The Monastery of Monserrrat

During our trip to Barcelona, we took advantage of having a car to drive all the way to the Monstery of Monserrat. A beacon of Catalan culture since the IXth century, when it was founded, this Monastery survived one millenium of upheaval. The most serious threats to the monastery being the depredations by the Napoleonian troops in XIXth century and the Spanish civil war in the XXth century (23 monks were killed by Republicans). Today, it is a place of pilgrimage, of tourism and also of hiking due to its magnificent views.

Driving to Monserrat

The first part of the drive is pretty much boring, as it involves taking the highway C-58 out of Barcelona for about 45 kms. Ordinary drive, ordinary traffic, so not much to say about  it. It starts getting interesting when you reach the area of Monserrat, as you see high gorges arising and the road starts making twists and turns.

Driving in Spain
Driving in Spain

The gorges of Monserrat

As you arrive near Monserrat, the twisting road starts being surrounded by high gorges, which prepare you to the elevated position of the Monastery.

Gorges of Monserrat
The gorges of Monserrat seen by drone.

As we were around, we managed to take a “dronie” in those gorges.

Dronie in Monserrat
A dronie in the gorges of Monserrat

The beauty of those gorges cannot be stressed enough. It is a wild and beautiful area.

Monserrat river
Monserrat and the local river seen by drone


Monserrat as haven for Catalan language

Besides being an important monastery, Monserrat was also one of the first places where Catalan language was born and developed. In that respect, one of the most beautiful hymns in Catalan is “El Virolai”. While I did not get the chance of hearing this hymn during my visit, you can have a rendition below. It is absolutely profound and moving.


El Virolai sung by the boy’s choir of Monserrat

Taking the Cremallera

The monastery of Monserrat is built on the top of the mountain. To reach it, you can either take the cremallera, or you can also climb a hiking trail right to the top.

Monserrat tram
The monserrat tram passing above one of the earlier models near the station

The views from the cremallera are just gorgeous, so make sure you are sitting on the left side of the train for pics.

Mitchy in the Cremallera of Monserrat
Mitchy poses in the cremallera of Monserrat

The Cremallera goes all the way to the top of the mountain, near the Basillica.

Cremallera of Monserrat
Cremallera of Monserrat

The Basilica of Monserrat

Mitchy at Monserrat
Mitchy on the esplanade of Monserrat

The basilica of Monserrat was originally built according to the Gothic style. However, it was heavily damaged during the Napoleonic wars, and thus had to be rebuilt towards the end of the XIXth century. Today, it is thus not really the IXth century monastery and basilica that you will be seeing but something more recent, with the facade built in 1904.

Mitchy before the Monserrat basilica facade.
Mitchy before the Monserrat basilica facade.

The church itself is very beautiful. After WWII, a new area was built to hold the Black Madonna statue of Monserrat.

The Black Madonna

Mitchy praying at the Virgin of Monserrat.
Mitchy praying before the Virgin of Monserrat

This “Black Madonna” is not black by design, but the wood in which it is sculpted darkened with age. Thereafter, successive restorers painted the statue black. Originally, legend had it that it was sculpted in Jerusalem, in the early days of the church, some 2000 years ago. Although not as old as that, it seems the statue must be dating back to the late XIIth century. There are very few Black Madonna statues in Europe, the other most famous one being in Czestochowa in Poland.

Its importance in the Catholic religious history cannot be understated, as it is before this very Black Madonna that Ignatius de Loyola lay down his weapons, before creating the Company of Jesus or the Jesuit order as it is known nowadays. For Catholics, it is an important moment and something to be thankful for.

The Ave Maria path

After you exit the statue display area, you arrive at an area known as the “Ave Maria camin”. It is a long path alongside the exterior of the Basilica, where you can light candles (which my wife did, of course).

Mitchy and her candle
Mitchy about to light a candle in the Ave Maria path in Monserrat

The area is also interesting for some atmospheric pictures. Candles always have something warm, both in their light and in the symbol they represent for us.

Candles on ave maria path
Candles lit along the Ave Maria path

The multicolor view of the candles allows you to take a quite colorful picture of the area.

When you come out again in the main area, do not forget to look upwards to the funicular taking you to Saint Jerome, the highest point in Monserrat mountains…

Saint jerome, in Monserrat.
The vertiginous climb to Monserrat’s Saint Jerome.


Cony and Brown in Monserrat

Before leaving, we did take a picture with our alter egos, Cony and Brown in from of the Monastery. It was a way of expressing both, our appreciation for the place and our personal love stories with those lovely characters of LINE.

Cony and Brown in Monserrat
Cony and Brown in Monserrat

In conclusion, if you are in Barcelona, the Monastery of Monserrat is too unique to miss. The views and the location of the monastery are just amazing. The spiritual experience is also wonderful in this place, and you can understand the appeal of this monastery for so many centuries.

Barcelona: the “other” Spain

In a previous post, I alluded at my trip to Barcelona as being one of the last trips obtained thanks to American express and Zuji. This trip was the occasion of seeing Barcelona, a facet of the “other Spain”, or if you prefer, Catalonia. If you remember, 2017 was quite agitated with a half-baked “referendum” organized by the Independence claimants to ask for a declaration of independence of the region.

We arrived a few months later, when the excitment had somewhat died down and we were able to visit Barcelona in an appeased atmosphere.

Arriving in Barcelona

B737 Ist to Barcelona
The B 737 we took from Istanbul to Barcelona.

The passage at the airport immigration was basically a breeze. We got our luggages and recuperated our rental car, a seat. Having some issue with finding the components of my gps, I had to drive using google maps and it was something of a troublesome venture.

Our hotel was very near to the Ramblas, the main Barcelona avenue. Despite there having been a terrorist attack last year, Spanish went along quite peacefully.

Mitchy enjoyed shooting some nice street photography with her brand new Fuji. And for a first-timer at it, she did shoot some nice pics.

Locals on a bench in barcelona
Locals sitting on a bench in Barcelona (by Mitchy)

 

Two strangers
Two strangers talk to each other in a park in Barcelona (pic by Mitchy)

Sagrada Familia Basilica

Our first goal was to hit the Sagrada familia basilica, in the center. To get there, we loitered in the center, then finally got onto a metro.

Barcelona metro
Barcelona metro

As you can see, metro in Barcelona is just similar to other cities, with a cosmopolitan population.

When we arrived to the Sagrada Familia basilica, the evening was already setting in, but it allowed me to take some lovely shots in the warm sunset light. I used my 20mm lens to shoot the basilica, but being a lens which is not exactly made to compensate for architecture, obviously the perspectives are somewhat elongated.

 

Sagrada Familia Basilica
Sagrada Familia Basilica

The basilica is the fruit of the imagination of the great Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi. Born in 1852, this genius of architecture was commissioned in 1893 with realizing this church. He completely changed the original design, and obviously, his genius made of a church a monument of human ideals.

Gaudi was also involved in the fight for Catalan autonomy. So, today, while Gaudi’s work define Spain to some degree, his creations are purely the creation of a free mind, with an exquisite inspiration from nature. As such, he is also a symbol of Catalunya.

We could not miss taking a pic of our alter egos, Cony and Brown in front of the Basilica…

Cony and Brown before the Sagrada Familia
Cony and Brown in Barcelona before the Sagrada Familia

I believe however, it was Mitchy who got the best shot of the Basilica.

 

Walking through Barcelona at night

Temperatures were ranging from 12° to 14° C during the day, and moving towards 8° C in the night. Nevertheless, Barcelona, like many European cities is an ideal city for strolling at night.

Thus, instead of taking the metro, we decided to walk back to the hotel.

While walking, we came across a shop selling Ham (the famous Spanish “Iberico”). This shop, “Enrique Tomas” sells original Iberico ham, which is made of pigs having being fattened on a diet composed of acorns (hence giving the meat an exquisite taste).

Iberico in Barcelona
Iberico, the delicious Spanish ham in a sandwich

The taste of that ham sandwich was unparalleled and I finally understood the speciality of Spanish ham.

We went back on foot from Enrique Tomas, walking through the streets of Barcelona (which seems to be pretty safe and perfect for walking).

We arrived on the “Champs-elysées” of Barcelona, the Paseig de Gracia. A long and wide avenue, it hosts many luxury shops, and of course, the main attraction, the Casa Battlo, of Antonio Gaudi.

Paseig de Gracia in Barcelona
The famous Paseig de Gracia in Barcelona

And it was our first time to see the Casa Battlo…. But telling you about our visit inside is another story.

Casa Battlo in Barcelona
Casa Battlo in Barcelona

 

Running barefoot

Some of the readers of this blog may know from following my instagram or other posts that I run barefoot. As originally explained, this arises from a physical constraint. Indeed, I underwent an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) reconstruction in September 2016. Since then, unfortunately, my knee has taken quite a long time to recover – partly also because I have not been as rigorous as I should have been with exercises to strengthen my knee.

Barefoot running to… resume running!

In the end, after reading some online posts about the benefits of running barefoot for knee pain, I decided to give it a try. After all, my single attempts at running with shoes since my operation saw me stopping as my knee was hurting. Although the knee first felt the impact, past the first two laps (around 500 m), once the knee was warmed up, it became incredibly comfortable to run barefoot.

I took it easy at the start, running for 1/2 hr and not really focusing on time. To my surprise, I was running fast. In fact, running barefoot, you are somehow obliged to run faster if you wish to keep an optimum form. Despite this, at the beginning, there were some small issues, such as blisters and skin abrasion. From online forums, the general opinion is that it indicates bad form rather than anything else. Over time, blisters became something of the past.

Exploring the world barefoot

A logical extension of running barefoot was to start hiking barefoot. Indeed, I had already done several hikes in Hong Kong, with shoes. On the occasion of my trip to Kaohsiung, in Taiwan, I made a barefoot hike in Shoushan national park. While my skin was still tender, the variety of surfaces, and meeting other Taiwanese barefoot hikers was an excellent experience.

Barefoot hike
Walking barefoot in Shoushan national park

I didn’t have much the occasion of running barefoot in Kaohsiung, mainly because I was biking a lot (barefoot, of course) and was traveling across the city to visit the various sites. Nevertheless, on my return to Hong Kong, I continued running barefoot.

On average, I run around 30 to 45 mins, averaging 5 to 6 kms. I managed to run by 8° to 10° C (while cold, as long as you cover up the top, it is fine, but it can be draining).

 

Barefoot running abroad

Running barefoot on a daily basis is pretty easy for me, as I do it in a park just in front of my condo, where the terrain is pretty much safe and level. In general, barefoot hiking is done on hiking trails, and, as such, always gives rise to comments or interrogations (often positive!). But as I grew in my training and level of proficiency, I was not shy about running barefoot abroad too. My best memory of this was running at 6AM by 12° C in Barcelona on the Paseig de Gracia, the main avenue of Barcelona.

Casa Battlo, barefoot running
Here, before the Casa Battlo of Gaudi.

Obviously, at 6 am, not a lot of other people around, so no big deal to face in terms of comments etc.

 

Running in difficult conditions

Another challenge which I had to face since running barefoot was that the weather quickly changed to winter. Temperatures of 8-10° C were common in Hong Kong, and while the cold is manageable even barefoot, when it gets wet and cold, then it gets tough. Feet and toes in particular tend to get colder with the water, and low-intensity running does not create enough warmth to keep you comfortable. Nevertheless, I managed to run several times with 10° or approaching temperatures. Below, a video of my running in the rain.

Running in the rain has been probably one of the most exhilarating experiences, as it is absolutely lovely to be splashing in the puddles.

Barefoot in the rain
Running barefoot in the rain and splashing in the puddles

 

Health advantages

The one, most direct benefit for me, has been to be resuming running painlessly, and as a side effect, to be able to strengthen my legs’ muscles. There are a lot of talks of the benefits of “earthing” among the barefooting community, but I don’t believe in these theories. I just do it because a). it allowed me to resume running; b). it is fun and healthy to do.

Running barefoot does demand the use of a different set of muscles and so, your feet and your calves and feet muscles end up dramatically reinforced as a result. The other advantage is that your sense of proprioception also develops and you feel more stable on your feet. Finally, on wet terrain, as recently, I did not slip at all, although I know that with my trail running shoes I would be guaranteed to have a straight fall on some slippery sections (granite pavement).

 

How to start running barefoot?

Maybe, after reading this article, you wish to start running barefoot too? It can do a lot of good, it can also be discouraging when starting. You will face a lack of understanding from other shod runners, social discomfort (depending on the place), your family may disapprove and finally, it may hurt (a bit!) at the very beginning. The best way is to focus on the positive aspects, namely the increased sensory feedback when walking, then running barefoot. At the beginning, walking on a twig in the park would cause discomfort, now, the feet have adapted to the feeling and just mold around the twig.

It will depend from person to person, but two general advice come out: firstly, to take it easy and not overdo it at the start; secondly, to learn to run forefoot. At the beginning at least, while your running form is not yet perfected, and when you are still learning, you will probably have blisters or higher abrasion of the skin. You must obviously avoid running too frequently or as heavily as before, at least for a period of time. Eventually, you will be able gradually to increase your distance. It must be however said that few people run marathons barefoot, if any. Indeed, the repetitive abrasion on the ground (especially cement) ends up using even the hardest bare feet.

Later, running will become more and more easy. And as you progress, you will not want to look back to the days you ran with shoes.

 

Where to find more information?

One main reference website is “Run Forefoot“. Written by a neurobiologist, Bretta Riches, it contains a good deal of arguments with scientific backing on the technique of barefoot running. Another main online (and current) resource is the reddit “barefoot running“. This latter forum is more based on practical experience by barefoot runners (although many write about minimal shoes versus “real” barefoot running. Nevertheless, the advice can be useful for novices, and those seeking to learn from the experience of others. Finally, if you are interested in barefoot hiking, the reddit “barefoot hiking” can be also useful (but mostly filled with the accounts of those who did it, like me, rather than advice). My own personal advice is to do at least once or twice the path shod before going for a barefoot hike.

If you did start barefoot running or hiking, drop me a word either in the comments or by mail, I would be glad to hear from your experience!

 

 

A layover tour in Istanbul

I am currently on my fourth trip paid uniquely with American Express card points thanks to a partnership with Zuji. Basically, you could book trips to various locations around the world for 30,000 Amex points (+ taxes!). My previous trips were to Kaohsiung and to Korea. This time, it is a trip to Barcelona (of which you can already have some idea on my instagram feed). The interesting part (or not so interesting!) is that you are obliged to travel with the airline they select, in this case Turkish Airlines. It was my first time flying with this airline. The best part is probably the fact that Turkish Airlines offers you a free layover tour of Istanbul, provided you have at least six hours on your layover.

The TK flight

As usual with flights from Hong Kong to Europe, the TK flight departed at 23.15. The plane was quite packed, but although climbing onboard was a bit chaotic, the remainder of the flight and arrival was quite peaceful, with passengers being courteous enough to unload and give me my camera bag from two rows away.

Food on board was pretty good even in economy. The choices of food were limited to fish, as by the time they served our row, they ran out of chicken, but that was my first choice.

Dinner on TK
The dinner on the TK flight

Sorry if the picture above does not do justice to the meal, but I had a very cramped space to operate.

Sleeping on economy class for 10 hours is an ordeal instead. Last time I had to do an intercontinental flight was in business class, so quite a difference this time. I woke up sore, but still rested.

In the morning, breakfast was as good as the evening dinner.

Breakfast on Tk flight
Breakfast in the morning

Istanbul Airport and its lounges

For a first visit to Istanbul, the airport was infuriating as could be. It was easy enough for us to find the lounge. Thanks to our Priority Pass card, we managed to get into the Prime Lounge, after passing through security.

The lounge itself had showers of which we took advantage after the long night sleeping. However, you had to wait for the staff to have cleaned first the toilets then the showers… Anyway, the shower was a welcome relaxation.

The food at the lounge was mainly Turkish-oriented, so it was the occasion for me to experience some “Turkish delights”.

A delicious meal at the Prime Lounge
Yogurt soup, cheese and black bread

After our meal and our refreshment, we took off to find the tour, and that’s where the airport gets properly infuriating. There is no clear sign on how to get out of the airport. If you ask staff, they just don’t answer you and tell you to go to the information desk. Eventually, we got some succinct information on how to get out and managed to find our way out of the airport after clearing immigration.

The Turkish layover tour

 

Obviously, once outside, signs are again lacking, and there is a wealth of tour agencies around, so I suspect many tourists might get snared by the tour agents when searching for the TK tour. Actually, you must turn right and walk all the way to the TK tour counter. TK also offers free hotel in Istanbul if your layover is long enough to warrant it. Anyway, when we got to the counter, we originally were refused by the lady at the counter… Then nevertheless added to the 8.30 tour by the supervisor. The tour lasts from 8.30 (Turkish time, so that means 8.45) to 11 (surprisingly they are punctual with that part). As our flight to Barcelona departed at 12.35, that meant we could do the tour and not be stressed.

Turkish Airline layover tour
8.45 and we are en route for Istanbul!

Sultan Ahmet mosque

The layover tour focuses on the old city of Istanbul (by far the most interesting). It also helps that the major attractions such as the “Blue Mosque”, also called “Sultan Ahmet mosque” and Saint Sophia (“Hagia Sophia”) are both within a short walking distance of each other. On the way from the airport, there are several sunrise spots (and we saw some “angel lights”, but the bus’ windows were too dirty to make anything out of it.

The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque as seen from outside.

The Blue mosque, inside is even more beautiful than from outside. A lovely marvel of architecture and art.

The Blue Mosque of Istanbul
The inside dome of the Blue Mosque of Istanbul

Mitchy before the blue mosque of Istanbul
Mitchy before the blue mosque of Istanbul

Mitch, herself, took a pic of me before the mosque:

 

Myself before the blue mosque of
myself before the Blue mosque of Istanbul

Saint Sophia

Immediately outside Sultan Ahmet mosque, you come across the famous Saint Sophia. Originally an Orthodox church, it got converted into a mosque by the Turks then finally now is nothing more than a museum. It is sad that the tour being concerned about time, Saint Sophia was not available to be visited. I managed nevertheless to capture a shot.

Saint Sophia
Saint Sophia in Istanbul

It was then time to go back to the airport, but not before our guide managed to drag us into the bazaar.

 

Flight to Barcelona

Although the subject of the tour was mainly to talk about our layover tour in Istanbul, I cannot skip the part of our flight to Barcelona. Mainly because Turkish airlines provided us with… a chef on board! We were flying on a Boeing B-737-800, with a new and pretty modern upholstery and entertainment system.

Interior decoration
Interior of B737-800

Later on, the service was ensured not only by the flight attendants, but also by the chef himself!

Chef on board
A chef in a plane.

Finally, while flying above Greece, I shot the lovely perspective of the plane’s wing… one interesting perspective on flying.

View on the wing
A lovely view on the wing of the B737-800

If you are flying Turkish Airlines and your layover is at least 6 hours, then you definitely want to grab the chance for this tour. You can find more about it here.