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28 October 2016

Living In Leuven | A Trip To Barcelona

Two weeks after leaving Valencia at the start of July, I decided to fly back out for the last of my time in the Spanish sun this year. This time, I was flying alone from Brussels Zaventem and meeting my then-boyfriend on the other side in Barcelona. I boarded the lunchtime flight, then hopped on the airport shuttle bus to Plaza de Catalunya.

After dropping our stuff off at a friend's apartment in the Gothic Quarter area of Barcelona, we headed out to explore some of the city. The apartment we were staying in was right by Barcelona's Cathedral, so we had a look in and around there, then continued towards the Arc de Triomf. We took a break and sat on the Passeig De Lluís Companys before grabbing a bite to eat. 

On our way back to the apartment that evening, a friend recommended we visit the Nevermind Bar. We really didn't know what to expect from the exterior of the building, but we entered a set of double doors to find a room covered in graffiti and an area to skate around the back. It wasn't entirely to my taste, as the music was a bit too heavy metal and I felt a bit out of place, but it was definitely a bar experience I'll never forget. Something I really love about Barcelona is that is seems to be oozing with energy absolutely everywhere you turn and I guess it's impossible for any two days spent there to be absolutely identical, which is a trait I really admire about the city.

On Sunday, we left the apartment quite early and hopped on a bus to Park Güell. We struggled a little bit with finding the attraction itself, but we were greeted with some stunning views on the long walk up to the top of Carmel Hill on the way there. Both originating in Barcelona, entrepreneur, Eusebi Güell allowed architect, Antoni Gaudí, to design the park, where he created the well-known seating area covered in mosaic tiles (where the first photo of this blog post was taken from). He also constructed a series of buildings and lived in the park at one stage of his life. 

The architecture in Park Güell was simply stunning. One of my favourite features was the 'Dragon Stairway', which led to a room held up by 86 columns. More information about Park Güell and it's construction can be found HERE

Note: I'd highly recommend booking for everywhere in advance before visiting Barcelona as, thankfully, we could skip the entrance queues. Unfortunately the queue to get into Gaudí's house (now a museum) was too long, so we had to miss out.

The passage to Güell's former mansion is interesting to say the least. It's designed to look like a wave forming from the top of each of the slanted columns. It's known as the 'Laundry Room Portico'. Overall, I'd say a visit to Park Güell is a definite must-see and is a fantastic display of Gaudí best architectural work, in my opinion. 

We booked tickets for 'Brunch in the Park' that afternoon, so we took the metro to the closest station to Jardins Joan Brossa and climbed up the hill. That's something I will say about Barcelona. It gets really, realllly exhausting walking around in soaring temperatures, so we tried to make use of the Metro as often as we could. For our time in Barcelona, we got through two T-10 tickets, which made each journey cost only €1 each.

Barcelona surprised me (again!) and we had a really great afternoon/evening at Brunch in the Park. The festival runs every Sunday during the Summer months and hosts a number of electronic DJ's. There were food stalls and bar stands, where we spent the rest of the day dancing, drinking Sangria and cooling off under one of the sprinkler booths. I really enjoyed the music and felt at home in the crowds - definitely a festival I knew I enjoyed a whole lot more than a muddy day surrounded with mainstream chart music at T in the Park, for example!

On Monday, we walked to the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (National Museum of Art), where a little walk through the park behind it lead to the Olympic Stadium. Ever since visiting the Olympic Stadium in Berlin (you can read my post about it HERE), I grew a bit of a strange fascination into visiting old Olympic Stadiums. 

The stadium was re-named after the former President and is now known as Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys. It overlooks the rest of the city and the Telecommunications tower, which is a symbol of the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1982. Apparently this tower can be seen from anywhere in Barcelona.

That afternoon, we booked to visit the Sagrada Familia, a Catholic church designed by Gaudí. It's still under construction, despite having been worked on since Guadí's death in 1926. It's thought to be fully complete by the end of 2026.

The history of the architecture of the Sagrada Familia is really interesting as each of it's 18 towers represents figures such as Jesus Christ, the Gospels, Virgin Mary and the 12 Apostles. I only discovered this after visiting the building, but if I had known at the time, I probably would've appreciated the origins of the architecture a lot more than I felt I did. Unsurprisingly, the exterior completely blew me away, so much so, that it makes sense how long it has taken to construct the building because the structure is really spectacular. 

The interior, for me, wasn't as breathtaking as the outside. I'm still not actually sure of my reasoning behind this and although it is a commendable work of art, I sometimes fail to appreciate modernised Basilica interiors. I had the same opinion as with the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, although the two are not comparable in the slightest! To read more about Sagrada Familia, click HERE and for 15 facts about the construction, click HERE.

On our way back to the apartment, we stopped by L'Antic Theatre for a drink. The theatre is home to a lot of music and performing art shows, but we just sat outside and had a couple of drinks in the chilled out atmosphere of the bar's gardens. Afterwards, we went to Bacoa burger restaurant for dinner before calling it a night.

We decided to explore more of the Gothic area we were staying in on Tuesday morning, before heading to our second accommodation later that day. I booked for our final two nights to be spent in Hotel Parallel, which was a short 15 minute walk to the beach and close to the Parallel metro station, in case we wanted to venture to another part of the city.

I was really impressed with the hotel room and, that evening, we went across the road to a restaurant/bar called Pasapalo for a burger before heading back to chill on our terrace in the hotel room.

On our final full day, we did a bit of shopping around the Plaça de Catalunya and Passeig de Gràcia areas of the city, then jumped on a metro which took us to the beach. We decided to go to Bogatell beach, slightly north of Barcaloneta beach, which we read would be extremely busy during the Summer months. The beach was really nice and not too crowded, which was what we were hoping for. After a couple of hours, the weather started to cloud over so we left and headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. 

That evening, we had our last dinner in a restaurant about a 30 minute walk away from our hotel. We spent soooo long trying to find a square of restaurants we walked by the previous night, and finally found it with a bit of google mapping (I still can't, for the life of me, remember the name of this square!).

Thursday consisted of checking out of our hotel and hopping on a metro to Plaza De Catalunya, where we got the airport shuttle bus to the airport and I headed back to Leuven for another round of exams that were fast approaching.

I really fell in love with Barcelona when I was there. As I was born and raised in a capital city, I really enjoyed the vibrant and fast-paced life Barcelona seemed to offer. I'm intrigued to discover the city more, so much so, that it's currently at the top of the list of places I'd love to study my master's degree in in the future. Here's hoping!

24 October 2016

Living In Leuven | Girls' Holiday To Valencia

Between the 7th and 12th of July, my two friends and I decided to celebrate our exam results and ultimately our last few Erasmus days together by jetting off to Valencia. We left Leuven and after a few hours of train journeys, arrived at Brussels Charleroi airport and boarded our lunch time flight to Valencia.

When we arrived, the weather was very overcast, causing concern for the few days we would be spending there. Thankfully, the day we arrived was on the only questionable weather day - we were treated with stunning weather for the rest of our time spent there!

Plaza de Toros de Valencia

We booked to stay in 'Premium Apartments', on the street Espartero via The apartment was really beautiful, homely and most importantly, clean, but it wasn't perfect... I (maybe carelessly) booked a 1 bedroom apartment for 3 people, expecting the one bedroom would have suitable sleeping facilities for the 3 of us. We were actually presented with a double room and a sofa bed. Not the end of the world, but would've appreciated the heads up before booking!

The landlord also couldn't speak a word of English, so communication was very difficult. We didn't have hot water for the whole duration of our stay and although we communicated this to him through google translate and a series of hand gestures, it wasn't ever fixed.

Valencia Cathedral

Bad first impressions aside, we dumped our bags and ventured out into the city centre. We walked to the north of the city centre and had a drink outside the Cathedral. Previously, I had only been to Spain on family holidays, in holiday resorts around the Fuengirola area, so Spanish cities were completely alien to me. Initially, we decided on visiting Madrid, but with temperatures soaring to over 40C there, we settled on Valencia to sit by the beach for most of the week and still have the option of exploring around the city if we wanted to.

Valencia struck me as quite an old Spanish city oozing with energy, especially when it came to arts. I was really blown away by some of the architecture in the city (as I'll point out later on in this post!). 

Plaça de l'Ajuntament

In the evening, we walked around the shopping area and I 'fell' into a Sephora and managed to pick up a Kat Von D tattoo liner, which I have been obsessed with ever since. I was totally in awe at how late some of the shops were open until in Valencia, maybe because of living in Belgium where shopping hours are very, very restricted, it was nice to be somewhere a bit more laid back.

Thankfully, my friend knew an Erasmus student from Valencia, so he gave us tips throughout our stay. That evening, we went to El Carmen, a vibrant part of the city, for a few drinks and watched the club Únic become bombarded with a group of unwelcome erotic dancers frolicking in the windows (entertaining to say the least!).

On Friday, we decided to go to the beach for the day. The language barrier made working out how to get there a bit difficult, but we chanced it and hopped on a bus from the city centre. We got off at La Malvarrosa Beach and spent most of the day swimming and sunbathing. My Scottish genes were not in my favour this day as I forgot to re-apply suncream to my stomach and got completely sun burnt on the first day! So much so, I had to carefully select the clothes I was going to wear for the rest of the week, anything to avoid clothes rubbing around that area - it stung A LOT! 

That evening, we went to 100 Montaditos (100M) for dinner. It's a tapas place that mainly consists of small baguette rolls filled with an array of ingredients. Most of what is offered on the menu is €1 each, so it's really easy to build up an interesting table of food for a really reasonable price.

Afterwards, we got a taxi to the Quatre Carreres area of the city for the MYA Party. It was incredibly fancy - at the entrance we walked along a carpet with palm trees on either side and a number of outside bars. Further in was a dance floor. It was a really surreal experience partying partly outside, but really awesome and a night I'll always remember as being one of the coolest party venues I've ever vistited! It wasn't until later on in the evening we realised the main party was taking place downstairs. We checked it out, but it was really overcrowded, so we retreated back to the terrace. One too many G&T's later, we arrived back at our apartment at 6am.

We decided to take a break from sunbathing on Saturday and do a bit of sightseeing around the city. We were also intrigued to see the Quatre Carreres area during the day, as the scenery was so stunning there the night before. 

The bus route to the beach took us past the Puerta de la Mar, another landmark we were interested to see, so we headed towards that direction. Walking along the bridge and through the parks towards the Aquarium turned into a little photo shoot (please excuse my horrifically burnt knees)!

This part of Valencia is definitely the most memorable for me. The strip comprised of an Opera house, Aquarium, IMAX theatre, convention centre, performing arts theatre and probably a few other buildings I wasn't familiar of at the time. If we spent more time in Valencia, I would've loved to have checked out the Aquarium and I can imagine this part of Valencia is a really nice part to live in - definitely the highlight if you're looking for some entertainment during the day or at night.

As the sun was setting, it seemed as though the area was preparing for yet another party as we walked by an outdoor singing event.

Although we were tempted to stay for another MYA party that evening, we decided to jump into a taxi to a local restaurant, which specialised in Valencian paella. Travelling by taxi in Valencia was super cheap (compared to what we were used to in Belgium anyway) so we used this means of transport quite a lot during our stay. 

We went all out on the Spanish cuisine and ordered a Valencian paella, washed down with a jug of Sangria. A traditional paella from Valencia contains snails, something I've never tried before, but they were weirdly enjoyable. I really wasn't a fan of taking the snail out of its shell and it still being in its original shape. If it came out as a round piece of meat, I would have probably ate more than I did, but I couldn't handle eating something in the shape of a snail - tentacles and all!

After dinner, we went back to the apartment to freshen up and headed to a club someone we met at Mya the night before had recommended to us. It was called 'The White House' and was really, really terrible. We arrived at 2:30am, 30 minutes before it closed and it reminded me a bit of Edinburgh's Hive - a club I absolutely refuse to go into!

We decided to do a bit of googling and agreed on taking a taxi to the beach and go to one of the nightclubs there called Akuarela Playa. The venue was nice, with a large outdoor terrace area with a few bars and then a couple of dance floor areas inside. Each of the rooms we went into offered different kinds of music. I enjoyed myself, but I think it's more for an older crowd, late 20's and above. We left at 5am and walked along the beach. We bumped into a group of Spanish people crowded around a guitar, so we tagged along and sat with them, trying to communicate with broken Spanish/their fairly good attempts at speaking English. It was so picturesque and atmospheric, definitely not how I imagined the night would end.

Sunday was pretty relaxed. After a long night the night before, we didn't leave our apartment until 1pm and went straight to the beach. We were sensible this day and decided to hire some chairs and a parasol, so I could be completely guarded from the sun for the day.

Plaza Ayuntamiento

After spending the day in the sun, we went back to the apartment to get ready and headed out for our last late night in Valencia. We got slightly irritated and tired wandering around trying to find somewhere to eat, so we decided on a quick burger king and headed towards El Carmen again. 

We made a bar crawl for ourselves and eventually settled in a shot bar, where we merged with a group of Oxford/Cambridge students. After being away from the UK for so long, it was quite rewarding being reunited with British accents and the well-known British sarcasm. The night was followed with heated Brexit debates and I refuse to speak of that topic any more...

Mercat Central de Valencia

On Monday morning, we woke up in good time in order to catch a glimpse at the market before it closed for the day. We went to the 'Mercat Central de Valencia', which comprised mostly of food stalls. I can imagine the market is heavily used by residents for fresh produce, however, it wasn't of interest to us so we grabbed a smoothie and headed to the beach. 

Estació Del Nord

During our 3rd visit to the beach, we realised we had been visiting the area of the beach used less frequently by tourists. We mentioned the day before that there wasn't a lot of restaurants around us, something we found a bit strange, but it all started to make sense as we decided to walk along the whole beach front before taking the bus back to the apartment in the evening. At the very south of the beach strip, there were shops, restaurants and hotels, something we missed completely! We took a look inside some of the tourist shops, then headed back to the apartment to get ready for our final dinner in Valencia. 

To no surprise, we decided to head to El Carmen again. We found a restaurant called IO, which specialised in Spanish and Thai cuisine. The waitress gave us a table outside, where a guy played guitar for us whilst we ate. We were surrounded by a lot of questionable artwork, but it just added to the quirky atmosphere we got the impression the restaurant was trying to convey. We decided to order pork sausages, a thai curry and vegetable lasagna and share it between the 3 of us. As our flight was early the next again morning, we called it a night as soon as we finished dinner. 

On Tuesday, our airport transfer arrived at 7am and we took the sun with us and flew back to Leuven after a great few days relaxing and celebrating in the Spanish heat!
Copyright @ Alix Staines.