The Uffizi Hunger Games

The Uffizi Hunger Games

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We had really soaked up the atmosphere of the city, had gone leather shopping and had drunk shots with a bald midget in some shisha bar after showing off our break dance moves. There was however, one last, very important thing left to do…

I always prefer seeing architecture and getting a feel of a city or a place through its people and learning through living history. So if I have a limited time in a place then I usually prefer spending it outside and taking in the atmosphere. However with one of Europe’s most famous museums and some of the world’s most famous works of art, here in Florence I was going to have to make an exception.

Florence is called the capital of arts; according to statistics produced by UNESCO, 60% of the world’s most important works of art are located in Italy and approximately half of these are in Florence. From the 13th to the 16th century it was a seemingly endless source of creative masterpieces and Italian genius. Both Dante and Michelangelo were born here. Boccaccio wrote his ‘Decameron’ in Florence. The Italian Renaissance, Europe’s richest cultural period, began in Florence when the artist Brunelleschi finished the Duomo, with the huge dome.

It was our last day in Florence. We walked past the bronze wild boar and rubbed its snout for luck. I had to do it twice because my coin bounced back and didn’t fall into the drain as it was supposed to…but the second time it did and so now I can safely tell you all that we will one day return to Florence*

*And also that I WILL now win the National Lottery…

Our first stop was to the the Galleria dell’ Accademia. We walked around the large rooms filled with religious paintings and iconography. Somehow in every room us art connoisseurs recognized the “famous painting” amongst all the others…Our conversations went something like this:

Abi: “I know that one…” “that’s that famous one”…

Stella: Ah yes, I think you’re right, who’s its by again”

Abi: “I can’t remember, but I’ve seen it before…. (Puzzled expression)*

*Move onto the next painting

My favorite things in the Galleria were the medieval religious flat paintings and the sculptures. There was an incredible room of plaster busts, but it was the majestic and spectacularly displayed, Michelangelo’s David, the most famous statue in the world, that was the star of the show. The stunning statue represents the Biblical hero David and because of the nature of the hero it represented, the statue soon came to symbolize the defense of civil liberties embodied in the Republic of Florence, an independent city-state threatened on all sides by more powerful rival states and by the hegemony of the Medici family. The eyes of David, with a warning glare, were turned towards Rome.

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We took a short break from culture and went to watch some hot fitties run the marathon around the streets of Florence after which I ate Tuscan Stew served in a piece of hollowed out bread at the highly recommended II Cernacchino coffee shop.

Then it was on to the Uffizi, one of the oldest and most famous art museums in Europe, which is so popular we had to book tickets to go well in advance. We passed the Vasari Corridor and walked to the gallery where I was struck by its beautiful design and courtyard. Arches lead onto the river and shuttered windows looked down upon the quadrant and upon us. The art inside was incredible but the building with its ornate beams and halls decorated with frescos was stunning in itself. It was great seeing the Carravagios and the Rubens but I just adored the Botticelli’s. Their size, their fluidity and rich colors were celestial. The Birth of Venus was scandalous when it was first displayed and I could see why, but these paintings stood out because they represented the men of the renaissance, with references to ancient Rome instead of Christianity. The Allegory of Spring was my favorite, not just because we have a copy of it at home, but also because it looks like a Flemish Tapistry and contains over 130 specifically named plants.

The museum was fascinating and we walked on through rooms and rooms of masterpieces. After a couple of hours we started to get tiered but we had to keep going. This place was huge and it wouldn’t surprise me if people entered the Uffizi and died of old age before escaping. We were close to the exit when we passed a darkened room full of flopped out tourists, recovering on giant brown sofas and armchairs. Were they still breathing? Was this another version of the Hunger Games? Dehydrated and desperate, they knew, like us, that there were still at least 5 rooms to go…After cramping and blistering we finally crawled out of Florence’s culture maze! Was the Uffizi Hunger Games worth completing? See for yourselves ūüėČ

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Mosset Through The Seasons

Mosset Through The Seasons

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† So I am supper excited to be writing to you from the South of France! I arrived yesterday and can’t wait to show your my pictures and share my stories of my trip with you ūüôā The good news is that whereas in London it was super freezing, here people are still going swimming in the sea!

My base for my week in the sun is Mosset, which is 55km from Perpignan and is considered to be one of the most picturesque villages in France. The medieval town looks down upon the Castellane vallee from its rocky perch and a beautiful bunzzai pine tree grows from the roof of its church. In the foothills of the Pyrenees, the little cluster of red roofs and houses is surrounded by hundreds of hectares of forest and beautiful wild mountainside. This place is very special for me, as it is where I grew up and it is where my family home is. I learnt to speak french at the village school and the thick forests are where we went skiing every Tuesday afternoon. I don’t get to come back here as often as I would like, but when I do come it is the perfect place to relax and really see the beauty of nature.

Being so close to nature, you really get to experience and see all the seasons unfold in all their glory. The snow capped peaks in winter, the flowers and butterflies in the spring, the blue skies and swallows of the summer. But for me it is in Autumn when this place is the most spectacular, as the weather is usually great, the sky is really dark blue and the hills are ablaze with color. The leaves of the cherry trees turn bright red and orange, yellows and beautiful purples erupt all around the houses.

Everyone though has their favourite season, so I thought I would show you some pictures of Mosset through the seasons so that you could decide on yours! ūüôā

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In 1258, Mosset became part of the Kingdom of Aragon after having been under Moor, French and Roman rule.  At this time the village was 3km away and the remnants of this part of the village still stands to this day. From the 10th until the 13th century, the population began gathering around the castle and it is this way that the village moved to its present site around 700 m in altitude which is higher up the valley.  Part of the Kindgom of Majorca until 1344, Mosset became an important boarder town and city walls and fortifications were built. On the route of the Kindgom of Aragon and France, it grew in wealth, population and economic importance. After 1344, Mosset once more became under Aragon rule and it was in this period that the castle was renovated. Only in 1649 is Mosset attached to France under the Pyrenees treaties. The village was little affected by the measure from the central government and the revolution and the inhabitants maintain their combative, unique and rugged personality.

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Barrel of Laughs at the Edinburgh Fringe

Barrel of Laughs at the Edinburgh Fringe

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So after my mini Euro Trip, we decided to go for a quick weekend up to Edinburgh, to see if some quick wit and sharp one liners, would help beat the post-holiday blues… Going up by train was super convenient and very fast.Edinburgh’s train station is right at its center, and so when we stepped off the train, we were overwhelmed by the amount of people and in this way it really felt as if we were at the heart of all the action .¬† The journey was really pleasant. We had a lovely views of the sea that I enjoyed whilst I listened to the people behind me talk. At first their voices were just background noise and then as the story progressed, my ears pricked up and I followed with closer attention. It turned out that one of the men was a descendent of Faberg√©’s partners, who fled the Russian Revolution and had come to live in England. Now Faberg√©’s jewel encrusted eggs are some of the most precious and most valuable objects in the world. The man admitted to having some small ones at home, including one that his mother used to wear around her neck on a gold chain. The story which ensued really felt as if it had been taken from someone’s worst nightmare. One day, on her way to work,¬† his mother noticed that the necklace and million pound egg had come off. In a panic she retraced her steps and found nothing. In a last desperate attempt to recover this priceless heirloom, she went to the bus depot and asked to look at the bus in which she had gone to work. After patiently waiting for it to return to the parking, she ran inside to where she had been sat. There, wedged in between the two seats, was a crumpled little gold chain and little golden egg. I didn’t know who to feel more sorry for, the stupid egg woman, who thought that the egg would be safer with her than in a vault…or the person who was sitting next to her and decided not to pick it up or take it home, because it could have been a bomb…

OR ME…Because now I realize that all I have ever wanted is a jewel encrusted egg…and it seems that I am the only person on this train that doesn’t have one…

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Here are some of the pictures that I took with my parents. I loved walking around the center. There were so many people and the crowds spilled out from bars and open air comedy shows. Pubs and clubs all had signs with the daily comedy schedules. Men in kilts played bagpipes outside of some of the nicest hotels and I loved the Harris Tweed shops, such as Walker Slater, that sold beautiful jackets and tartan blankets. Each clan has their own one and it was fun trying to find my family’s own, being that I am a quarter Scottish. One of Edinburgh’s most imposing landmarks is the Scott Monument and is the largest in the world to a writer. It is made out of sandstone and stands in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh, opposite the Jenners department store on Princes Street and near to Edinburgh Waverley Railway Station, which is named for one of Walter Scott’s novels. The tower¬† has a series of viewing platforms reached by a series of narrow spiral staircases giving panoramic views of central Edinburgh and its surroundings. The highest platform is reached by a total of 287 steps and those who climb the steps can obtain a certificate commemorating their achievement.

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For me one of the best things that we did that weekend was to go for a walk up Carlton Hill to the Royal Observatory. From there you can get a great view of the city and also of the Queen’s Castle and Royal Residence, Balmoral. You can also get up and personal with the Nelson Monument and its dropping ball. I had been there a few times before, once for New Year’s Eve, as its a great place to watch the fireworks and also once for a sunrise whiskey when my brother got married. We didn’t have time to do¬† everything this time so hopefully we will be able to go back soon!DSC_1032

In the meantime here are some of my favorite jokes from this year’s fringe:

1. “I’ve decided to sell my hoover…well, it was just collecting dust.” – Tim Vine

2. ” I did a gig at a fertility clinic. I got a standing ovulation” – Tim Vine

3. “Always leave them wanting more, my uncle used to say to me. Which is why he lost his job in disaster relief.” – Mark Watson

4. “I wanted to do a show about feminism. But my husband wouldn’t let me.”¬† – Ria Lina

5. “Miley Cyrus. You know when she was born? 1992. I’ve got condiments in my cupboard older than that.” – Lucy Beaumont

6. “You have to be careful in my country because we have bad cars and good wine, a dangerous combination.” – Francesco De Carlo

Laugh???? Eeek… I am almost pissed myself!!!! ;P

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Speedos, Scorpians and other tasty bites around lake Hou Hai

Speedos, Scorpians and other tasty bites around lake Hou Hai

I was jet lagged and quite exhausted from the mammoth journey, but today was my first day in Beijing and I was determined to see some cool stuff! Shirwa arrived, looking similarly traumatized as I had done. He had taken a taxi from the airport so had avoided the car ride with the random stranger, but our hostel had been located in such a little alleyway that the taxi driver had refused to enter the Hutong, possibly through fear and so had bundled Shirwa out of the car on some nearby main road. After a few panicked calls (my phone was on silent and in my bag), I rushed out of the Slum Hutong to greet my weary friend.

We got all our valuables put into the safe, eyed up suspiciously and gave menacing glares of DON’T TOUCH MY STUFF to our dorm room mates and set off for Hou Hai. Hou Hai is a lake around which there are bars, restaurants, night markets and more Hutongs. This time we did as Lonely Planet recommended us to do and got pretty lost in the Hutongs and surrounding lake area.¬† I can’t exactly tell you therefore where all the photos were taken, but lets just say in Old Beijing, by a lake and at a night market.

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On the way to the Lake and the night market – remember to always look both ways when crossing the roads ūüėČ

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Weeping willows dropped lazily into the still water whilst Chinese men swam and dived in wearing their Speedos. The restaurants’ terraces looked out over a sea of giant lilies. It was idyllic. Well, except for the customers who were eating their food who got an extra helping of sausage.

 

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We came face to face with the legendary fried scorpions, starfish and sea horses. Octopus balls and corn blown up and moulded into the shapes of crazy animals. We bought some smoking drink called ? Perhaps someone could help me out? Anyway it was¬† our first taste of China.¬† It was excitting, I was daring and adventurous. The moment didn’t last too long though as after one sip we realized that it was cold steaming tea, so it hadn’t been boiled – tried to ask about the state of the water, failed miserably, saw some dodgy looking metal container, smiled sweetly, nodding our heads whilst walking increasingly quickly backwards, before dashing away and throwing the contents away once behind a corner. Clearly we had just avoided days of unnecessary leakages!

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We went to a little local restaurant and browsed the exotic menu. We avoided any real internal parts of animals and in doing so had a sumptuous dinner of rice, vegetables and chicken. It was all so cheap, we ordered enough food for 20.

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Shirwa was greeted by an America who insisted on buying me and him a drink. Shirwa he claimed was”the only other black man in Beijing”. The whole night was really fun!

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Everything down there was truly an assault on the senses. Don’t take health and safety lightly and don’t forget your gas mask when going to the toilet in one of the many public ones available. At least that is what I think the sign says although I can’t be sure:

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Smells of food were mixed with the smells of the drains which had overflowed in the really heavy rain, which had not stopped for 7 days before our arrival. Lovers sang ballads on the Karaoke machines, whilst tuk-tuks whizzed passed us. The football was on, but then we checked…we would have had to stay up until 3am to see the kick off.

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Colored flags lit up the night sky, as did red lanterns. In a secluded part, we stumbled upon beautiful classical Chinese music being played by older locals. Their families and friends gathered round to listen to the soft tunes, melodious against the scenic backdrop of the lake. There were temples too, and gates which we passed and I bought a beautifully hand painted parasol which really came in handy when we climbed the Great Wall!

When in Rome…

When in Rome…

¬†Strange as it may seem now, a few years ago, after having flown around the world all my life, I developed a massive fear of flying. I don’t know if any of you reading this have ever felt such irrational fears? It got to the point where I would embark and with every turn, bump or even sound I thought the plane was going down. Anyone who got up to the toilet I would scrutinize as I thought they were a terrorist. If someone had said put a gun to your head and play Russian roulette or board and fly on a plane, I would have felt safer to pull the trigger. Enclosed, trapped, no way out, no control. Horrible. So, I made a stand and said no more flying. For the next THREE years I traveled everywhere by coach, train or car. My family would set off and I would join them, sometimes thousands of miles away a few days later.

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For those who haven’t experienced them, coach journeys are long, smelly and worst of all you meet and can’t escape from weirdos. This wasn’t quite life in the fast lane.¬† So, I decided it was time, time to fight to the fear. After 3 years of remaining Earth bound, I booked two flights to somewhere not too far, but somewhere where I had always wanted to go – Rome. It took a lot for me to make that first journey, but facing my fears is what I had to do. The city was so wonderful, the sites so interesting. It was then that I vowed never to let fear hamper my life again.

I would greatly recommend going inside the Colosseum and and buying the Colosseum Tour. We did ours through SP.Q.R tours, which gave us a free tour of the Palatine Hill and the Forum Panorama. Really I felt that this day was the highlight of our trip. Just a short walk away, up a large boulevard is the majestic Victor Emmanuel monument. In the evening I would recommend Plaza di Fiori, where we had wine and listened to beautiful music. Another must see is the Pantheon, an architectural marvel, which is close to the Fontana di Trevi and Piazza Navona where I had the best Capuccino ever! Just walking round the little streets and finding a pretty cafe is really romantic in this city. We had a week, so we also went to see the Circus Maximus and the abandoned Roman Baths, which are further out. The weather that day was stormy, so we got some great atmospheric shots. It was incredible how the murals were just left to the rain and it was even possible to walk on them. This city just has so much culture and history. In most cities this would be the main attraction! Plaza del Popolo was lively and this was the best place for shopping! Villa Burghesa offered great views over the city. I would recommend hiring an electric tuk tuk to pedal round the grounds.

Finally, the Vatican, a whole country in itself, with nuns and gigantic religious statues galor. Vatican City, one of the most sacred places in Christendom, attests to a great history and a formidable spiritual venture. A unique collection of artistic and architectural masterpieces lie within the boundaries of this small state. At its centre is St Peter’s Basilica, with its double colonnade and a circular piazza in front and bordered by palaces and gardens. The basilica, erected over the tomb of St Peter the Apostle, is the largest religious building in the world, the fruit of the combined genius of Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, Bernini and Maderno. We did the tour, but apart from enabling us to jump the queue (which was massive), I wouldn’t really recommend it. A great way to bypass this is to read to Angels and Demons by Dan Brown (one of my favorite books) and look out for all the places referred to and discussed in that. When you go to the Vatican don’t forget to bring some food and water with you, as your day will be long and there are no places to buy anything once inside. Don’t forget to see Castle Sant’ Angelo on your way back to the city.

Rice, Oranges and Whale Bones

Rice, Oranges and Whale Bones

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Old bones lie, it would seem, washed ashore by the sea. A graveyard, carcasses picked clean and now bleached by the sun. Smooth and sharp they criss-cross into infinity. A whale struggles and breaks free jumping into the air from the little water¬† which remains, crystal clear, dangerously blue. Perhaps the fish found themselves stuck here that time when the river overflowed. Many died, so channels were diverted. Trees now grow, people run and children play on a giant man, where water once gushed and cooled the city’s banks. Yes, this is how these creatures came to be here, I am sure.

The sea is close, sometimes I think they can smell it. But the plains between the graveyard and the water are dry. There is no return for these poor creatures now. Passed the port and out of the city, we travel along the sea front.

Behind us is the earth, where the farmers toil and the trees grow ripe with fruit.

All I see now is water, on both sides. The lake to the right and the sea to the left. Little boats and reeds. A girl wears a traditional costume. Further on we go. Here there are fields, but they are not dry, not these ones. These ones are are flooded. Must we walk on water? Little white triangles appear on the horizon. It feels like I have traveled to the end of Valencia, to the end of the world. Passed the Cathedral and the ancient fish, the fields and even over the sea itself.

We have found it, and what humble beginnings for such a source of fame. When the men cooked in the open air of their orchards near lake Albufera, could they of known? That it would be you, la Paella, you, who would end up conquering the world?

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The Grotesque Wonderland of Las Fallas de Valencia

The Grotesque Wonderland of Las Fallas de Valencia

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I followed the white rabbit and here I am Valencia’s own Grotesque Wonderland. Funny and full of color, the imagination towers and looms above the heads of the people crowding below. Creatures from children’s books, dreams and fantastical lands. Princess, flowers, beauty and elegance.

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Everywhere there are lights, like thousands of worms, flickering in the night. Explosions in the sky, and thousands of stars trickle down, showering the river in gold.

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All that is beautiful and good in the world, is here, brighter than usual and larger than life. There is the Eiffel tower, Paris in all its glory and at the end, in a blaze of color, a couple in black and white dancing. Is it right for people to have taken the world, created by God or by chance and made it so much better? My neck aches and my eyes drink in the wonders. This is real and I still can’t believe it.

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Beautiful girls and women walk around the city with flowers. Their journey has been long. From all four corners they have come and with their flowers the dress of the Virgin Mary takes shape. She is protective and oh so beautiful! Red and white, red and white, the fabric is lush and fragrant. It cascades down, like nature’s own velvet waterfall.

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But beware, in a world where there is good and joy, there must also be evil. The sky is getting darker and eyes grow colder. The light goes down and then we see. We see the Devils, the imps and the monsters satirically laughing and leering at us. Faces become menacing and reproachful.

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Thunder and lightning. We hide behind others. Here they come, they approach. Their tails flick, their ears are red, like the color of the fire which they spit and twirl. The noises are terrible, loud bangs, my ears will explode and so will my heart.

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The whisper goes round. It is time. The jury have given their verdict. It is time. The condemned stand stone still, the plebs stand greedily close. The fuses are light. The beauty, the ugliness, nothing is exempt. We have created, we can destroy. Today, if only today, we are the Gods of this Earth.

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It begins. One by one, they fall. We watch in horror and awe. Our faces are scotched by the heat. Shrieks and creaks, hands reach up out of the flames. Mercy they cry. But tonight, they will get none. The fire fills the plaza and licks dangerously close to houses and great buildings.

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The dream and the nightmare are over, reduced to ash and when I wake up nothing is left.

Las Fallas is a traditional celebration held in Valencia to commemorate Saint Joseph. Each neighborhood of the city has an organized group of people, the Casal faller, that works all year long holding fundraising parties and dinners, usually featuring the famous dish, paella, a specialty of the region. Each casal faller produces a construction known as a falla which is eventually burnt. The fallas are constructed according to an agreed upon theme that has traditionally been, and continues to be, a satirical jab at anything or anyone who draws the attention of the critical eyes of the falleros‚ÄĒthe celebrants themselves.

The five days and nights of Falles are a continuous party. There are a multitude of processions: historical, religious such as the offering of the flowers to the Virgin Mary and comical. Crowds in the restaurants spill out into the streets. Explosions can be heard all day long and sporadically through the night. Huge firework displays, the fire parade, la Mascleta and the burning are just a few of the highlights of this extraordinary festival. 

Gaudi, Picasso…in Barcelona we all become ledgends

Gaudi, Picasso…in Barcelona we all become ledgends

It is strange, seldom when you live in a city do you fully appreciate it for the things which the tourist fly thousands of miles to see. How many times do you venture to Westminster to admire the Houses of Parliament? Or do you make the trip up the hill to see the Sacre Coeur and the great vistas of Paris which the Cathedral enjoys? As a New Yorker do you venture up the Empire State Building often? Or make your way to the Great Wall if you live in Beijing?Playing, shopping,competing, partying, sleeping. Dramas and laughter. Sometimes a city is just a frame for the bigger picture,friends, networks and communities- invisible to the world and to Google.We engulf ourselves in humanity and the everyday. Are we mistaken to do this and do we lack culture and appreciation? Indeed, home is where the heart is, so I will start off with what made my heart beat stronger and what fueled my passions and my rages in this city of sun, dust and wine.

Barcelona. Countless parties, countless faces and memories. Some fade and yet others never will. I miss it and yet as it is part of me I will take it wherever I go. I remember the Hard Rock Cafe and the flocks of people when leaving the Nou Camp. Godo, Barcelona’s tennis open where a famous tennis player asked me out. Chupito, the shot bar, where we would order the “Monica Lewinsky” for the most extroverted ones of our group.The face of the tennis academy owner when he walked into the nightclub Shoko and saw 28 of his underage pupils dancing on the bar and

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Our beach parties, the Starbucks in Plaza Catalunya and the L95, the bus which we would wait hours for and curse when we had missed the last one after a night out. Port Olympic and its tiny English cinema – the only place to watch a film for the first 6 months for lack of language. El Bosc de les Fades, the fairytale wood, a bar decorated to look like an enchanted forest.

La Obeja Negra, the black sheep – sangria and pop corn, a fantastic mix. I remember the blue of the sky and the red of the Earth, the heat and the dry palm trees. The leathers and the dark browns, the dark hair. The loudness of the voices and the smells of the drains. Las Ramblas, magical, alive with birds, portraits and grotesque statues.

My firs trip to the magnificent mind blowing Parc Guele designed by Gaudi, when we raced each other up the stairs to the top. When we almost got run over crossing the boulevard Paseig de Gracia and the Ronaldinho look alikes who played tricks with a football along las Ramblas.

Late nights and excruciating hangovers. The Gothic quarter, and the beautiful woman who sang or maybe still sings in the square. The courtyards, and the great tapas restaurant which we found when we got lost trying to find the Picasso Museum.

Four years, and not once inside the Sagrada Familia and not once to Montjuic. Once to Plaza Espana, on a date to see the sun set and the waterfalls change color. What I would give now to see inside that Cathedral, now that I am more than 1,000 miles away. We have returned now, to see what we have missed.