A Free Art and Architecture Tour of Barcelona

A Free Art and Architecture Tour of Barcelona

Barcelona is beautiful. It’s lively, fresh, warm and welcoming. It’s the fiercely proud capital of Catalonia and the hip urban hangout for those who want to explore the Spanish Mediterranean. It’s delightfully affordable and down-to-earth for a Western European capital. However, I think the best things in life are free, so here are a few cultural activities to take in without spending a Euro.

Sagrada Familia’s Facades

Antoni Gaudí dominates the city. His architectural presence is revered and delightful to discover. The English term ‘gaudy’ stems from his extravagant, strange and intricate buildings. His masterpiece, of course, is the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s basilica, which is still under construction. (They’re working hard to have it finished for the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death in 2026, but it’s unlikely the deadline will be met.) I highly recommend entering the Basilica. The interior is awe-inspiring, melding natural form, function, and faith. However, if you’d like to save the entry fee, you can still enjoy the structure. Take in the nativity scene over the north-eastern entrance – overseen by Gaudí’ himself, the facade captures the entire biblical scene, crowned by the vibrant colourful Tree of Life.

Barcelona Sagrada Familia Nativity Facade

 

Meander around to the south-western entrance and take in the Passion facade. See how the architect defined his own style with angular interpretations of the scenes. But the natural feature can be seen in the columns overlaying the structure, reminiscent of the bones of human skeleton supporting the facade. Both sides have a park adjacent with sunlit benches for you sit and look. And look. And look.

Barcelona Sagrada Familia Passion Facade

If you tire of the architecture, you can also take in a fine example of bocce ball play as the north-eastern park, Plaça de Gaudí, has courts filled with local grey-haired gentlemen squaring off against each other.

Barcelona bocce ball at play

Antoni Llena’s Homage to the Castells

My favourite piece of public art had to be in the Homenatge als Castellers. In part because the form is playful, simple but imaginative. In part because I love how it plays tribute to one of the wildest activities I had ever heard of: the Castell. In Catalonia, people will build human castles at festivals. Yes, men will literally tower over one another, competing to be the highest castle. I only wish I could visit Barcelona in late summer to take in the festivals. For me, the creative, chicken-wire version was a small, but satisfying replacement.

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The Day 50,000+ People Reminded Me: Democracy is Fragile

The Day 50,000+ People Reminded Me: Democracy is Fragile

On Sunday afternoon, I attended the impressive rally calling for the Hungarian President to veto the legislation that would rule Central European University’s current operations illegal. It’s a political play by the Hungarian government to assert power and limit academic freedom. Wiser people with better context can explain the political context herehere and here. For me, it’s a short-sighted step that prioritizes politics and control over transparency and academia. Last night, the president signed it into law (which spurred on spontaneous protests at the official residence).

At Sunday’s protest, it was beautiful to see tens of thousands of people united for freedom. The crowd was the full range of Hungarian demographics, with a smaller mix of global geographies, which CEU is often responsible for inviting to the city. Here, you could feel the energy of the crowd and the real desire for openness and change. It’s not about which party’s struggle for power is less corrupt, but about corruption itself. About representation itself. CEU, though important, is now but one of the issues to protest.

Photo taken by (the much taller) Mr. Stahl.

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Five Steps to Hosting a Successful Clothing Swap

Five Steps to Hosting a Successful Clothing Swap

Here in Budapest, spring has sprung. The sun is getting stronger, the clocks sprang forward, and everyone is ready to shed their winter layers for spring clothing. In the age of fast fashion, there’s a tendency to head to the mall. The better answer to your spring wardrobe refresh is: host a clothing swap!

I’m a big fan of the clothing swap. The idea is simple: invite people to bring in nice-but-no-longer-loved clothing together and exchange it. There’s pressure, especially for women, to constantly buy new clothing to stay up-to-date, professional and appealing. While people are ditching the consumerist behaviour in many rad ways, the clothing swap is one more strategy to simplify, save and enjoy.

I’ve done this with friends, in a slow fashion pop-up, at a community event, and most recently here at Impact Hub Budapest, marking Buy Nothing Day in November, and just yesterday, the start of Spring.

Clothing Swap at Impact Hub BudapestOne of the clothing swaps strengths is that it’s a hard event to screw up. However, here are the key steps I’ve discovered to hosting a successful one:

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What I learned from 29 countries when turning 30

What I learned from 29 countries when turning 30

As I struggled with the idea of leaving my twenties behind, I scrambled to put together a list of accomplishments that allowed me to feel this youthful decade was valuable, fun, engaging, impactful, and overall worth it. I think it’s a common process that many 29 turning 30 year olds go through. And it’s disastrous.

There’s no grading scheme for a life well lived. There’s no meter to say “yep, you did alright, kiddo”, which I wish would be whispered in my ear by a wise old man with a southern drawl. It’s just life. Your decision, your stories, your relationships and that glimmering hope that you’re not screwing it all up.

In 29 years on the planet, one thing I have prioritized is travel. I was lucky enough to travel for work and for pleasure and for volunteering, and one of the reasons D and I decided to move to Budapest for his studies as it is a central point from which to explore. I believe travel is important to broaden your perspective, to understand the world and to try all the delicious things.

Barbeque lunch in the Wadi Rum desert, Jordan
Barbecue lunch in the Wadi Rum desert, Jordan
In my scramble to pull together what I’ve done in my twenties, I haphazardly had put together my list of countries I visited in my 30 years. Some I’ve explored thoroughly, and some I’ve visited only a city. It wasn’t planned, though that would have been clever (and I would have made 30!), but by adding in Canada (which I allow as I’ve traveled to every province and two of three territories) and remembering that afternoon in Monaco, my list totaled 29.

Midnight walk in Doha, Qatar
Midnight walk in Doha, Qatar
Here, I offer the distilled wisdom I’ve collected is from the from these twenty-nine countries, to be taken with many grains of salt.

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Ton Sai Teachings: How to Weather a Travel Storm with the Right Currency

Ton Sai Teachings: How to Weather a Travel Storm with the Right Currency

[This post is the fourth part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]

Ton Sai and Railay are beautiful parts of the Krabi coastline on the southeast coast of Thailand. It’s that long gangly arm of Thailand that reaches out to hug the Gulf of Thailand.

The landscape was immediately striking. Peeking up at the lush hills, the rocky cliffs that rose beside the highway reveal the striking Karst landscape that the region is known for. The dark rocks held shapes that didn’t seem physically possible, while also being geologically beautiful.

We traveled there to see its rugged beauty. And we arrived on a different route than planned with lessons in planning, logistics and travel’s most important currency.

Landing at Ton Sai

Plan A: Arrive at the airport, take a shuttle to Ao Phra Nang, hop on a long-tail to Ton Sai, all before the boats stop running at dark. Although Ton Sai is part of the mainland, there are no roads, only boats, to the bay. Easy.

Plan B: Flight is delayed, leaving us with just enough time to reach the boat before sunset. I watched Google maps as we drove to Krabi Town onto Ao Nammao Bay en route to our stop Ao Phra Nang. I was following along Google Maps and the ol’ faithful blue dot and almost missed it. “Did he say Ton Sai?” Derek asked. We asked the driver confirmed that this was the stop to reach Ton Sai, two bays away from our planned pier.  Without being sure, we followed the drivers’ directions and hopped off the bus. The woman worked the boat ticket office confirmed: there’s a storm further up the coast and boats aren’t leaving Ao Phra Nang. The only way to arrive in Ton Sai is to take a long-tail from this more protected bay to Railay and then walk.

Signs of a storm from the shuttle.

The boat ride was beautiful, but it definitely sailed into a storm. We arrived in a torrent of rain. I was almost forgotten on the boat as I stuffed our valuables into plastic bags in the inside of my pack with the boatman was anxious to leave. Derek alerted the driver and I leaped onto the floating dock, and we ran for cover into the Railay trees.

The calm and the storm from Ao Nammao

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Stories and Silence in Phnom Penh: How I Learned about Cambodia’s Haunting History

Stories and Silence in Phnom Penh: How I Learned about Cambodia’s Haunting History

{Disclaimer: this post discusses difficult content and may not be appropriate for all readers.}

[This post is the third part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]

The Cambodian people are a warm, smiling, welcoming people. The people we met in our travels were gracious and kind. The kind of people who wave and smile brightly as you stand confused trying to cross the toad with never-ending traffic with your obviously-tourist pack. A wave and smile that doesn’t judge but says “Welcome to Cambodia!”. The capital of Phnom Penh is developing so quickly that if you stand still long enough, you can watch the city grow. However, this shift in development comes after a horrific period in their history, followed by international misunderstanding and mishandling in the wake of a genocide.

Cambodian countryside

I knew little of the Cambodian genocide until watching Brother Number One at the then called Global Visions Festival in Edmonton. It told the story of the genocide through one man’s journey to understand what happened to his brother after he sailed into Cambodian waters in 1978. It was powerful and gruesome and heart-breaking.

During our stay in Phnom Penh, the travel-savvy Camille organized a van to tour for our group, a fantastic hodge-podge of six visiting Canadians who happened upon the city at the same time. The van would take us to two memorial sites dedicated to the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide: the Killing Fields and S21.

Killing Fields
The uncovered Killing Fields.

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What will be our Angkor Wat?: Explorations in Angkor

What will be our Angkor Wat?: Explorations in Angkor

[This post is the second part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]

Walking past the people hawking elephant pants and the fresh fruit stands, I approached my first temple within Angkor Wat – Pre Rup, a temple in tribute to the king’s mother. A Hindu temple, built in the 10th century before the Cambodian people converted to Buddhism. Our tour guide explained how a whole town would have lived surrounding the temple and where we stood was once covered in water. He drew in the sand to detail the layout and used the hand carved leather works for sale to illustrate the symbols of the ancient civilization.

Pre Rup carvings

The endurance of the structure became clear as I slowly climbed the steps of the central tower, the cremation tower. The steps rose more than a foot each time, ensuring a calmer, more solemn pace, especially as centuries of footsteps followed by modern-day tourism have rounded the edges of each stair. The restored ornate carvings marking each doorway add an otherworldly charm. The dancing and fighting figures intertwined with plants and animals tell stories I only begin to understand after sitting and reading my guidebook and looking and reading and looking.

Exploring Angkor

The Angkor Archeological Park Complex is immense. It is larger than life and has withstood centuries of life. From weather to rediscovery to theft to the Khmer Rouge, this immense center of worship that expands over 400 acres is the largest religious monument in the world, Lonely Planet’s number one site in the world, and is hard to truly comprehend.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

We explored it by van, by tuktuk, and by bicycle. By guide, by guidebook, and by gut.  The site is overwhelming and has a lifetime of exploration possibilities. After just three days and scratching the surface, I walked away with a feeling of awe and endurance.

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Bangkok Streets: The Savvy Sightseeing Way

Bangkok Streets: The Savvy Sightseeing Way

[This post is the first part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]

Bangkok is a feast for the senses and a city of cities. I just scratched the surface and can only share my brief experience as one that made me want to go back. Bangkok was swept from a sleepy trade town to a scandalous city during the Viet Nam War (or, as they say in that end of the world, the American War) and has grown into a modern metropolis. It has architectural, cultural and culinary delights worth traveling for. For all its sites, the best way to experience it, in my humble opinion, was through its streets.

Bangkok Chess break on Silom Road
Chess break on Silom Road

Streetside sightseeing is my preferred way to explore a city. By keeping away from the main tourist strips and diving into side streets (in Bangkok, the intricate Soi system), back alleys and the less-trodden parts. On these walks, you can discover the everyday grit and atmosphere that defines a city as much or more than its brightest monuments or minds. Plus, it totally free.

Bangkok soi shop
A wee shop found on a soi off a soi off a soi of Silom Road.

We arrived in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve, spilling out of the BTS airport line and into the warm evening air. The streets were disorienting in so many ways. The traffic flows in the opposite direction. (We tried catching a bus and ended up crossing an intersection five times). The sidewalks are jammed with …life. The waxing and waning strips of asphalt theoretically separating pedestrian and vehicular life are vibrant. There’s commerce, there’s love, there’s children’s play, there’s poverty, there’s chess, there’s fighting, there’s drama, there’s worship, there’s fruit, there’s greenery, and of course, there’s food. Oh, the food!

Bangkok pad thai
My first of many Pad Thai dishes.

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“Puszi! Puszi!” And Other Lessons in Hungarian

“Puszi! Puszi!” And Other Lessons in Hungarian

I finished my second Hungarian class just before the holidays. The finale was fun with a trip to Vörösmarty tér to put my fledgling magyar mumblings to use in the midst of the bustling Christmas market. Stumbling over double-letter letters (gy and ny ain’t easy) and creatively applying my limited vocabulary, my classmate and I successfully ordered a lángos and forralt bor, asked for prices and made small talk with patient, pleasant Hungarian vendors. With my head brimming with newly found knowledge and Hungarian wine, I wanted to share some of my favourite Hungarian language phrases.

This language is notoriously difficult to learn. Many people use this as an excuse not to, and in Budapest, you can generally get along fine without it. I can’t say I’ve reached the level of learning where I see this tremendous complication, though I can see it in the distance. For anyone considering learning it, go for it! For a beginner, don’t get scared off – basic Hungarian it’s no more complicated than any other language, and its full of verbal delights.

Heros Square
Heros Square: a monument to Hungarian history

The language has an interesting history, and the Magyars are fiercely proud of their difficult nyelv. This video provides the best summary of Hungarian I’ve heard yet, as well as a handy dose of Magyar history:

Yet, they are among the most generous, patient and encouraging people to language learners. Nearly every Hungarian has met my bumbling efforts with a kind smile, surprised eyes and a reply.  A friend recently told me that when foreigners learn Hungarian, it’s as though we’re stroking the soul of the country. If that’s not encouragement to learn, I don’t know what is.

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In Praise of the Humble Christmas Card

In Praise of the Humble Christmas Card

After a long, chilly December day, you make your way home. On your way to your door, you take a peek inside the mailbox. A small envelope with your name, hand-written, makes your day so much warmer as you bustle inside and shed your layers to open the mail. The envelope reveals a colourful Christmas card and a reminder of a loved one somewhere in the world*.

Christmas tree on a roof
A little warmth on a cold December night.

I am a big proponent of the Christmas card, as a recipient and a sender. In general, we give too much ‘stuff’ during the holidays. I know that pressure to give the people you love and appreciate …something to let them know that you care about them at Christmas time. This well-intentioned thought often leads to gifts that aren’t really needed and aren’t really right for that person. They sit awkwardly in the place of the words and emotions it was meant to convey. More often than not, a heartfelt card can capture and share that thought better than any poorly chosen gift. During the holidays, keep it simple, and simply send your love.

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