Church with the Witch’s Hat

It is a gloriously nippy day because we have driven up north to Yorkshire for the weekend. A walk in the green, green dales can only do us good, right? We drove last night for about four hours and passed through Derbyshire. Descending the hilly roads in the county, a crooked spire much like the twisty hat of a witch loomed up ahead. For me, the market town of Chesterfield has become synonymous with its crooked spire.

One Samuel Bromley even wrote a few lines for it in the mid-19th century.

“Its ponderous steeple, pillared in the sky,

    Rises with twist in pyramidal form,

    And threatens danger to the timid eye

    That climbs in wonder.”

I don’t know about ‘danger to the timid eye’ but it certainly challenges the mind to come up with stories or go with legends that come with it. St Mary and All Saints is a late-13th century parish church upon the spire of which Satan is supposed to have landed while flying from Nottingham to Sheffield. He must have been a great sneezer that Satan – because the entire burden of the twisting of the spire is laid upon one sneeze.

There is another story that goes with the church – a stunning bride with great virtue entered the church and inspired the spire to bow. It froze in that posture clearly.

The power of satan or the power of great beauty? Well, the more non-ludicrous and staid reason is probably that the spire built straight could not bear the weight of 32 tonnes of lead tiles placed atop it. The herringbone pattern of the spire cements the twisted look.

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As we left the lights of these towns behind and made our way through the dark country, we took a few minutes to get off on the grassy knolls, shiver and throw our heads back to stare at an upturned, inky bowl shimmering with stars.

None of the magic of it could but compare with the lardy and wrinkled nude back of an old woman in a hotel room. After midnight, we reached the hotel bleary-eyed, collected the room card, crawled to the room and inserted the card. Adi opened the door and to my astonishment I heard voices issuing out of the room. The telly is on it seems, I thought, and before I could get any further with commenting on the oddness of it, Adi looked scarred and a disgruntled man appeared at the door simultaneously. “But there seems to be a mistake, this is supposed to be our room too,” he said. Since they were comfortably settled in – the lady of the room had even decided to discard this modern inconvenience of clothes – it was only fair that we rushed back to the reception where the gentle, bald man was startled enough that he did not know how to react. It also meant that at that moment when Adi looked appropriately grave and annoyed (the best way to get extra hotel points for occasions when the hotel goofs up), I was shaking and vibrating. You know how it happens when you try and repress peals of laughter. The large desktop computer on the till in front of me was my refuge or so I thought. Adi assured me it was not.

We did get another room (thunk god) whereupon we threw ourselves upon the bed, laughed till our stomachs ached and then just passed out.

How is your weekend going? If you have any nude, old ladies and crooked spires featuring in them, we might be in the same part of town.

The Bizarre & the Beautiful in Barcelona

How much had I heard about Barcelona before I decided to join my husband for his work trip? A Lot. I stayed for a couple of weeks in the city in the month of February in 2016 and soaked up everyday living in the Spanish Capital. The first thing that struck me as we entered the city were massive concrete blocks of buildings that flanked the roads. They smacked of social housing architecture and thrilled me (not). The heart sank a little.

Armed with enthusiasm – you need a reserve of this emotion when you go to any place with sky-high expectations (everyone must love it for a reason) –  eventually, I did find bits of it that I fell for. It is not your quintessential pretty city but it does have pockets of interesting architecture. Below are a few elements of Barcelona that do appeal if you have a streak of craziness in you, because, it is after all the home of Catalan Modernism, a pioneer of which was Antoni Gaudi.

Park Güell

The park that Gaudi built for Eusebi Güell, a Spanish entreprenuer and an ennobled count, who was the Catalan architect’s patron. What the Medicis were to the Renaissance in Italy, Güell was to Gaudi. Gaudí is supposed once to have commented to Güell, “Sometimes I think we are the only people who like this architecture.” What was Güell’s reply you think?”I don’t like your architecture, I respect it,” he had noted.

On a bright sunny morning, I walked from the centre of the city to the district of Gràcia. It took me a long time, through narrow alleys, up and down hilly roads, up lots of steep stairs (after which I spied the escalator, but of course) till I reached the park on Carmel Hill. In the  year 1900 when Güell had bought land in this district, it was deemed to be a remote area. The site for the park itself was a rocky hill with sparse vegetation.

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The elite of Barcelona must have been particularly hoity toity if they could not wrap their heads around living in such a beautifully developed place. They would have none of it. Out of the 60 houses that were conceptualised within the park only two came to fruition. Here is a look into its lush gardens inspired by the utopian English garden city movement. The spire peeking out above the vegetation is that of Gaudi’s house where he lived for two decades.
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A couple of fairytale casas studded with broke, iridiscent tiles atypical of Gaudi.
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The central plaza with all its curvilinear, flowing design and mosaic-studded roofs reflect the architect’s intent to play with free-flowing forms and the baroque.
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Gothic and curvilinear Art Nouveau come together in the park that was the home of the Güell family till they donated it to the public some time in the mid-1900s.
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Bird’s nests that reflect the form of the trees growing around the walkway.

La Sagrada Familia

Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia (Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family) is the iconic Gaudi structure. Those cranes have been perched atop it for what seems like forever because its construction is supposed to be completed by 2026. But as Gaudi remarked famously: “My client is not in a hurry.”

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The Nativity façade to the East (the rising sun being the symbol of the birth of Christ) is the front of the church presented to the world at large.
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Nature is intertwined with humans in these scenes that are carved into the facade. Gaudi had visualised them to be painted, each and every figure and statue. Just imagine what that might have looked like.
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I have not seen anything like the interior of this church in all my travels. Gaudi had woven nature in with the columns reflecting trees and branches. The splashes of colour leave you lost for words. So you sit and stare at this wonderful, bizarre symphony concocted by a man who must have been very, very weird and a genius. Remember that Gaudi was a staunchly religious person. If you sit inside and take time (even amidst all the crowds inside) to take it all in, you will feel what he had set out to achieve – a temple where even a n0n-religious individual like me can experience exaltation.
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The Passion Façade cross-sectioned, which with its bare stone, harsh straight lines and austere design reflects the suffering of Jesus Christ during his crucifixion. It is straight out of Gaudi’s vision of it is as a vision of bones and a complete about-turn from the intricately carved Nativity Façade up front. The third front, the Glory Façade, is still under construction.
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An oasis of calm across the busy street from La Sagrada Familia.

Montjuïc

A hill with a view of the city. The Palau Nacional crowns it and on certain evenings (Thursday to Sunday) a magic fountain show grabs all eyes.

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Palau Nacional is home to 19th-20th century works of art. Those four columns in the middle transform into the magic fountain. I would suggest taking those stairs (forego the escalators you lazy bum!) if you want to burn off the brioche you have wolfed down.
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Classical statues with a view of Sagrat Cor
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The city from atop Montjuïc Hill
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The night views are not too bad either.

Passeig de Gràcia

On the most expensive avenue of Barcelona are these paeans to modernism by Gaudi.

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Casa Batlló, a building designed by Gaudi for Josep Batlló, a wealthy textile industrialist. It was re-designed by Gaudi in the early-1900s as an affair reminiscent of skull and bones. Those balconies are the skulls in the affair and the supporting pillars are the bones.
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The other of Gaudi’s creations is this, Casa Milà also popularly known as ‘La Pedrera’ or the stone quarry (alluding to its front design that might remind you of an open quarry).

Parks & Promenades

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Passeig de Lluís Companys, a promenade dedicated to the memory of a Spanish president, Lluís Companys i Jover, who was executed under the dictatorship of the infamous Francisco Franco in 1940. At one end of the promenade is the Arc de Triomf and at the other end is the Ciutadella Park.
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The triumphal arch was the access gate for the 1888 Barcelona World Fair. I quite liked its red brickwork, its Neo-Mudéjar style of architecture and the promenade it led to with a series of palm trees and ornamental lamp posts. There was a chilled-out air about it with entertainment provided by buskers and street artists, while joggers made their way through the palm-lined avenue at a sedate pace.
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The Palace of Justice shows up impressively along the promenade.
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Cascada Fountain inspired by the famous Trevi Fountain of Rome, was designed by Josep Fontseré in 1881. Guess who was his assistant? A young Gaudi. It was displayed proudly at the 1888 World Fair.

Poble Espanyol

On Montjuïc is this rip-off that is sold as a representation of a Spanish village with a recreation of houses from the various regions in the country. It is ticketed. Do steer clear. Unless you want to kick yourself at the end of a saunter through it. I did.

Barri Gòtic

I spent my evenings walking through the narrow cobbled streets of the Gothic Quarter, in the shadow of its old buildings and churches. It had its famous residents – Picasso and Joan Miró and historically it was once the stomping grounds of Christopher Columbus. His figure stands high above a Corinthian column down La Rambla to commemorate his report to Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand V in Barcelona after his maiden trip to the Americas.

Extremely narrow alleys, mosaic motifs of saints looking down benevolently upon you from their alcoves upon alley walls, squares like Plaça del Pí with 14th century churches and other small churches frequented by Gaudi crop up. Basically I went with my gut here, walking into various streets. I had read plenty about safety and pickpocketing issues. But wear your bag in front where you can see it and you shall be golden. I did not feel unsafe at all during my walks in the city.

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Bell Tower of the Barcelona Cathedral
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Carrer del Bisbe or Bishop’s Street houses Pont del Bisbe (Bishop’s Bridge). The neo-Gothic bridge connects two historic buildings. The story goes that the architect who constructed the bridge in 1928 wanted to design new buildings inspired by the Gothic Quarter but the government did not grant its approval. Miffed, he put a skull with a dagger somewhere in the bridge. Try and not spot them, okay? The story warns that if you do, you shall be cursed. Trust the human imagination to come up with charming stories.
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Barcelona Cathedral is dedicated to Saint Eulalia. The Gothic cathedral is the seat of the archbishop of Barcelona. On any given evening it is a festive place to be at. Buskers sing soulfully and people love to mill around it.
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Pla de la Seu. In this forecourt of the cathedral, Catalans tap their feet to a traditional dance, Sardana, on weekends.
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Plaça de Sant Jaume, home to the Palace of the Generalitat of Catalonia and the City Hall.

La Rambla

The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca had remarked once that La Rambla was “the only street in the world which I wish would never end.” Now if he had seen it as I did, stuffed with tourists (God knows what happens in summer), he would have held his tongue. And if he had been pickpocketed, you can see how that line would change. The famous 1.2 km pedestrianised walkway is the nerve centre of Barcelona, popular with tourists and even more so with pickpockets. I am happy to say I survived it, more so because I would take off into the alleys, away from the main thoroughfare. If you are on La Rambla, a good place to walk into is Boqueria market that houses fishmongers and butchers. It dates back to the year 1217 when meat was sold there on tables.

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La Boqueria

El Born Barrio

This district is absolutely charming. You are likely to find mostly locals here. It gets its name from the adjoining former market of El Born and is filled with lovely restaurants, small bars and boutiques. It is a nice place to head to for dinner and drinks.

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The old Born market. A concoction in iron and glass built by Spanish Catalan architect Josep Fontserè in 1876. The first market in town was constructed ala the Parisian mode of architecture. It is no longer a market however. Today it serves as a cultural centre.
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The quarter is full of old alleys as this where you can spot old men, hunched into their coats in the cool evening air,  walking their sniffy spaniels.
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In medieval days it used to be a seaside residential area for the elite.
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This shot of Adi and our Spanish friend Nacho is in the El Born district. I would meet them every evening for dinner or drinks and boy those dinners would be elaborate. You will see the kind of dinners we would have laid out before us daily, below.
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The artistic community have now taken over the El Born district.
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Evening streets of Barcelona
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Santa Maria del Mar. A Catalan Gothic church built in the 1300s at the height of Catalan dominance in maritime trade that dwarfs you quite easily. Hemmed in by narrow streets, it is quite impossible to do justice to a shot of this church.

Sagrat Cor

How I wanted to see this basilica. To the extent that I was ready to even hike up to it except that I had left the idea alone too late. Till my last day in Barcelona when I had to catch a flight in a few hours. I went all the way up to Avenida Tibidabo with its quirky and flamboyant mansions only to realise that hey in spring they somehow do not expect people to arrive in the city. So they stall their quick fix funicular and elevator options to the top till summer arrives. The thought of the frown on the husband’s face if I was still hiking my way down Mount Tibidabo when I should have been inside the airport terminal made me think twice. Thus I never laid my eyes on Sagrat Cor. But you should if you are in the city.

Catalan Dinners

Local taverns were our pick. Our Spanish friend took us to small eateries that served excellent tapas and often food from his part of the country, that is the Basque region. We did try out various Spanish specialities but I quite loved the classic tapas dish of Patatas Bravas. When you are on holiday mode, the body and mind slip in too quite easily and my glutton genes can always be counted upon to make the most of well-laid out tables. Though I confess that this holiday was all about bread, meat and seafood. They can get me only that far. Yes, go on roll your eyes, but by the end of the trip, I was frantic for greens.

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Medium to rare beef steaks. The sight of it made me want to gag but it was enjoyed by Adi and our friends  while I watched them slice into the pink flesh with great gusto.
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Grilled prawns
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Jamón ibérico. Because how can you be in Spain and not have its famous cured product, the Iberian ham.
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Morcilla or Spanish blood sausage, stuffed with rice. I am not a fan of bloody stuff. That said, I did take a bite and it was actually tasty.
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Lemony Calamari
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Pork ribs and artichokes

 

Adi’s Travel Tips

  1. To appreciate Barcelona, you need time. Make a stop for at least three nights in the city. You can add on time depending upon the other destinations that you plan to visit from Barcelona. There are plenty of choices -Cadaqués, Girona, Zaragoza, Taragona…
  2. The moment you get into the city, do yourself a favour and buy the T10, a travel card that will cost you a little less than 10EUR but will give you a whole lot of travel options within Zone 1 (which covers the areas within the city that you will mostly want to see). You can avail of 10 single journeys on the Barcelona metro, its buses and FGC trains. You can also make use of the card more than once on the metro or buses within a duration of 1 hour and 15 mins roughly and you will be stamped only once within that time frame.
  3. Otherwise buy a three-day travel card for 21EUR.
  4.  Uber does not work in Barcelona (let’s not get into that discussion). But there is a way out for those who do not like to avail of public transport (especially after a night of drinking) — download the Hailo Taxi app. Hailo ties up with registered taxis and you can punch in your credit card details on the app. Works like Uber and you can just open the app and select your current location for a pick up. At the end of the journey, you don’t have to rummage through your wallet to find cash. The trip is charged to your credit card. And if you are using an Avios credit card, then, you earn points on that as well.
  5. SPG has a great Category 3 hotel at Diagonal which is roughly 2km walking distance from La Rambla and the same distance from La Sagrada Familia. The hotel charges you about 96 EUR per night. However, if you have 28000 Starwood points the hotel can be yours for four nights for free.

Girona

Girona was mine when I walked its medieval ramparts. It was in the early half of February of this year, a grey day when the drab skies above my head seemed to intensify the cold in the ancient town that is located in Spain’s Catalonia region. The bitterness  of the day meant that I beheld a deserted town, but I was not going to bemoan the lack of day-trippers for the desolation compounded the aura of antiquity that hung around its terracotta roofs.

I took the train from Barcelona Sants to Girona, early one morning. Forty minutes later I was transported to another world when I started climbing a certain Capuchin Hill upon which the old quarters of Girona perch themselves strategically. The hill was named after the Capuchin friars who arrived there some time in the late 16th century.

Amidst the bleakness of the day, a meek sun struggled to part the clouds, and beneath its watery sunlight, I walked aimlessly. There is such joy in pottering around without an agenda – it affords one the thrill of discovery and is doubly pleasurable to the incurable romantic. Steep stone stairs and cobble-stoned alleys took me into the heart of Girona. Girona which was once Gerunda, when it was once home to the Iberians. Its coveted position as a highly wealthy town invited the attention of marauders. So they all came — the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors, followed by the Romans again led by Charlemagne, the stalwart emperor who constructed a defensive wall around Girona. A canny move, I suppose, because the city was prey to many sackings.

In its old quarters, Barri Vell, I came upon a garden that read (bizarrely) ‘Jardins de John Lennon’. One of the mayors, it turns out, was a fan of Lennon. This garden was an oasis of solitude that guided me to some narrow winding stairs in a tower and soon I found myself walking old Charlemagne’s walls. Before me lay the panoramic view of Girona’s terracotta roofs, cathedrals and spires, stitched seamlessly with tall cypresses offering a dark green contrast to the dull ochre of the medieval buildings. The Pyrenees were its charming backdrop, a chain of smoky blue undulations on the horizon. One end of that wall seemed to dip into a sea of modern apartments, so I decided to turn back towards the old quarter.

In the Call, the Jewish quarter, I walked through such narrow alleys that if I stretched my hands out, they would touch the walls on both sides. It was moody, that neighbourhood with its huddle of decrepit houses and dark corners, cobbled lanes and gently ascending stairs. In the museum and bookshops, old Jews sat behind tills, adding to the atmosphere of the Call. Just as in other European cities, Jews were expelled from Girona in 1492 by the Catholic Kings, and it is said that while some families sold their properties to Christians before leaving, others blocked their houses in the hope that they would return some day. Encroachment over the years meant that these old houses were buried away till in the 19th century they were re-discovered during the construction of a railway line in town.

But a whole bunch of those abandoned medieval houses still seem to be waiting for their former residents to return. The La Judería turned out to be one of the most haunting Jewish quarters I have come across in all my travels in Europe because it seemed to centre around that singular feeling called hope, yet there remains that disquieting thought. What happens when hope does not get you anywhere?

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Trudging up Capuchin Hill to the Basilica of Sant Feliu
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Ancient walls that stand formidably tall

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The Pyrenees form the backdrop to Girona

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Moorish baños dating back to the late 12th century. In the 15th century, these Arab baths were privately owned. But in the 17th century, they were transformed to serve as laundry rooms for the Order of the Capuchin nuns.

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In Sant Feliu are buried the remains of martyrs and saints
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On the left are Emperor Charlemagne’s walls

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Cathedral of Saint Mary 

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Sant Pere de Galligants is a 12th-century monastery and one of the most important Catalan Romanesque legacies in Girona
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Gardens of Sant Pere de Galligants
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Plaça de la Independència where once stood an old convent. Today, restaurants are tucked into the porticoes of these beautiful neoclassical buildings. In its centre is a monument dedicated to the 1809 War of Spanish Independence against Napoleon Bonaparte.
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I had to nibble on something and what better than a Roquefort quiche in a French bakery
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 Les Cases de l’Onyar (The Houses on the Onyar)

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The Eiffel Bridge of Gustave Eiffel
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River Onyar from Eiffel Bridge

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The Call

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It would be uncommon not to chance upon a muttering old man climbing the steps in the Call 

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