Eurotrip Tips for Beginners : Transportation

What makes Europe the easiest continent to travel through? Its extensive and well-developed transportation network, of course! No other continent in the world is as thoroughly-connected and linked as Europe is – making it the perfect destination for first-time solo travelers.

The knowledge of how to maximize such a facility definitely becomes a valuable skill to have – not only can it save you vast amounts of money and time, but it can also give you the experiences of a lifetime.  For that reason, I feel like it is my duty to share the knowledge I have accumulated over the past year – spreading the love!

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The Tourist’s Contradiction

The world is a contradiction, the universe is a paradox. That definitely applies to people too – human beings are a series of contradictions. Some people say that one is only fruitful at the cost of being rich in contradictions, because the truth lies somewhere in between.

Throughout my travels, I have observed some contradictions that exist in tourists. These contradictions make me chuckle, somewhat an entertaining feat that leaves me wondering of the extent of human contradictions. Probably the most common contradiction committed by tourists, myself included of course is….

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My Thoughts on Traveling Alone

Prior to moving to Barcelona, I have never traveled alone. Yes, I may take flights and trains alone, but never have I been on a trip planned solely for myself for extended periods of time.

Realizing that I may not be able to get this opportunity again, where I am young, filled with energy, absent of pressing responsibilities,  far from the madding crowd, fussing parents or clingy boyfriends and financially sustainable, I made a promise to myself that I shall travel alone at least once just to try it out. If I don’t like it, then at least I can say I’ve tried it to know.

All aboard!

All aboard!

One month, four countries and ten cities later, my verdict on traveling alone is that
I absolutely love it
. Here are the reasons why.

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Basking in the Belgium sun

First things first, Belgian food!

Did you know that French Fries had it humble beginnings in Belgium? Well, neither did I! So how did fries come to adopt “French” instead of “Belgian” to its name? The tale told among Belgians goes on like this…

During World War 1, American soldiers arrived in Belgium and tasted the deliciousness of its golden crispy fries. However, as french is the local language of the Belgian Army and the Americans didn’t know any better that they were in a country called Belgium and not France, they called it “French Fries”. French fries were soon introduced back to the US where it eventually made its global debut.

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5 Things I Love Most about Barcelona

I decided to take on a slightly different writing style for Barcelona than my usual blog entries. Reason being? I find it too hard to write an all-encompassing post about this city for fears of leaving something out. Instead, I would summarize the things I love most about Barcelona.

NOTE : Some of the items in the list is not signature of Barcelona, but is deemed appropriate since this is a personal account of my experience.  


5 Things I Love Most about Barcelona

1) Antoni Gaudi’s architecture

He is the architect that is the face of Barcelona. In fact, he is such a prominent figure in Barcelona that the city itself is fondly called “The Barcelona of Gaudi” to locals and architecture enthusiasts. Gaudi’s architectural style is best described as quirky and infused with elements of nature. Another distinguishing characteristic of Gaudi’s design is his use of broken mosaic to ensemble collages that embellishes his buildings.

Parc Guell

Parc Guell houses one of the best views of Barcelona. Gaudi’s signature mosaic work can be seen here

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The iconic Parc Guell stairs that leads up to the marketplace

I have questioned myself several times whether it is appropriate to give a person the number one spot of my favourite things about Barcelona, but every time the answer always comes up as a yes. In fact, it is only appropriate to pay such respects to the man who envisioned The Church of Sagrada Familia, the most visited monument in Spain. The church has been under construction since 1882, yes it is still under construction after 133 years!  Completion is said to be achieved in 2026, or was it 2036? You’ll never really know with them Catalans….

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It will take 150 years to realise Gaudi’s vision of La Sagrada Familia

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The Interior of Sagrada Familia features distinctive stained glass designs that invokes peace and serenity

My favourite Gaudi work is Casa Batllo (pronounced : Casa Butt-yo). It was a house that Gaudi designed for the wealthy family of Josep Batllo. Any attempt of me trying to describe this magical place will prove to be futile, so I will let the promotional video of Casa Batllo speak for itself.

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Casa Batllo or the House of Bones

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The entire house was designed without a single straight line

2) Bicing

Public transportation has never looked this cool. Bicing is a bicycle sharing service provided by no other than Vodafone, one of the biggest Telco companies in Europe. Barcelona boasts more than 400 Bicing stations located in central locations around the city. The infrastructure of the city accommodates cyclists very well with cycling pathways available in almost all major roads and sidewalks being large enough to fit pedestrians and cyclists.

bicing

Bicing stations similar to this is available throughout Barcelona city

So how does it work? Interested people can apply for a Bicing card online and pay 45 euros to use the service for a whole year. The first 30 minutes of the service is free of charge, but subsequent 30 minutes are 73 cents each. Mind you, they have limited the service to people actually living in Barcelona so that the service would not be abused by tourists. You can only apply for a Bicing card if you have a citizen’s ID or NIE number (Número de Identificación de Extranjero or Foreigner Identification Number). Also the fact that the service is completely in Spanish or Catalan is a give away to the kind of target audience they are expecting.

Being a cycling enthusiast, finally being able to live in a city that I can cycle as a form of transportation is a dream come true. There is a Bicing station across the road from where I live. All I have to do is tap my Bicing card and my exploration of Barcelona on bicycle begins! I used to cycle in Sydney too but only as a form of competitive sport due to the lack of cyclist-friendly routes. Sydney’s geographical structure (hilly) makes relying solely on cycling will prove to be an attempt deemed suitable merely for the physically in top shape. In Barcelona however, every Tom, Dick and Harry that can ride a bicycle and has some common sense in interpreting traffic can cycle away.

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Getting anywhere in Barcelona has never been easier!

3) Hola guapo / guapa!

Translation : Hello handsome / beautiful! 

I was surprised upon arriving in Barcelona when everyone started calling me beautiful. The shopkeepers, government officers, university students, policemen, gym trainers and even random dog-walkers greeted me with an acknowledgement of my good looks. After a few days of ego-boosts and thoughts of how maybe my look is considered exotic in Spain, it suddenly dawned upon me that they called everyone beautiful! So no, its not that I’ve suddenly become more attractive in Spain although I could choose to believe that instead. The warmth of the people here really exudes itself through simple things like this. I can also see why Spaniards are such confident people. Why wouldn’t you, when you grow up being told that you’re beautiful!

This kind of reminded me of Malaysia, where every person you meet is your “brother, sister, uncle or auntie”.  Ordering in mamak stalls (signature Malaysian-Indian restaurants) sounds something like

“Brother, one roti canai and milo ais please!”.

Or asking for directions from a random older lady would be

“Auntie do you know how I can get to the closest LRT station?”.

The parallels of the warmth of collectivist cultures around the globe are quite significant. Also it could be that I miss Malaysia quite a bit more than I’d like to admit, so I try to find association in little things like this.

4) Catalan nationalism

Forgive my ignorance, but I thought people in Barcelona spoke Spanish. Little did I know when I filed my exchange application, that they in fact speak a local dialect called Catalan. Slightly ironic that I came halfway across the world to improve my Spanish, only to realise that I mistakenly chose one of the few places in Spain where Spanish is not their main language. Catalan to an untrained ear sounds like a mixture of French and Spanish, at times similar to Portuguese.

The language is only the beginning of the story, it gives foreigners like myself a peek on the tension that lives in Catalonia. For those of you that don’t know, Catalonia is the state where Barcelona is located. Catalonia has been trying to gain independence from Spain since the early 1900s. I have heard about the riots that were occurring in Spain, but it was not until I was in Barcelona that I truly felt the strength of nationalistic pride the Catalans carry in them.

I love the patriotism that the Catalans have, where every Catalan young or old will speak passionately of their fight for independence. As I look up when wandering through the streets of Barcelona, Catalan Independence flags adorn the windows of apartment buildings. I am in no place to comment about the political situation of Catalan independence, but I think it is fair to say the Catalan nationalism is indeed admirable, respective of which side you choose to take on this matter.

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Catalan independence flag hanging from apartment windows is a common sight

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“A New European State”

5) Siesta

Translation : Nap time

Last but simply not the least, siesta! This is more of a Spanish tradition than it is a Barcelona one. It is typical of shops, banks, government offices and university to take an extended lunch break that includes siesta time. Siesta time varies with the type of business operation so it is best to get any official thing done in the morning when you know that things will be open.

If you need to sort out your classes in unviersity, factor in the 1-3pm break they have. If you need to get any business done with the bank, make sure you remember that nothing is open past 2pm. It takes a little getting used to, but you can’t help but to love a laid-back country that takes their napping seriously. For a person that thinks naps are one of the best pleasures in life,  I am simply grateful that people no longer give me those judgemental sneers when I tell them I’m off for a siesta.