Simon Huggins's blog

Thu, 28 Aug 2014

Girona and Figueres

I spent a day in Girona which was plenty of time to look round the cathedral and the walls of the city and wander about a bit. I didn't really realise at the time but there are some good restaurants here which I probably should have found and booked into. Girona's pretty but there isn't a lot there really.


I planned part of my trip around going to Figueres because I wanted to go back to the Dali museum that I had first seen as a kid and which had opened my eyes to modern art. I wasn't disappointed. I mean look at these ceilings!

The queues for the museum are huge so go early but personally I'd say it's well worth the wait.

Figueres also has Castell de Sant Ferran which is an odd fort that's just on the edge of the town.

Then I caught the train all the way back up to Paris and after catching up with three different groups of friends there I came back home.
All in all a pretty successful trip!


To get to Barcelona I left Toledo at stupid o'clock as I had to change at Madrid for an AVE to get me to Barcelona.

Barcelona is in Catalonia where they speak Catalan. They still speak Castillian Spanish though and rumours that they would prefer English to Castillian were vastly overstated. Also I was continually vigilant for pickpockets especially in crowded areas or around pinch-points for crowds but didn't have any problem thankfully.

Barcelona felt very different to the cities of the South and even to Madrid. The Catalan independence issue was very much top of their agenda at every turn and in every museum description or tourist sign which was interesting. It also felt like it was a more independent city proud of its own identity and culture.

There were also so many great things to see. Obviously Gaudi's Sagrada familia which just had so much light coming in such amazing ways.

But there was an amazing Picasso museum, the Joan Miro foundation is worth a look alongside the botanic gardens whilst you're up on Montjuic, the port area, the Catalan history museum, the macba modern art museum... so much to see and so many different areas. I also found some craft beer bars which even had some beer from Siren Craft in Finchampstead in Berkshire just 10 miles or so from home which I wasn't expecting.

I think the most interesting sign was probably this one:

Next up Girona and Figueres


Toledo was very hilly and given its proximity to Madrid full of day-trippers and other tourists. I'm not really sure I would recommend it. It has a huge cathedral which like other cathedrals in Spain is y'know very pretty but I had seen a lot of cathedrals by this point. It also has the world's most confusingly laid out museum in the Alcazar which otherwise is a very impressive building.

The cathedral did however include two things you must see. Freak bird angel things:

And carvings of choristers being spanked and generally having an orgy:

Yup, no idea why. Next up Barcelona


So I spent a bit more time in Granada and I liked it as a city though again it was very touristy. There was more going on than Cordoba though and I imagine it would be a lot of fun if the students from the university were around.

It's home to the Alhambra which is an amazing fortress and collection of palaces. But there are also a huge number of cathedrals and a very good science museum which I retreated to one day to avoid yet more gilded representations of Christ.

I ate well here and even explored Granada's gay scene too which was fun and very relaxed.

Next up Toledo


Worth mentioning straight away that I arrived in Cordoba in style having booked the only ticket I could which happened to be first class from Madrid on an AVE. I had been served drinks and food and had my own socket to charge my phone as I watched the Spanish countryside fly past. It was slightly depressing to watch the shells of unfinished housing fly past; it does seem the crisis hit Spain's construction industry hard which I knew but the visual reminder of it is quite something to see

Cordoba is alleged to be one of the hottest cities in Europe and that was definitely apparent but it was a very dry heat and I didn't die which given I'm blond and quite often overheat in an office at 21 degrees C was surprising. I had a good hotel with aircon here which helped when I was hiding from the hottest times.

You have to go visit Cordoba. It is a truly amazing place because of its history which is shown off in La Mesquita a mosque which is so large that it contains a cathedral inside it.

There are a lot of beautiful streets but basically this is a town that caters for all the tourists that come to see la Mesquita.

Next up Granada


After the tourist town of Salamanca, Madrid seemed much more normal. More mixed for a start and it was a real city that had people working in it rather than just a place people only really go as students or as tourists.

Also the museums in Madrid were great. I loved the permanent collections in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia although the Richard Hamilton exhibition really wasn't for me. The Prado is full of some undeniable masterpieces but they don't really work for me as they are in a period heavily dominated with religion where essentially every picture seemed to be depicting some bible scene or other. It was good to see Las Meninas before I saw the Picasso version in Barcelona though.

El Rastro is a huge flea market on Sundays and it was definitely worth seeing. It was amazing that it was so large that there were very specialist stalls like this pressure gauge one. No I've no idea why either but...

Madrid's old part is lovely to wander through too although I think I preferred Salamanca's Plaza Mayor. I went out on the gay scene in Madrid too and as you do found myself at a party in a bar that had shutdown recently which is just what happens if you start talking to people in a bar apparently...

Next up was Cordoba


So as part of my Spain trip (overview here) I started off with two weeks in Salamanca.

Salamanca is a very pretty town with two cathedrals joined together and a large ancient university which seems to be like the Oxford of Spain. It's therefore very touristy and to be honest pretty white which was a bit strange.

Learning Spanish in Spain definitely seemed the way to go and I booked to do an intensive course (6 hours a day). I also booked to stay in a university style residence. What I hadn't really realised was that it would be full of people who were all a lot younger than me (17-22) and so whilst I'm over the whole find the cheapest place and often go and spend a little more to get something a bit nicer I did regularly have people bound up to me to say "Simon, Simon! I've found somewhere with even cheaper beer". They were a lovely bunch of people though but a lot of English was spoken by the students in the residence. That was good in a way as I didn't really have any Spanish but it did mean I wasn't hearing it all the time. I think I'd suggest people stay with a family if they can.

The school was great and I definitely learned things. I suspect it would feel like I learnt a lot more if I'd started with some basic Spanish to begin with. I definitely had times when I felt great in class because the grammar was quite easy for me given I'd done language learning way back when and then I'd go and attempt a real conversation with someone and realise I didn't actually... know any Spanish :)
But over my five weeks in Spain I managed a few good conversations in between the total lack of getting myself understood and I found that "lo siento para mi espanol muy mal" got me some amount of sympathy.

Next up was Madrid

Wed, 27 Aug 2014

Spending five weeks in Spain

In July I quit my job as the Guardian's Digital Operations Manager and went off to Spain for 5 weeks. I'll probably post per city I stayed in but I thought I'd set off with a general post about my time in Spain.

I had a great time in Spain. I tried to do everything touristy I could in the various places I stayed in and so I saw lots of amazing museums and lots of mosques/cathedrals. It did seem like every other place was either a cafe or a religious building of some kind.

I travelled around a lot; I spent the first two weeks learning some Spanish in Salamanca, then went on to Madrid, Cordoba, Granada, Toledo, Barcelona, Girona and Figueres all via train. My Google location history looks like this:

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I guess if you haven't spoken to me then you might not know why anyone would do this. I left the Guardian for a variety of reasons but mostly that I didn't really feel there was anywhere for me to go next inside that department. They're an amazing team and I'm going to be following what they do next. I was lucky that I had some savings and we'd come to a good point with my new boss nicely settled in and stability restored to the platform that it made sense to do new things. I haven't worked out what I'm going to do next; I've been back in the UK for two weeks but I've been away for both of those weekends and haven't really stopped yet!

So why such a long break and why Spain? Well I speak fluent (if rusty) French given I spent two years of my life there one at school and one working and I'd always thought that I should learn another language. Spanish was a natural choice; a romance language so not too far away from the latin and French I learnt at school and very widely spoken. I'd also wanted to visit the Dali museum in Figueres again as it's the first museum that as a kid turned me on to modern art. So I resigned and once I'd negotiated a leaving date I booked a flight to Madrid, two weeks of an intensive language course in Salamanca and a Eurostar back from Paris. The next week I panicked.

Friends will tell you I'm a bit of a control freak and I do like to know things like where my next meal is coming from so not knowing what I was going to do for the 3 weeks in between being in Salamanca did freak me out a little but I took advice from people who had been to Spain (thank you Natasha, Diego and Lydia) and came up with a plan of places to visit. And then I booked all the hotels and trains I'd need to get me where I needed to be when.

I picked places that were easy to get to by train and looked interesting and it really did work out. Ambitiously I had planned my leaving drinks from work the night before I flew to Spain but given it was an early evening flight even that worked out.

I mentioned I'm a control freak and I normally go on holiday in France which given I speak French is quite easy. So it was a bit of a shock when I realised I was in Madrid with basically read-it-from-a-phrasebook level Spanish but I survived my first nights.

Travelling in Spain

The trains were all fine. RENFE's website is terrible to try and book trains but Rail Europe's site was also pretty bad. Essentially "simple" things like needing to change trains didn't work when searching for journeys so unless you knew that you needed to change at Madrid you would think there weren't any trains that did that journey at all. The Deutsche Bahn site is excellent for working out times of trains all the way across Europe as you might expect. I got lots of advice from the man in seat 61. If you need help booking train tickets in Spain then this is a skill I have acquired so bribe me with beer/coffee!

The AVEs, Spain's high-speed trains, were great and the other medium distance trains were all very clean and smart too. Spain has two different railway gauges which means you sometimes stop and go through a shed which is odd but seems to work. I had to book first class from Madrid to Cordoba and it was a lovely experience where they brought me food and drink and I had lots of room. The rest of my trips were all standard though.

The boarding of the TGV to Paris in Barcelona Sants was an utterly laughable experience. Imagine two countries not perhaps reputed for their efficiency both with their own staff, both with in station, print your own tickets at home and mobile ticketing options which all require different machines to check them. There aren't really any useful signs and they have two trains leaving from the platforms that serve these TGVs within 10 minutes of each other. Then add lots of tourists with lots of bags and that probably don't speak Spanish or French and you end up with a big mess.
At one point a member of staff told me that it was obvious that the queue under the sign that read "e-ticket" was only for people who had e-tickets bought and printed in France with absolutely no hint of sarcasm. There wasn't a separate Spanish e-ticket queue of course. Somehow they did seem to manage to get people onto the train before it left though I can only assume this was due to luck.

Things I learnt about Spain

I hadn't spent really any serious amounts of time in Spain before my trip and I didn't know much about their culture or history really so I was definitely there to learn. I was quite surprised about how many cafes there were and how they all did at least a little bit of food. They were also mostly open for breakfast and eating breakfast out seemed to be a normal thing for people to do before work even.

I wasn't very impressed with the food I had in Spain. I did have some really good meals but I had a lot of pretty average ones. I think that was partly not knowing where to go or what to order and partly that I was mostly in very touristy places. The thin cut cured ham was really amazing though and always seemed good and a good Spanish tortilla is hard to beat. I guess because I was eating out I didn't seem to eat many vegetables either so I had the usual travelling thing where I started craving them.
I did really enjoy tapas. Both the free-with-a-beer type and the ordering and paying for small plates seemed an excellent idea and I don't know why we don't do that more in the UK. I have ex-colleagues in the US who mock the Brits for going out drinking without eating and this would be a perfect solution for post-work drinks.

I knew very little about Spain's history and whilst I was there I certainly learnt more about the Moors, the Spanish civil war and the time under Franco along with a bit more about the struggle for Catalonian independence. It's fascinating and it helped me make sense of some of the historical museums and art I was seeing.

I thought it would be ridiculously hot in Spain and it was but I survived a lot better in the hotter, drier places than I did in Barcelona where it seemed just as hot but also humid. There were were a few times that I couldn't cope and retreated to air-con'd hotel rooms.

Service in cafes/restaurants was almost universally terrible in Spain but that seemed to be because of the hordes of tourists and that the waiters didn't seem that bothered by customers. I saw a bunch of people just walk out when they didn't get anywhere near ordering in all sorts of places.

Really going in July and August is very silly. Partly because it's full of tourists and partly because it's very hot but also because the Spaniards know this and take some of that time off to go sit on a beach leaving their recommended restaurant/museum shut. That was sad a couple of times but each time serendipity came to the rescue and I found some lovely places that I wouldn't have otherwise.

Dropping your camera early in a long holiday so it stops working is a very silly thing to do but I managed through miming and bad Spanish to buy tiny screwdrivers, take it apart and by a miracle put it back together again so that this time it worked. That was almost very expensive.

I also definitely had some down times which I was expecting. Often just after a particular terrible failure of speaking Spanish but I managed to get through them and move on to the next exciting thing to see or eat.

Must see things in Spain

You all have to go and see La Mesquita in Cordoba which is a cathedral inside an enormous mosque. It's truly amazing and the way they've kept lots of the original artifacts rather than just razing the place to the ground and building a cathedral instead is brilliant.

I would also recommend the Sofia Reina museum in Madrid and the Picasso and Joan Miro museums in Barcelona along with the Dali museum in Figueres. I loved the art I saw and they had brilliant collections.

I'll blog a little more about each place I went on other days I think but I've put all my photos up on flickr.

I blogged about the places I went to: