Introducing Duncan Rhodes (for those that don’t already know him), a new travel thruster series contributor, travel blogger and writer living in Barcelona, specialising in Catalonia and Spain.
Eight Questions for Duncan
1. How did you get involved in writing/blogging?
As told on a thousand “About Me” pages, (Editor’s note; that’s a lot of writing about yourself) my entry into the world of travel writing stemmed from a desire to escape the cubicle (in fact it was an open plan office technically, but hey). Unfortunately, this was way before travel blogging was “a thing”, and a life of reviewing Thailand’s best beaches from the comfort of a wifi-enabled hammock was not an option at the time. So rather I moved to Poland with the notion of writing the 21st century’s greatest novel in a country with dirt cheap rent. This was such a depressing endeavour (I was friendless in a foreign city, locked up all day and every day in my room with a laptop), that I applied for work with a local travel guide called Cracow Life. They took me on, we had a wild ride together and then four years later and I moved to Barcelona, using what I’d learned in Poland to found both Barcelona Life and Urban Travel Blog at the same time… whilst freelancing for the likes of CNN, Easyjet and Ryanair Magazines on the side.
2. Describe your earliest remembered ‘adventure’.
I guess my first real traveling adventure was an independent study trip abroad that formed part of my Classics degree at the University of Birmingham. It was the first time I’d gone abroad “travelling” rather than on holiday, and it was quite an adventure booking flights, trains, hotels and ferries to Greek islands for the first time, and doing so with a bunch of great people from my course. The University actually partially funded the trip and my Dad was feeling uncharacteristically generous so I remember it as 30 days eating and drinking like a king every night. Our last stop was Mykonos which was a paradise of beaches and nightclubs and had very little to do with our studies…
3. Share you ‘guilty’ travel secret.
I’m usually happier at home than travelling these days. Trying to improve my daily routine, rather than escape it is where I’m at.
4. Rockstar blogger or bestselling author and why?
Bestselling author all the way. The art of blogging is more about branding and promoting yourself, displaying business acumen and of course HDRing the hell out of your Instagram selfies. I came to blogging as a writer, and if there’s one disappointment about the industry, it seems that modern attention spans and a superabundance of information don’t leave much room for this dying art. You can’t sell books with selfies though, and I’m still clinging on to my dream of winning the Man Booker prize, topping the New York Times bestsellers charts and then marrying the female lead of the Hollywood adaption.
5. What is the best tip you have ever been given?
You know when you can’t open a jar of pickles? Just tap the lid against a hard surface a couple of times, then twist. Amazes me every time. (Editor’s note: Good tip, but easily amazed)
6. Where would you be if you could be anywhere right now?
Probably back in one of my favourite Krakow drinking dens (too many to mention), reading a good book. (Editor’s note: must be really exciting drinking dens if you read books in them?)
7. If you could travel with any three people, celebrity, fictional or historical who would be your companions?
I’m tempted to say Natalie Portman, Monica Bellucci and Penelope Cruz. But to appear a little less superficial I’ll opt for Noel Fielding, Jemaine Clement and Monica Bellucci (and I’ll tell Monica that Noel and Jemaine are gay).
8. What invention do you wish had been invented already?
In the light of recent events, I’d say a properly functioning democracy powered by a well-educated and tolerant population. (Editor’s note: So, you’d invent Sesame Street)
A Guide to Sustainable Travel in Barcelona
Barcelona has changed radically in the last 25 years. Catalysed by the 1992 Summer Olympics it has gone from a post-industrial port town to a cosmopolitan coastal city in record speed, and is currently the fourth most visited metropolis on the continent, after London, Paris and Rome. I’ve witnessed some of that change myself. When I first pitched up to the Catalan capital in 2009, the city was already showing signs of strain from mass tourism but in the last three or so years it seems the city is getting close to breaking point in terms of overcrowding. Beaches are no longer busy but are packed towel-to-towel (despite the fact the council recently increased the size of these artificial sands) and the streets and squares of the Old Town have gone from bustling to bedlam. Meanwhile the likes of Park Guell are no longer free (an attempt by the city to bring some order to the madness… and make a fair bit of coin on the side), and the daily queues for La Sagrada Familia match those outside the Apple Store when unveiling the latest iSwindle.
The situation has ignited a debate about the sustainability of mass tourism and the negative impact it has on residents and created an unprecedented level of friction between tourists and locals. (Or at least those locals who don’t directly depend on the income travel brings in). I don’t intend to wade into that debate here, and since – as a travel writer – I both encourage tourists to come to the city, and profit from doing so, perhaps I’m not the most partial voice anyhow. Rather, since Iain has kindly invited me to address his readers and given me a free rein on what to write about, let me propose an alternative guide of what to do in Barcelona; one that will help you avoid contributing to the problems of overcrowding and enjoy a more sustainable visit to the Catalan capital.
For nearly all of its obvious treasures, Barcelona has a less celebrated surprise that is usually cheaper, often just as good and always less popular. The works of Gaudi are a marvel for example, but how about checking out the works of Domenech i Montaner instead? He was young Antoni’s teacher and peer after all, a fierce proponent of Catalan independence, who wrote the manifesto on what Barcelona’s Modernista architecture should aspire to. His most famous work is the Palau de la Musica, a wonderful red brick concert hall decorated on the outside with wrought ironwork and ceramics, whose auditorium is illuminated entirely by natural light thanks to an enormous stained-glass skylight. Meanwhile the world’s most beautiful hospital, Domenech i Montaner’s Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau has been recently restored and reopened as a knowledge centre and a living museum to the Modernista architectural movement. It was here that George Orwell was treated for his neck wound incurred whilst fighting during the Spanish Civil War for the Communists. The disillusion he suffered in Spain would of course shape the 20th centuries two most important novels: Animal Farm and 1984.
In many cities, the central districts tend to be the most interesting, but in Barcelona there is no need to restrict oneself to just Las Ramblas, the Gothic Quarter and the Barceloneta beach district. Raval has been dubbed “Ravalistan” for its high density of immigrants but despite its historically poor reputation it’s probably got the best bars in the city (check out Joaquim Costa street to see what I mean), its spacious and tree-lined Rambla is infinitely more pleasant than Las Ramblas proper, and you’ll also find the best vintage shops in the city on Carrer Riera Baixa and Carrer Tallers. The village atmosphere of Gracia district is a poorly kept secret, with its picturesque squares and quaint cafes, but it still manages to avoid the worst of the tourist bottlenecking and is well worth popping into for a coffee or a cerveza. Meanwhile the never-ending Poblenou district – once dubbed the Catalan Manchester for its industrial character – is being reinvented as a European silicone valley, with trendy coffee shops and modern tapas restaurants bringing life back to the streets. The city is currently piloting a pedestrian superblock in the district, making it an even more attractive place to hang out.
Nowhere has the city changed more since I’ve been here than in Glories. This one-time no go roundabout has been completely reimagined. There’s no escaping the major roads that have to cut through here, but the presence of the new Design Museum, and the urban spaces around it, along with a shiny new home for the long-standing Encants Flea Market, have put life in a dead space. Of course, this area is also home to Barcelona’s very own version of London’s gherkin, the Torre Agbar, designed by the French “starchitect” Jean Nouvel as a eco-friendly skyscraper and now synonymous with the city’s skyline. The best feature is its second skin of over 56,000 glass panels that help keep the building cool in summer and warm in winter.
The best way to explore the city, in my opinion, is by bike. This way you can get out of the overcrowded centre without adding to the carbon footprint of your holiday, and explore some of the places I’ve mentioned so far. The city has been pretty forward thinking when it comes to bike lanes and once you factor in the flatness of the city (for the most part) and the usually warm and dry conditions there’s really no excuse for not getting in the saddle. There are bike rental shops on nearly every corner of the downtown barrios, and if you want to go with a guide then I can recommend Steel Donkey bike rides, who have earned Tripadvisor Certificates of Excellence for four years in a row. Whereas many of the mainstream tours actually contribute to overcrowding the main sights by taking people around in big clumsy groups, Steel Donkeys specialise in more personal small group tours with a focus on seeing some of the alternative sights of the city. (And if you like the look of them, the same team applied the same ethos to their Tapas & Beers Food Tours, where they explore some of the best local bars, bodegas and tapas bars in Gracia, El Borne and Raval).
Of course, the best way to solve Barcelona’s overcrowding issue is to get out of the city altogether. And the number of amazing day trip options from the city is staggering. Just down the road for example there’s the wonderful resort town of Sitges, which I like to liken to a Spanish Brighton, as it’s both family-friendly and very liberal – it’s a major gay travel destination – with plenty going on at night. Best of all there are 17 beaches, many of which have been awarded blue flags, and that make Barcelona’s sands seem tawdry by comparison. Wine lovers shouldn’t miss the opportunity to head into the Penedes region, where the country’s famous Cavas are blended and bottled. There are plenty of great wine tours that leave from Barcelona, or you can take the train to several of the most famous vineyards. Montserrat mountain makes for a religious pilgrimmage that nature and history buffs with love too. The legendary Black Madonna statuette was found here under the limestone cliffs of this jagged mountain, and visiting the sacred abbey where it is on display can be combined with a hike around some of Catalonia’s most stunning scenery. I will finish by tipping my hat towards the towns of Cadaques, Tarragona, Tossa del Mar, Figueres and Girona, as well as the craggy clear-watered bays of the Costa Brava and let you do a little search engine work to get a glimpse of what each has to offer.
So yes, come to Barcelona, but don’t spend all of your time in the queue for La Sagrada Familia (hint: if you are going be sure buy your tickets online on their website and you can reserve an entry slot… way better!), clogging the streets of Las Ramblas and El Gotico or fighting for a space on Barceloneta beach. Spread yourself wide to discover the whole city, and take advantage of some of the great out of town locations for a well-rounded and more sustainable visit.
If you’re still looking for some even more alternative tips then check out my Secret Seven things to do in the City over on Urban Travel Blog.
After flying to Madrid in the Spring of 2009 to report on the local nightlife for Ryanair Magazine, instead of heading home Duncan decided to take the train to Barcelona and continue his travel writing career in Catalonia. He soon became on expert on the City of Counts, founding Barcelona Life and Urban Travel Blog from his office (which was actually a cupboard). Every winter he continues to slave away, so that when summer comes around he can get dedicate himself to a life of beach volleyball, street festivals and city breaks around Europe. You can follow his adventures or drop him a line via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.