Sunday, 22 May 2016

Nina Travels - BCN | Part 1

Hola Barcelona, we meet again

As part of Fiona's early 25 birthday celebrations we threw our summer clothes into our suitcases, temporarily said goodbye to the Welsh rain and a 2 hour flight later found ourselves in warmer climates.

The last time in was in Barcelona was on my year abroad and it was a flying visit in the freezing cold so I was pretty excited to head back and explore Barcelona a little bit more in depth. I fell in love last time I was here and this time it was no different.

I dragged Fiona out of the hotel early on our first morning to head up to Parc Güell. An easy metro ride from our hotel and a slight uphill incline later and we were there. The sun had its hat on and I worked up a bit of a sweat in my trench coat.

Since my last visit this place has changed a lot. I was a bit annoyed to find out that you had to have a ticket to enter certain parts of the park now, including the famous platform with the beautiful mosaic benches which I had been able to visit for free last time.

So a word to the wise, if you want to get the full experience buy your tickets online before you get to Barcelona. There is a cap on how many people can enter for each specific time slot so choose your time slot wisely. We joined to queue for tickets at around 11:30 and were told that the next bunch of tickets would get us in for 7pm. So yeah, buy your tickets before you get there!

So despite 'ticket gate' I enjoyed the Parc just as much as when I first went. It is HUGE and although very busy it didn't feel crowded or overwhelming as these kinds of attractions can get.

If you visit Barcelona I would recommend that this be one of your first stops, it's amazing to get a full view of the city before you head downtown and explore everything you saw from above.

So we did just that. 

Taking the metro back into town (we bought the 4 days BCN pass which was worth its weight in gold) we stopped by the famous Sagrada Familia which is still not finished! We arrived at peak tourist time so it was heaving and a little stressful as the church is slap bang in the middle of a block with several busy roads. We saw many almost deaths where people were standing on the road to get the perfect picture.

We took a few minutes break here sitting in a park behind the 'Gaudi side', being surrounded by so many people was stressful especially when they're all armed with selfie sticks and you narrowly miss being clobbered by one.

The architecture and human effort out into making Sagrada Familia blows my mind every time I see the church. Apparently the church is entering the final stages of construction, only about 100 years since the first foundations were built. It's due to be finished in 2026 (when I'll be 35...) which is the year that also marks the centenary of Gaudi's death.

Next stop was La Boqueria. Also heaving with tourists and selfie sticks but a fascinating visit.

I'm not convinced if this is where the locals shop, if they do they come here the second the market opens in the morning to avoid all the fuss. We picked up a fresh juice to quench our thirst. I went for strawberry and coconut and it was so delicious.

For lunch we went to Bacoa on Av. del Marquès de l'Argentera. At this point I was so hungry (or hangry if you ask Fiona) that I didn't snap a proper photo of my food. But trust me when I say it was an amazing burger. The meat they use is from local farms in Catalonia and they use recycled cups and napkins. Plus they also make their own variety of ketchup. It's super yum and super easy to order - you fill out a form (which is also mercifully in English) and take it to the counter. Prices are also pretty decent. 

There are lots of Bacoas dotted around BCN so check out to see which branch fits best with your schedule.

One of the things I enjoy the most on holidays is just walking around and soaking up all of the atmosphere. This is pretty easy to do in Barcelona, especially when the weather is as lovely as it was on our trip. Warm enough to be without a coat but not roasting hot so that we struggled. 

Everything looks better under a blue sky anyway doesn't it?

So what better way to round of a churro-ific day than with some churros and a piping hot coffee? Never underestimate the power of a good coffee, this is something Fiona learnt very quickly with me. Not enough food or caffeine gets me a little grumpy so this was just what the doctor had ordered.

I left the food options in the very capable hands of Fiona who had a hit list of all the must go food places and this was at the very top.

Granja M Viader first opened its doors in 1870 and has been run by the same family for four generations. Rather unassuming from the outside we were their first customers of the late afternoon. But by the time we settled up it was getting pretty full. Inside it's not very fancy either, but I've found that the best places spend little on their decor and more on their food. So I was very excited about getting stuck in.

You can always tell how good a place is by whether the locals go there too. This is very much the case here. A group of elderly Catalonians were there for what appeared to be one their usual coffee, churros and catch up meetings.

Now I have had many a churro in my 25 years and these were hands down the best. Served to us piping hot with just the right amount of sugar and with a deep cup of hot dark chocolate this was the perfect afternoon snack. Often with churros it's the chocolate that lets you down, it's either too sweet or runny. Not the case here. The chocolate was a little bit tart which offsets the sweet churros nicely.

Sufficiently strengthened by a coffee and on a sugar high Fiona and me did some quick shopping (Spanish brands are so much more interesting and fun than British brands), then a quick stop off at La Pedrera Casa Milà before heading back to the hotel and enjoying a bottle of bubbly on our roof top pool.

Also, if you're looking for somewhere to have amazing tapas you NEED to go to Bardot Barcelona. After resting at the pool we decided to head there for dinner. Fiona and me ordered all the potatoes, all the cheese and all the meat (see evidence here), washed down with a bottle of Catalonian red wine. Needless to say I slept like a baby. 

More BCN photos coming soon!

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Thursday, 19 May 2016

How To Be Alone Part 3: Little Solo Adventures

Let's face it. Most of us have spent an aimless Saturday night endlessly scrolling through some travel bloggers Instagram wishing that you could just pack it all in and go travelling.

Alas, I have council tax to pay and a job to go to. I've moved around a lot as a teen and so I'm actually very content with being settled and growing my roots in Wales. My parents also live somewhere fairly exotic so I try and see them as often as possible.

But even I get itchy feet sometimes. Sometimes I want to pull down my suitcase from its hiding place on my wardrobe, and just throw everything in and head out. Sadly holidays and lack of funds means this isn't always an option.

What I'm trying to do instead is appreciate what is right in front of my doorstep, which in this case is the green mountain of Caerphilly.

Mini solo adventures are actually a great way to get out of the house and keeping yourself busy. It's easy to be sat at home overthinking things and getting down, but being in the fresh air seems to shake the cobwebs off.

Caerphilly is a quick train ride away from my house and on a beautiful clear day climbing to the top of the mountain is a good way of working up a bit of a sweat. Once I got to the top I rewarded myself with a thermos of tea and a breather.

Just being out of the house lifts my spirits. 

Little explorations outside of my own front door are a great way to be out and about but also feel like you are discovering something new. It might not be the Maldives or Thailand but this is my home country and exploring more of it makes me feel closer to it.

Do some research, see what's in your own back garden, pack a bag, put your trainers on and just get outside. You'll feel all the better for it.

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Saturday, 14 May 2016

Nina Eats - Oscars of Cowbridge

There's no better way to spend a Saturday morning than jumping into the car with some of your best friends and going on a mini road trip. Especially when there's good food involved.

So that's just what my friends and I did. Our Über driver Sophie (5/5 Über rating) took the wheel and a short 30 minute trip later we found ourselves in the gorgeous Cowbridge ready to get stuck in.

Oscars of Cowbridge is already well established but in recent times has had a little bit of a makeover including a brand new menu. You can tell it's popular with the locals because the place was packed when we arrived.

Unusual for my friends and I, we all sat in silence carefully taking the menu in. There's something for everyone; from brunch items to flat breads, wraps and burgers. There are also plenty of vegetarian options.

Oscars is all about offering contemporary twists on old favourites. You think you know what to expect but in the end it's the little details that give a fresh take on the old classics. With this ethos and the tasteful decor you know Oscars are on to a winner.

In the end after much deliberating, I opted for the chicken burger with an added slice of grilled halloumi (it would be rude not to). The breaded buttermilk fried chicken came in a brioche bun and was also served with parmesan, a crispy onion ring, a side of coleslaw, chips and salad. Plenty to be getting on with.

The rest of the group when for a variety of burgers and the delicious looking cauliflower steak served with asparagus, tomatoes and sweet potato fries. I loved my meal but had massive food envy when the cauliflower steaks were brought out. They looked delicious.

To wash everything down I of course had a gin cocktail and of course had the gin cocktail that was inspired by Queen Elizabeth's 90th Birthday. Tanqueray gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup mixed up together might not be everyone's preferred tipple but it went down a treat for me especially on what turned out to be a very warm day.

We all ate in happy silence. The portions were very generous, even I who loves a portion challenge found myself defeated. We were all far too full to even cast our eye over the dessert menu but that just means I have an excuse to go back again.

I very much enjoyed my first Oscars experience. The decor is great, the playlist was also well curated and the general atmosphere of the restaurant is lovely. It's a busy place on Saturday so it's fun to people watch and see everyone going about their day.

The service was excellent. The staff were very attentive, to the point where when they didn't stock one of the gins that my friend was after the staff physically brought out all the  different types of gin they did have for my friend to chose from. 

If you're not local to Cowbridge, Oscars is well worth the little road trip. The beauty of Cardiff and its surroundings is that in no time you find yourself in a completely different place with exciting things to explore.

Thanks for having us Oscars, we'll be back I'm sure!

Oscars of Cowbridge
65 High Street, Cowbridge, Vale of Glamorgan CF71 7AF 
Telephone: 01446 771984 
Opening times: Monday to Saturday 11am to 11pm

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