graciousness because people vacate Noooo woman no cryanother table at the restaurant next door, and the chairs at this one are more comfortable.

Steve and I look around at the food that other people were eating and spot a basket of nachos.

“Let’s share a basket of nachos,” I suggest, and he agrees.

A duo are playing guitars and singing reggae music (Noooo woman, no cry, bomp bomp bomp-bomp, noo woman, no cry) and we relax with the locals on a Sunday afternoon, eating nachos and, for once, drinking good coffee.

The SquareWhen it’s approaching 5pm, we head back to the large square where we’re meant to meet the bus. I would be hopeless finding the right place, not having my phone with GPS, but Steve knows the way. The square is full of people and full of pigeons, but without the quantity of pigeon shit that you’d expect. We’re not 100% certain which end of the square we’re supposed to meet, so Steve reviews photos he took earlier and pinpoints the spot. There’s no one else from the bus waiting there.

When the bus arrives and we hop on, Ashley wanders up the road looking for the others. Then we drive around the block looking for them in case they are on the wrong corner. We are just about to give up when Ashley spots Jenny and Debbie. They look like the happiest people on earth when the bus stops and waits while they run towards us.

“Oh, thank goodness!” they say. “We didn’t know what we were going to do. We’ve been waiting since 4:30, we’ve been trying to ring Ashley, a cab wanted to charge us 70 Euros, and we were just about to cry.”

Ashley again laments the chaotic day, which happened all because the coach didn’t leave  Montserrat at the agreed time (the fault of our little group), which meant that by the time we got to the city the streets were closed for the parade, which made us even later.

That brings us to dinner, an included one, where I decide to buy a bourbon and coke. The girl at the bar looks like she’s new, unsure of what she’s doing. When she pours the bourbon in, she keeps pouring, and pouring, and pouring, then eventually she stops and adds a little coke. Lucky it’s a strong drink, because I need it once she tells me the price (after she asks someone):  it’s 9 euros. But they give me a little saucer of nuts to go with it.

I take it back to the table and offer the nuts around and Aurora teases me about getting drunk when I tell how much bourbon they put in.

We’d made our menu selections earlier and I have salmon for main course, which is quite nice, a small portion, just right after all the food I’ve eaten in the last few days. Lots of people, however, complain about the meal, as the spaghetti they chose was pretty tasteless. I leave most of them still sitting at the table, hoping for an extra course, while I retire to my room to write.