Barcelona travel blog 2012, #2: Break-ins, panics, police stations & hospitality

I can’t really explain why this has taken so long to get around to writing (part one was written back in March), but back then I had left it on a knife edge, promising tales of doom and misery. Well, the wait is over.

The main reason for the trip was to attend Mobile World Congress – the world’s premier conference for the mobile industry. It was my third visit to MWC and I had it well planned for the first time. The event is massive and takes a few goes to get used to, but I was all over it.

The Sunday promised to be busy, with several leading manufacturers (including Sony and Huawei) launching new mobile phones. The Huawei event was way in the north east of Barcelona, just off the beach about as far up as you can go and still be in the city. It was a beautiful day, so with total ignorance on my side I gave myself about an hour and set off to walk it.

The first half was a lovely walk – the people of Barca were out on the beach in force, which is pretty rare in my experience, so I just pootled along soaking up the atmosphere. Until I realised I was nowhere near where I needed to be with about 15 minutes to go.

I made it, about five minutes late, a sweaty mess of a man – and then had a similar jog to make it to Sony in time. On the plus side, this was followed by a meet up with an old colleague for free wine and tapas courtesy of Huawei in a really nice, busy little restaurant. I had the dubious honour of being last to leave, which may help explain why I have no idea what the place was called…

Monday was a blur of stand demos and video recording, while the evening was more of the same at a press event for some of the smaller companies. Tuesday followed the same course during the day (pictured is the amazing Huawei horse sculpture made of mobile phones), leaving me just a few more videos to do Wednesday and the task of getting a load of the content live. But before then, there was the small matter of drinks at the wonderful W Barcelona hotel.

It was a great night in good company, drinking fine wine, noshing fancy nibbles and sticking my banana in the chocolate fountain (fondoo! Tsk tsk tsk for shame). But it was on the way home things started to go wrong. It was around midnight on a lovely warm night, I was slightly oiled and thoroughly at one with the world. Then my phone rings and I’m informed by Gonzalo from Inside BCN that my apartment had been ransacked.

He was robbed

I’ve been burgled several times, back when I was a student, and it was a horrible experience. The feeling that someone was in your place, going through your stuff; it’s hard to put into words, but it’s a weird feeling of being violated – and that impending doom feeling that makes you realise how easy it is and that it could happen again at any time.

I guess we spend a lot of our time supressing those kinds of feelings – we’d go nuts if we couldn’t. But for a few days, weeks, maybe months after being burgled it’s hard not to think about it. Losing sleep is a big part of it, alongside paranoia – and I can’t tell you how much that’s ramped up when the door to your apartment has literally been smashed off its hinges with a sledge hammer, you’re in a foreign country on your own and where you don’t speak the language.

I wish I’d taken a picture of the door – it was a pretty unbelievable site. But then there were other things on my mind. Thankfully the guys who owned the apartment were really helpful and understanding, while I’d had my phone, MP3 player, passport and wallet on me which saved a lot of hassle. On the downside my work laptop, netbook and video camera were all gone – along with all my work up to that point. My suitcase had also gone, along with things such as my keys, some spare cash etc.

To compound matters, as I said, this is the biggest mobile congress in the world. That means every apartment and hotel for miles (I’m not joking – we’re talking late bookers having to travel in from miles away each day) is booked solid, so where the hell was I going to stay?

After a few fruitless calls to hotels and apartments, and it now being well past 1am, it became clear there was going to be nowhere to stay. By now I’d put my remaining belongings into a selection of carrier and bin bags and arranged to go to the police station (with a translator from the apartment company) to give a statement in the morning. It was at this point apartment manager Dani stepped in and did the decent thing – he offered to put me up in the spare room of his own house.

We stayed up for another hour or so, shooting the breeze in his lovely apartment about football, robbery, travelling, robbery, England, robbery, Spain’s economic problems, robbery – you just can’t get your mind off if it once it happens. Eventually I did manage to get a bit of sleep, which was aided by the fact they had another apartment that was going to be free in the morning that I could move my stuff into.

Not the Wednesday I’d planned

Wednesday was meant to be the day I uploaded my videos to YouTube and generally put all my hard work online. Instead, it started with dumping my bag lady luggage into the new apartment, before heading off to the local nick.

Paula was great company and I’m not sure what I would’ve done without her. We had a nice walk to the police station, where she patiently passed on all the information between us. We were there for a couple of hours I guess, which would’ve been torturous on my own.

Once we were done there Paula took me to an electronics store where I grabbed a new video camera, while back at the Inside BCN offices they lent me a little netbook to do at least a little work on. I then had to go and find a new suitcase, before rushing back to the Congress to desperately try and reshoot all the video I’d lost.

I managed to get it all done by the end of Thursday, although it was all with stand workers – where the earlier ones had been with ‘proper’ suit staff that would’ve added a lot of cred to the vids. But hey, I did the best I could in a shitty situation and some of the videos have had a lot of hits since, so it was worth the effort.

The new apartment was amazing too – absolutely huge and in a great spot, a stone’s throw from where I’d stayed a few years earlier. While this would normally have been great, the size just made me nervous and the central location meant it was very noisy – and every sound was a potential burglar. Yes, lame I know, but I think most people would’ve felt the same way.

On the positive side, Dani promised me a few free days at one of their apartments when I came back to Barcelona another time – an offer I’ll certainly be taking him up on. While the experience really shook me, it hasn’t dulled my enthusiasm for the place. The odds of getting stung a second time are slim, so I’ll take my chances.

Of Jimbobs and bears in Devon, May 2012

I managed to get back down to Devon last weekend for a visit – the first time since Christmas, as my Easter trip was scuppered by a freelance work job running over time. But it was worth the wait, as I managed to see some old friends, get to a gig (the mighty Jimbob), arrange a gig, see my dad and also enjoy some wonderful countryside in stunning weather.

It all started in Exeter late afternoon on a gloriously sunny Thursday. How they can charge you £80 (months in advance too) to sit in a sweaty, un-airconditioned box for three hours is beyond me, but once off the train things improved dramatically.

Exeter is a nice compact city not too dissimilar (where it’s nice) to Cambridge or Oxford, but with more crappy bits (and way more chavs). I wandered into the centre from St David’s station and popped into The Works (which is still selling some great board games at stupidly low prices), but it didn’t have anything worth getting on the shelves.

After a pint and a final bit of work for the day in The Ship (a nice old pub right in the centre but strangely bereft of idiots), I headed to Pizza Express to line my stomach for the evening’s entertainment (this is the view from the restaurant).

Soon after I met up with Mark and Steve back at The Ship before heading off to The Cavern, one of the UK’s most famous and enduring toilet venues but one I somehow hadn’t managed to visit before. Unfortunately it’s underground and air conditioning is for softies, so despite being half full it was still a sweat box. This meant I had to resort to beer to try and fight off the worst of the conditions (such a trooper).

It’s a nice venue though – plenty of areas where you can chat without pissing people off, a decent stage and a sensible rectangular shape in front of it to mooch around in. The toilets are as grim as you’d expect from an underground venue, but otherwise all was well.

The wonderful Chris T-T was on the merch stand, taking a break from touring his own stuff to lig along with Jimbob and, as he put it, “not have to go near a bloody stage” for a few weeks. Chris has played several of our charity gigs (Ciarafest) and had promised to introduce me to Jimbob so I could pitch the idea to him. But first, the gig.

We blathered through the support act catching up (not near the stage, obviously), but the man himself was well worth the entrance fee. I won’t go on about the gig too much, but it was really good fun (as I’m sure you can tell from my fantastic action shot – it’s worth spending all that money on a BlackBerry Bold 9790 just for the camera…).

Jimbob had been catching up with his sister and was clearly in a good mood, while the crowd was in good spirits too. He read some excerpts from his new book (Driving Jarvis Ham) and played a nice selection of both Carter USM and his more recent songs, keeping the crowd laughing along throughout. Highlights for me were probably ‘Johnny Cash’ and ‘Is Wrestling Fixed?’ I’ll probably end up getting the book too.

After the show Mr T-T did his thing and Jimbob agreed (in theory at least) to do the gig – result! Now to get the bugger organised… All in all a cracking night, which was made all the better by a lift home (cheers Mark).

Widecombe in the MoorFriday was a holiday day for me (woohoo!) and with a surprising lack of hangover my father and I headed for the countryside on another beautiful Devon day. Our first stop was the quaint little village of Widecombe in the Moor, a touristy little postage stamp in Dartmoor.

It really is just two pubs, a couple of tourist tat shops and a cafe or two but it’s lovely with it – just the kind of village you’d expect to find deep into the English countryside, except more friendly to us townies. After some nosh we headed out to find a tor to climb (it’s what you do, apparently)  and preceded to get blissfully lost on ridiculously narrow country lanes.

For the uneducated, a ‘tor’ is a pile of bedrock on top of a hill (don’t worry – that’s the end of the complicated geological explanations). We did find one in the end, which wasn’t overly spectacular, but we climbed it anyway.

But what was even better than rocks on hills were the animals just wandering about the place, as they do in the New Forest.

This is proper open countryside, so you can expect to have to wait for all manner of cows, sheep and Dartmoor ponies to get out of the road before you get from A to B (via god knows where in between). But as we had no plans, so were in no rush, it was all the more lovely.

Unfortunately the Bold 9790’s camera crapness also extends to outdoor shots that are further from you than about a foot, so the pics aren’t much to write home about. You should at least get the idea.

After another half hour or so of tiny country lanes we managed to find a B road (the luxury!) and found we were only about half a mile from Postbridge, (home to the postbridge, pictured below). We parked up by the bridge and stretched our legs for a while, taking in a last gasp of the moor before the trip home. There really is nothing quite like the sound of a trickling stream, birds singing in the sky and the promise of a pub lunch on the horizon to warm the heart.

It’s a ridiculously picturesque spot spoilt only by the busy road (well, busy by these standards – a car every few minutes of so). But we were pretty puffed after our heroic tor climbing escapades, so we got back in the car and headed for dinner. That is, after we had gotten around the “bear”, as the young American girl near us called this beast (I can only guess it was a Newfoundland).

It was great though – she didn’t say it in a scared, but instead measured way as she wandered towards it and gave it a stroke. They’re a hardy bunch, those Americans – she was probably used to wrestling them at home.

We ate at The Boathouse at Dawlish Warren, a bog standard pub grub pub that does everything right. It’s really big but never feels it, as it is well laid out; and you pay for your food when you order it, so you don’t have to hang around hoping to catch someone’s eye when you just want to leave. The food is pretty good too, but it’s very standard stuff.

Saturday was far more sedate, as we pottered around the house in the morning as I did all those chores you have to do for an elderly parent. OK, that’s a lie – I have to do all the things that involve plugs, but that’s it. At anything else practical he is completely my better. So while he gardened and drilled and was manly, I plugged in the DVD player, set up his new router and transferred his pictures from his camera to his laptop.

In the afternoon we meandered down the cliff path into Dawlish for a bit of a mooch around, heading to The Smugglers Inn for some food in the evening. It’s  step up from The Boathouse in terms of quality, while the views of the sea behind rolling hills are truly fantastic – a picture no Bold 9790 could snap (I didn’t even bother trying – it was embarrassing).

Sitting out there waiting for our table seemed a fitting epitaph to a lovely weekend – especially as it’s either that or describe a seven hour journey home on sweltering trains with a sweaty bum. Let’s leave it at that then.

Barcelona travel blog 2012, #1: Flights, apartments, El Born & board games

After a comfy night at Jurys Inn, Heathrow (a nice room, but inexcusable Wi-Fi prices at £5 per hour or £10 for the day – the room wasn’t cheap, broadband is, so why wasn’t this free?) I had a hassle free flight to Barcelona.

It really is worth booking early and getting to fly with British Airways – even if it did mean the extra night in the hotel (I could’ve flown from Stansted, or maybe Luton, on a budget airline which I could’ve got to on the morning). For me, booking your seat in advance and practically no queuing at the airport is well worth paying a few extra pounds for.

Luckily an old colleague was on my plane, making the wait at the airport and taxi into town both enjoyable and free (thank god for big company staff who don’t mind putting everything on expenses). When I jumped out of the cab at his place I had no idea where I was, but was in no rush – perfect (except for the suitcase of course). Time to explore a little.

I strolled from his hotel across the city and luckily got my bearings pretty quickly. This was refreshingly simple as I was pretty close to the last two places I’d stayed in the El Born area. It’s a real maze – a historic mash up of winding alleys, lovely little stores/bars and the occasional massive church – but small enough that once you get lost it’s easier to just enjoy wandering around until you find yourself again. If you hit a big road around its edge, you’re soon back on track.

Vidreria apartments, Barcelona

The apartment itself fell a little short of my hopes, but more because I’d put them unrealistically high than because it wasn’t up to scratch. It was run by Inside Barcelona, a small, helpful and very friendly apartment firm who I can’t speak highly enough of – but more on them later.

Situated literally two minutes from the Santa Maria del Mar church it had everything as advertised, although the pictures had really done it proud. The lift was terrifying, the stairs thinner than, well, me and there was a mini power cut 30 minutes after I arrived. The internet was in and out, my grey view was of the house opposite that was almost touching distance and the heating and plumbing were almost as noisy as the bars outside. Ah, El Born – it’s good to be back.

But these are petty negatives; in truth, it was a great apartment. Wood effect floors, white walls and Ikea furniture create a lovely modern feel throughout. The bathroom was tiny but adequately equipped, the bedroom small but more than adequate, while the main room was spacious with a quality (if small) TV, dvd player, stereo and kitchen (no freezer or oven, but fridge, two rings and a microwave). When I was living in bedsit land in Cambridge, I would’ve bitten your arm off for a place like this.

Gonzalo met me at their offices, after I’d pinged quite a few emails back and forth before my trip. I couldn’t of expected better service from start to finish: prompt email responses (all easily within 24 hours) that immediately answered all my queries; clear and concise literature on finding them, plus great service once I’d arrived.

After a quick visit to the local Londis for supplies and a chat with Zoe on Skype, it was nearing the evening – my old colleague had work to do, as he was only in Barcelona for three days, so I started off on a board game reccy instead. I’d had BGG fail me for the first time when putting messages on the forums looking for gamers heading to MWC. Luckily I’d seen a shop I wanted to visit on my last trip, while there had been a couple of good posts on a separate thread about gaming in Barcelona in general.

Board in Barcelona

The shop I’d seen was right outside the Arc de Triomf Metro stop, about five minutes walk from my apartment. Gigamesh is well lit and well stocked, every bit the equal of my local store minus any space to actually play games. I picked up a copy of Lost Cities as it carries the much nicer ‘Exploradores’ title in Spanish and is language independent – a nice little reminder of the trip and a fun two-player game that travels well.

I then wandered on to JugaxJugar, which was a little disappointing in terms of stock but had open games at the back as well as friendly staff actively getting involved with customers on everything from kids games and popular classics to the more complex stuff.  It’s always nice to see a store genuinely trying to bridge the gap between the two ends of the hobby, while relying on the thing retailers so often forget is their edge over online stores – customer service.

But the real find was Bar Queimada Nivell Q; the kind of bar most gamers can only dream of. Over 350 games behind the bar; coffee, food and booze; gaming until 2.30am on a Saturday night and midnight or later every night. Unfortunately, as I don’t speak Spanish, I could only have a couple of drinks and watch on. There were no open tables or organisers, just people who’d clearly come in to play in their own groups. That’s not a complaint – it was just a shame. I should really brush up on at least a little Spanish before I return!

With a busy week ahead I went back to the apartment, via a quick visit to my go-to Barcelona bar, Alsur Cafe. Right in the centre of El Born the place has a really relaxed vibe, nice décor, good food and drink plus decent free Wi-Fi – what more could a solo traveller ask for? It was a nice relaxing end to a long day that had ticked all the boxes, but of course I had no idea what lay in store for me on the coming days. More of that in part two, including an explanation as to why there are no photos attached to this blog (and no, I didn’t get pick-pocketed – that would’ve been a picnic in comparison…).