Category Archives: Spain

• Old Town of Segovia and its Aqueduct

Visit: 17th December 2017

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This December I was invited to Spain to attend my new company’s Christmas party. It was held in a small town in the hills of Castile and León, known for its connections with the Spanish royal family. I spent four days working in their office in Madrid before we were bussed north to La Granja where we enjoyed dinner and drinks followed by a traditional lunch of cochinillo (suckling pig) the next day.

Knowing that La Granja – which features a Baroque palace with gardens modelled on Versailles – is just a few miles from the World Heritage city of Segovia, I delayed my return home by a day to give myself time for a visit.

I arrived in the evening by taxi and checked in to my hotel to find the view from my room was both festive and historic – being situated very close to both the city’s famous aqueduct and a temporary giant bauble.

The aqueduct was built by the Romans and was the highlight of my visit. It is, with Pont du Gard in France, one of the two best-preserved Roman aqueducts in existence and spans a remarkable 813 metres at a height of 28 metres. It is quite incredible to look up at the 20,000 granite blocks and to realise that it is not held together by any sort of mortar or cement. Using the principles of the arch – as discovered by the Romans – it is gravity that holds the structure together, with the blocks pressing in on themselves. The aqueduct remained in use until the 19th century.

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It was a quiet, cold Sunday morning as I walked uphill from the hotel into the city’s medieval streets. Interesting buildings abound, such as this one covered with spikes that were – according to the sign – meant to be part of some sort of defensive system.

After some coffee and a couple of apple pastries I continued to the main square, where I found the city’s 16th century cathedral. An impressive sight, it was one of the last to be built in the Gothic style (at a time when the Renaissance had begun to take hold elsewhere).

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I went inside and saw that the only way to get up the tower was to take a guided tour – of which there were only three a day and the first was about to start. So, not realising that it would be conducted entirely in Spanish, I signed up and spent a full 90 minutes walking up spiral staircases and not really understanding what was going on. There was at least a video that had English subtitles, so I was able to glean that the tower is taller than that of Toledo Cathedral and that a fire caused by lightning destroyed its spire not long after its completion.

With eight World Heritage Sites the ‘autonomous community’ (bureaucratic speak for province) of Castile and León lays claim to having more than any other subnational region in the world. Tuscany and Lombardy – both strong contenders – each have six. Update: Tuscany now has 8 and Lombardy 10, so Castile and León are no longer world record holders – thanks to reader Thomas for pointing that out!

Leaving Segovia for Madrid I bought a ticket on the slow train which wound its way through the mountains for two hours. After failing to make my way through the world’s most confusing train station (the unsigned labyrinth of Chamartín) I gave up and took a taxi to the airport for my flight home. This gave me a chance to reflect on my World Heritage Site travels of 2017. Whilst not a record year (that was 2015), I managed to visit 15 sites in 9 countries – all but one of which were in Europe. My companions included Natalie (9), Nowell and Ross (2 each), plus various university and business school friends in Riga and the Lebanon. Of the sites, my favourite was probably the Vatican City, followed by either Rome or the Norwegian Fjords. The city of Le Havre deserves a mention, too, for surprising to the upside.

The count now stands at 118 – Merry Christmas and let’s see what 2018 will bring!

Sites visited in 2017

Speicherstadt and Kontorhaus District with Chilehaus (Germany), January
Vatican City (Holy See), February
Historic Centre of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura (Italy, Holy See), February
Assisi, the Basilica of San Francesco and Other Franciscan Sites (Italy), February
Historic Centre of Vienna (Austria), May
Palace and Gardens of Schönbrunn (Austria), May
City of Graz – Historic Centre and Schloss Eggenberg (Austria), May
Semmering Railway (Austria), May
Byblos (Lebanon), May
Paris, Banks of the Seine (France), June
Le Havre, the City Rebuilt by Auguste Perret (France), July
West Norwegian Fjords – Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord (Norway), October
Bryggen (Norway), October
Historic Centre of Riga (Latvia), November
Old Town of Segovia and its Aqueduct (Spain), December
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• Historic City of Toledo

Visit: 10th/11th December 2016

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Toledo was the last WHS of my Portugal/Spain trip in December 2016. After touring Alcalá de Henares on my own I met Natalie at Madrid’s airport and the next morning we caught a coach from Spain’s current capital to its former one.

Toledo is a hilltop medieval city that bears witness (as so often in Iberian World Heritage Sites) to the meeting of cultures – successively the Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians, with Jews also present pretty much throughout.

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The city’s cathedral, above, was for a long time the centre of Spanish Catholicism. As the Protestant Reformation swept Europe in the 16th century the Catholic authorities sought to retain believers by commissioning artists to paint vivid scenes from the life of Christ. One of the most famous of those artists today was the travelling Greek painter known as El Greco. He lived in Toledo for 38 years and left a legacy of paintings that justify a visit on their own. El Greco is known for his use of shimmering bold colours that seem to burst out of the canvas, combining elements of Byzantine art with Western painting. In the El Greco museum there is a collection of Jesus and the 12 Apostles which I found really impressive.

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Toledo is defended on three sides by the Tajo river, much as Durham is by the Wear. We reached our hotel from the bus station by walking up the hill’s steep approach and then went out for lunch. Here follows a top tip: if you ever visit Toledo and enjoy informal but excellent dining, go to the newly-opened Mercado de San Agustín. It is a five-storey food court where you can choose from a range of options and get some really delicious tapas-style Spanish food. We enjoyed it so much we ate there twice. It was similar to the Time Out Market in Lisbon, where we had a great time in March 2015.

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Toledo is a maze of narrow alleyways – like Venice without the canals. Local vendors play on the city’s medieval past of course, meaning disconcertingly many shops are packed to the gunwales with swords and daggers for sale. On Sunday morning the weather had changed from the blue skies in the picture of the cathedral, above, to a total white-out caused by thick fog. We set off for a walk to the Jewish quarter and the city’s other cathedral.

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Natalie and I realised then that neither of us had ever been in a synagogue. We have been in plenty of churches and the occasional mosque (in my case only in Istanbul), but never a Jewish place of worship. So we took the opportunity to have a look around a former synagogue that is no longer in use here in Toledo.

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I liked all the columns and the gold, but it did lack some atmosphere due its not being in active use. Hopefully we’ll get to see a working synagogue eventually.

And that was really the end of the visit. We caught our coach back to Madrid and then the Metro to Barajas airport. My 10 day trip to Portugal and Spain that had begun with the laurel forests of Madeira had come to an end, with a respectable 8 World Heritage Sites visited. I only have a few more to visit in Portugal (in the north and in the Azores), but plenty left to do in Spain, which is a real gold mine. This trip saw me cross the 100 mark (I think that was at the Monastery of Batalha in Portugal), putting my total after Toledo at 104. With 1,052 in the world at the time of writing, that’s just another 948 to go!

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• University and Historic Precinct of Alcalá de Henares

Visit: 9th December 2016

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Following a successful road trip around southern Portugal I had two more nights abroad before I was due to return home. I caught an Iberia flight from Lisbon to Madrid, where I would spend one night alone before Natalie joined me for two more nights. On landing at Barajas airport I took a local bus to Alcalá de Henares, a small city to the northeast of Madrid.

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Alcalá, as the locals seem to call it, was the hometown of Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes (though I have to admit to not having read the book). He is one of the most significant figures in Spanish literature. Catherine of Aragon was born here too. The UNESCO inscription, however, cites the fact that is was the world’s first “planned university city”. There are quite a number of ‘urban planning’ World Heritage Sites, and they can be a little underwhelming to the layman (of which I count myself as one). I spent the night of my arrival in an Irish bar where I teamed up with a baggage handler and an academic to take part (and score poorly) in a pub quiz.

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The next day was devoted to sightseeing, all on my own. This would have been an ordeal if I hadn’t had my Kindle with me. Although this is still an active university city there wasn’t a lot to do on an overcast weekday in December. I took a look around the archaeological museum and the main university building, which features the quadrangle above.

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One of my highlights was having lunch in a renowned local bar/restaurant. These mushrooms in garlic butter are a local speciality.

The most memorable thing about Alcalá de Henares, however, must be the huge number of storks that call the city centre home. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that a stork was nesting on on top of every tall building. Enlarge the picture below and see how many storks you can count on a single building.

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Alcalá de Henares is not the first university city WHS I have visited. Others include Coimbra, in Portugal, and Padua, in Italy. Coimbra wasn’t terribly interesting either, but for me Alcalá is the least interesting of the three. Padua is great, though – go there!

At the end of a relaxing day of sitting around in cafes and counting storks I journeyed into Madrid to visit the Prado gallery. I had attempted it the previous evening, too, but had been stymied by its early closure due to it being a public holiday. This time it seemed I would make it, but I arrived to find a queue snaking round the block. The museum is free after 6pm, which is when I turned up. I queued for half an hour but it was going nowhere fast, so reluctantly I gave up. Our galleries in Britain are free, yet we don’t seem to have this problem. The Spanish are obviously a very cultural people and hats off to them, but next time I’m going to have to bite the bullet and pay up to enter during the daytime if I’m ever going to see the collection of Velázquezes and Bosches that the Prado is famous for.

• Tower of Hercules

Visit: 1st May 2016

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Natalie and I arrived in our third and final Galician city, La Coruña, by coach from Lugo. I had chosen a hotel right at the northern tip of the city, on a peninsular close to its famous landmark, the so-called Tower of Hercules. After checking in we went straight out to see it in under the bright blue May Day sky.

It occurs to me that this building is probably one of the smallest World Heritage Sites in the world by footprint. It is not especially tall, but it stands out quite dramatically because of its position on a hill and the lack of any other buildings nearby. 

The lighthouse is notable because it is very much a 1st century Roman building. From the outside it clearly looks much more recent than that, but that is because the Roman core has an eighteenth century façade. When the Romans left Spain following the decline of their empire the grand lighthouse fell into disrepair. Like many buildings of its time, it suffered at the hands of locals keen to use its quality stone as building materials for their own homes. But in 1788, following a humiliating raid on the city of La Coruña by Sir Francis Drake, the order was given for a renovation of the tower that would bring it up to date and make it useful as a defensive structure.

Above, top left and bottom left, are pictures of the Roman-era interior chambers and foundations, respectively. On the right is a diagram showing how the Roman core was subsequently encased by the military engineer Eustaquio Giannini with new exterior walls and an extension on top. Giannini went to remarkable lengths during his building work to keep as much of the Roman original as was practicable – an aim that was most unusual at the time.

Entry to the tower is pretty cheap, and the long climb gives a great view over the peninsular and the city of La Coruña beyond. The people of Galicia like to think of themselves as a Celtic people, and a mosaic that is visible from the top of the tower depicts the Celtic tribes with symbols and names in their local languages. If you look carefully you should be able to make out Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, Manx and Galicia.

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So why the name Tower of Hercules? The name comes from a legend originating in the thirteenth century, according to which there was a local giant named Gerión who threatened the whole region. Hercules came and fought with him and slew him, burying his head where the tower now stands. He then ordered the construction of the tower and founded the city of La Coruña.

As for the city, it seemed a nice enough place. The centre point is a public square with a fine town hall, above, with domes resembling Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. After dining in the city on the Sunday night we returned there for a final few hours on Monday morning before catching a taxi to the city’s airport for a Vueling flight to Heathrow.

The Tower of Hercules doesn’t look much, and I was looking forward to it least of the three WHSs we took in during this trip. But it turned out to be my favourite, probably because of the impressive durability of what the Romans had built and the seamless integration of an ancient building into a much more modern fortification capable of helping to defend a city in an age of gunpowder and galleons.

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• Roman Walls of Lugo

Visit: 30th April 2016

Natalie and I arrived from Santiago de Compostela in Lugo by coach, where I was surprised by the size of the hill it was built on. Lugo is a small city of about a hundred thousand people, most of them living outside of its famous walls. It isn’t much to look at in the outskirts, but when we walked out of the bus station we found ourselves right next to one of the main Roman gates.

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Lugo was founded by the Romans under Emperor Augustus in the first century AD. The walls stretch 2 km in a circle and are 10 metres high. Originally reinforced with 84 watchtowers, they comprise one of the best-preserved Roman fortifications in existence today. The walls were kept in use by their builders for a century and a half, but following the fall of the Roman Empire they continued to be utilised by successive rulers of the city. These included the Germanic Suebi and Visigoths.

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Like the walls of Dubrovnik, the wall at Lugo is still a public space and it is free to walk on them. We walked most of the way round in the early evening sunlight of an uncharacteristically cloudless Galician sky. This contrasted greatly with the dense fog that accompanied our visit to that most famous of Roman fortifications – Hadrian’s Wall – back in October last year. Lugo’s walls are in better shape than Hadrian’s, but that is more than can be said for some of Lugo’s buildings: both within and without there are numerous dilapidated old houses and industrial units covered with graffiti. Rather like Matera in southern Italy, it felt like a place that could do with some government money to give the historic features more dignity.

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Inside the walls the most notable building is the grand Gothic (amongst a hodgepodge of other styles) Cathedral of Santa María. Lugo became the seat of a bishopric in the fifth century, and the first church on the site of the present-day cathedral was built in 755. We exited the wall when we got to the cathedral in order to enter the its dimly-lit interior.

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I found it rather underwhelming to begin with, but the darkness was soon pierced by the brilliant silver of the altarpiece in the choir. The ceiling paintings above were much to my taste, as I have also found at Würzburg, Florence and Brühl. Although not a World Heritage Site, the cathedral is on Spain’s cultural heritage register.

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We spent a night in a hotel just outside the city walls and dined within them at a downmarket bar. The food was fairly disappointing, but we had been unable to find any proper restaurants open at the hour we wanted to eat. The Spanish, of course, like to take their meals far later than we English are used to.

The next morning it was back to the coach station for the final leg of our weekend tour, which was to be another two hour journey. This time we were headed north-west, to the coast, and to the Roman lighthouse at La Coruña known as the Tower of Hercules.

• Santiago de Compostela (Old Town)

Visit: 30th April 2016

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The weekend straddling April and May 2016 was the first bank holiday weekend of the summer season. I often take advantage of the chance to go away for three days without taking any time off work and this time around I chose Galicia, in north-west Spain.

There are three World Heritage Sites that happen to form a triangle in Galicia, each site about 50 miles apart. These are the Roman Walls of Lugo, the Tower of Hercules in La Coruña and our first destination, the old town of Santiago de Compostela.

Although Natalie lives near Heathrow (and I live in Bristol) we have found that every trip we have planned from now onwards ended up being out of Gatwick. The flight to Santiago departed at the ungodly time of 6.30am, so we stayed the night before in an airport hotel. It was a clear morning when we departed, giving a clear view of Southampton and the Isle of Wight from 20,000 feet.

Santiago de Compostela is a site of special significance in Christianity, for it is the destination of one of the three most important pilgrimages. Santiago translates into English as ‘St James’, and the pilgrimage route is named the Way of St James because it is traditionally held that the remains of St James – one of Jesus’s Twelve Apostles – are buried within the city’s cathedral. There is no single route for the pilgrims who come on foot from all over Europe, but instead a huge network of routes beginning in countries like Germany and Italy, heading through France and then converging at the Pyrenees into a single route through northern Spain to Santiago. UNESCO loves the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and has inscribed it no less than three times on the list:

  • once for the city itself
  • again as the single route through Spain
  • and finally as the disparate set of routes and churches that supported the pilgrims in France (which I have been to a few parts of but have much yet still to see).

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The symbol of the pilgrimage is the clamshell. Seeing it on a signpost lets pilgrims know that they are on the right route, and if a building displays it that means it welcomes pilgrims to shelter (eg. in churches or private houses). Pilgrims carry clamshells about their person, often mounted on a special wide-brimmed hat. We saw quite a few of them on our trip, including a couple on the flight (skipping the hard part, I thought!) but also many pacing along the roads between Santiago and Lugo. Britain is a source of pilgrims – one of the ways it used to be done was to walk through Cornwall to St Michael’s Mount near Penzance and then take a boat across the Channel to Mont St Michel in Brittany before continuing the journey on foot to Spain. My parents’ house is on the route itself, so we are well used to seeing the clamshell on our Cornish walks. At Easter this year we walked a section of the Cornish route (where it is known as St Michael’s Way) – as you can see from the signpost below.

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Upon arriving at Santiago’s Lavacolla airport we rode a bus to the city. The centre point is naturally the cathedral, which is a grand Gothic building very much in the Spanish style. It was a beautiful bright day, but windy, meaning it was still overall not very warm. They had a no-bag rule in the cathedral (because of the number of backpackers who turn up there) so Natalie and I took turns to go inside whilst the other watched the bags.

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The interior features much gold and finery within the nave and choir. The altar, below, is of course the focal point, and within it is a statue of Christ which pilgrims and regular visitors alike queue up to touch. The pilgrims also wish to touch the left foot of a statue of St James, which signifies that they have finally reached their destination. The stereoscopic effect on the floor of one of the chapels put me in mind of the Silk Market in Valencia.

The medieval streets of Santiago de Compostela date from the tenth century, when they were rebuilt after having been destroyed by the Muslim invaders of the Iberian peninsular. It is said that the discovery of the remains of St James in Santiago around that time gave the Christians the motivation to push the invaders out over the following centuries.

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There is a local almond cake that holds EU protected geographical indication status, known as a Tarta de Santiago. Although this one has been knocked slightly askew, you can make out the cross of the Order of Santiago in icing sugar.

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Convent of St Pelagius of Antealtares

We spent a few hours in Santiago before catching a coach to our next destination: the relatively remote city of Lugo, two hours to the east. This was the first time we had travelled long distance by coach, and I was relieved to find that Natalie didn’t hate it as much as she had feared!

• Palau de la Música Catalana and Hospital de Sant Pau, Barcelona

Visit: 29th March 2015

IMG_4173 This spring Natalie and I have been fortunate enough to have lots of mini-trips coming one after the other. At the end of March we returned to Barcelona for just one night, after I saw an artichoke festival advertised for Sunday 29th March in a western suburb of the city named St Boi. We took a lunchtime flight out of Stansted to Barcelona’s El Prat Airport (much closer in than the distant but charming Girona we had stayed in back in November). We landed at 4pm, giving us just enough time to finish off the Gaudí WHS with a visit to the Casa Mila and Casa Vicens. We never managed to visit the faraway Crypt at Colonia Güell, but I’m calling this one finished with six of the seven subcomponents done. After sampling some French cheese and Spanish pears in our rather inconveniently-located hotel we ate a good meal of tapas at a nearby restaurant. The next morning we were booked on a tour of the first of two subcomponents that make up this World Heritage Site: the Palau de la Música Catalana. The link between this music hall and the other site – a hospital in the northeast of the city – is that they were both designed by the Catalan Modernist architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner. His work is often mistaken for that of his more famous Catalan contemporary Antoni Gaudí – and I can understand why – but it is important to remember him as his own man. IMG_4163 There are only two ways you can get into the music hall – either buy a ticket to see a concert there or go on a guided tour. We opted for the latter option; at €18 it is cheaper than Gaudí’s Casa Mila and more interesting if you have already visited another of Gaudí’s buildings, such as the Casa Battló. There were only about 20 people on our tour, most of whom you can see in the vertical panorama above. IMG_4201 The music hall was built between 1905 and 1908 on a hemmed-in plot of land that used to house a church. Being part of the Art Nouveau movement, the design of the building called for lots of ornamentation, curves, colour and light – properties which endear them to visitors today but which were not always in fashion. The statues of 18 muses, some of which you can see on the stage behind me, were used during the 1920s and 30s as mere coat hooks for musicians as they practiced for performances at more prestigious venues. IMG_4168 Nowadays the music hall is very much back in favour, and plays host to over 300 concerts a year. Clearly the best time to visit must be a matinee performance, when you can benefit from the vast amount of natural light that floods into the hall through the side and rear windows and of course the magnificent skylight, nicknamed ‘the Glow worm’. Above you can clearly see the dramatic effect as it dips down into the auditorium, maximising the amount of light that could be garnered in the decidedly second-rate plot of land the architect had to work with. IMG_4159 There is one obvious downside of having so much glass in a music hall, and that is the impact on the building’s acoustics. When it was fully occupied, the body mass of the 2,200 people sitting in the auditorium absorbed enough of the sound that resonated off the glass that no problems occurred. The hall is said to be particularly suited to the appreciation of higher-pitched instruments, such as the violin and the flute. However on nights that were not fully booked there would be a noticeably suboptimal acoustic environment. The Palau eventually abrogated this problem in the 1980s when they raised funds to install sound dampening surfaces on the underside of every seat in the house. Now, when a seat is unoccupied it is flipped up and the underside absorbs as much sound as a human body would if the seat were occupied, thus ensuring perfect acoustics at every performance. After an engrossing tour of the music hall we set off on the Metro for the second site of the day – the Hospital de Sant Pau. There is still a very modern working hospital here, which we accidentally went into before being directed round the corner to the Modernist original. The hospital, whose main building is shown in the title photo, has the feel of a small city. It consisted of something like 27 separate buildings, connected by underground service tunnels. It was built between 1902 and 1930 and takes up a large square space in which its own internal grid layout is at a striking 45° angle to the rest of Barcelona’s city streets. IMG_4183 You can see plenty of Art Nouveau flourishes in the brightly coloured and ornate tiles, domes and mosaics that Domènech i Montaner used. It really is a pleasant place to be – in fact Natalie as much as said she would deliberately injure herself in order to be treated there, were it still a working hospital. In fact that was until recently quite feasible, since it was only withdrawn from service in 2009 – one year after being inscribed as a World Heritage Site along with the music hall. It was closed for renovation until 2014, making this one of the first opportunities the tourist has had to walk around. IMG_4179 If you are wondering how the artichoke festival was, I’m afraid I was a little disappointed. It was so crowded, and the prices so low, that there were far more people than the stalls could handle – meaning massive queues for everything. When we did get some food I wasn’t overawed with the flavours (one egregious example was a cheese-stuffed artichoke on a stick covered in candy floss!). It turns out that I like artichokes best the simplest way you can buy them – floating in a jar of olive oil from a supermarket. Nevertheless, we had a nice little trip and were glad to have been able to finish off the unfinished business with Gaudí as well as seeing a second dimension to Catalan Modernism and thereby completing the WHSs of Barcelona.