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Barcelona Urban Interventions

I participated in the Barcelona Study Abroad Program for the fall 2010 semester. Our class was situated in the heart of Barcelona’s Barri Gotic off of Las Ramblas and challenged with a contextually Spanish problem of how to place an intervention in the Eixample. Our project brief required the development of a secondary school program within the context of Barcelona’s Eixample and integration of the educational program beyond the normative typology of a secondary school. We  wanted to reinterpret the schools urban condition to facilitate public usage concurrently with student usage and design a formal logic which reflects the functional aspects of a school without classrooms. The classroom was transformed into studio space where faculty, students, and external public dialoged. The education system was based on a Spanish Baccalaureate program that was composed of core classes and a specialization of the students’ choosing.

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My first memory of arriving in Barcelona (BCN) was one of excitement and exhaustion, Erin and I got lost down in the Placa Catalunya Metro Stop and no one down there spoke English. Luckily I am planner and spent countless months preparing for BCN, so after a little bit of sign language and frustration, we found our way to Barcelonetta where Erin was staying. For the most part, living in BCN for three months was the most rewarding and fun experience of my Master of Architecture degree and hope one day to revisit the city that I called home for that brief period. To help out future students planning on studying BCN, especially my peers at the University of Calgary, Faculty of Environmental Design, I thought it might be helpful to create travelers guide for BCN.

NB: This is an ongoing project and I will add to it when I can, please leave some comments on things I should add and treat it as a living document that anyone can nurture and add to with your inputs. ENJOY!

TOP 11 THINGS TO DO BEFORE YOU LEAVE!

1. Learn Spanish and some basic words in Catalan.

We were told before we left that we didn’t need to know Spanish because we could get around with a rudementary understanding. However, to have a more COMFORTABLE and easier experience I would suggest  you pick up a Rosetta Stone language software or take some classes to learn some conversational Spanish. It is too easy when travelling with a big group of students from Canada to insulate yourself and have trouble talking to locals. To really impress people in BCN, learn some of the basics of Catalan like Sisplau.

http://wikitravel.org/en/Catalan_phrasebook

2. Find a Place to Live – Duh!

Check out the accommodations section for some suggestions.

3. Book your Flights early and with only one airline alliance

Book your flight on one round-trip ticket into and out of Europe before you leave as chances are you will find the best prices in the summer, and booking a round-trip ticket normally saves some money on taxes over the price of two one-way tickets. More importantly avoid booking connecting flights on different airline alliances in Europe. Unions in Spain tend to go on strike often (there was at least 3-4 subway/transit strikes in three months we were there) and this happened to us with the air traffic control workers when most of us were leaving at the end of the semester. My friends who had booked connecting flights from BCN to another European country to catch their return flight to Canada had problems, and some people missed or had to reschedule on their own dime the return flight because of the strike. Using one airline alliance for your complete return trip can help to avoid the hassle of rebooking connecting and returning flights. Erin, Mady, and I ended up taking a 14 hour bus ride to Paris to catch a flight from Paris to Dublin to make it in time for our three day Ireland tour. Check out the flights section to find great prices on flights.

4. Get Travel Accident, Cancellation, and Baggage Insurance at the same time you book your flight.

The university dictates that all students must have this insurance, so pick this insurance up on the same day that you book your flight as you will save money from whichever company you decide. Insurance companies offer discounts when you book within 24 hours of buying your flight. I am not sure of the reasoning behind this. Shop around for this insurance using Kanetix, CAA, the airline you fly with, or your automobile/home insurer.

http://www.kanetix.ca/travel-insurance

5. The GSA Health & Dental Plan comes with out-of-province travel insurance coverage which is just as good, if not better for Health Insurance

Contact the University of Calgary GSA Health & Dental Plan officer before you leave to sign the waiver stating that the reason for your travel is for academic purposes and need to have 365 day travel insurance. Every graduate student unless they opt-out pays for health coverage and there is no point in buying extra coverage, just use the GSA’s and get the travel insurance card.

http://www.ucalgary.ca/gsa/services/travel-insurance.html

6. Buy quality tough travel bags, pack light, and bring good walking shoes

You will be travelling a lot so leave the school backpack and duffel bag at home. Go out and get a good piece of checked luggage such as something with rollers and is light or an 80-90L expedition/travel pack that could take the beating of the cobble stone roads and is easy to carry. Next purchase a good day/weekend pack for your short haul trips on weekends and for carry-on. Something that maximizes the dimensions of carry-on luggage and is comfortable that carries 5-10 kilos. I prefer a weekend camping backpack with padded straps and waistband as they are normally not scrutinized for size on the low cost airlines in Europe. They’re are some really cool packs available made for carry on and perfect for laptops during weekday classes. Avoid school backpacks as these become very uncomfortable when loaded with 5-10 kilos. While you are at it, find a laptop shoulder bag as this separates the weight issue of traveling with a laptop in carry-on luggage. You will be surprised how fast 20-30 kilos of checked luggage goes so pack light on your way to BCN because chances are you will buy 5 kilos worth of clothes, souvenirs, books, and gifts. Along the same lines, buy comfortable and durable walking shoes for all the walking you will do in BCN. One suggestion is that you avoid running shoes as they are a dead giveaway that you are a tourist and target for pick pockets.

7. Plan for Oktoberfest & La Merce


Everyone will have a great time in BCN, however there was one trip in particular that I personally enjoyed. I would highly recommend that everyone should go  going to the original Oktoberfest in Munich which is mid-September to beginning of October as it is everything you have ever imagined a beer festival should be. Book early in May or June as hostels book up fast and hotels are expensive. Three friends and I ended up having to book a hotel room which was fairly expensive, however well worth it. Remember to check out the date of La Merce which is a huge festival in BCN, you do not want to book a trip to Oktoberfest when La Merce is happening. A suggestion for La Merce is to participate in the fire run, it is incredibly fun.

8. Buy a Money Belt

These little security devices might seem stupid, however many people in our class had money stolen during the trip. If you plan on carrying large sums of money, use a money belt, its a great place to put your passport and other valuable documents.

9. Bring a Watch

Personally a good watch that is waterproof is incredibly useful to know what time it is so you don’t miss a flight or class.

10. Bring your Smartphone and Download Lonely Planet Guides or Bring Guide Books

I brought an old PDA for quick internet access, however I regretted not bringing my smartphone. Smartphones are incredibly useful, turn off your data and wireless plan so you do not incur charges and just use your smartphones Wi-Fi and GPS. It is possible to buy lonely planet guides online for $5 and use them right on your phone with GPS to locate points of interest. A smartphone with Wi-Fi makes for the perfect weekend travel companion when making weekend trips without your laptop.

11. Buy a Power Adapter / Leave the Hair Iron and Blow Dryer at Home

Avoid power converters, your laptop only needs a power adapter which takes a North American plug and changes it to European. You can buy these when you arrive in Europe in the airport so it is possible to wait till you arrive. Many women in the class brought blow dryers and hair irons, however their power converters, fried them. These items are bulky to pack and are relatively inexpensive in Europe. Save yourself some grief and buy these when you get into town.

PLANNING

Budget

It is important to plan how much money you are going to spend to make sure you have a good time and don’t run out of money. Factor in cost of flights, food, accommodations, travel, and fun. It is reasonable to expect to spend on top of tuition, anywhere from $7,000-$12,000. The biggest expense for me was clothes and gifts, flights for weekend travel, hostels for weekend travel, and partying. Food can be cheap if you prepare your own meals.

Banking

Scotiabank is one of the best banks to have an account with while you are traveling. They’re part of something called the Global ATM Alliance with partner banks across Europe where you can withdraw money free of charge from their partner bank’s ATM. People with RBC, CIBC, TD, and other accounts will incur a 5-10 Euro charge each time they withdraw. There is a Deustche Bank ATM (Alliance member) near the studio in Placa Catalunya and on Via Laietana.

Global ATM Alliance

While at it, make sure your credit card has a chip and pin code system, most machines in Europe require a chip and pin credit card from Mastercard or Visa to work.

Accommodations

There are three places I highly recommend living in:

http://www.tourist-barcelona.com/images/barcelona-neighbourhood-map.jpg

El Borne (Boutique Shops and Bars)

Borne and in general La Ribera is an amazing place of boutique shops, trendy bars, the Picaso Museum, and close to the beach /main park. The area is less tourist trekked and attracts many students due to its proximity to the university.

Barri Gotic / Old Gothic Quarter (Clubs, Culture, & Studio Location)

I personally lived in Barri Gotic and love the area as its the oldest part of Barcelona, within the Roman Walls and is the central place for many of the festivals. Three times while living in there was I awoken by marching bands and twice by people celebrating with musket shots during a festival. This area is exciting, full of culture, churches, small shops, and all the coolest places to drink, shop, and party. This area is closets to studio, near Las Ramblas and 10 minutes from the beach, and has some of the coolest apartments.

Barceloneta (Near the Beach)

Closes to the beach and beach bars, this area obviously has its attractions. Expect to live in something a little more expensive for the opportunity to live on the ocean.

September to November is considered low-mid season for short term apartment rentals and prices for accommodations vary. We personally had one of the best deals, for four people, we had a two bedroom, four bed, 75 square meters apartment in Gotic for $1450 CDN each for the total of our stay of 84 days. This is a fully furnished apartment (a must), including dishwasher, TV with cable, air conditioning and heat (rare), utilities included (also rare), and internet included (super rare). Plus we didn’t have to put down a deposit which is unheard of. Apartments are not insulated in BCN, they are brick and concrete so they do get cold and super hot, heating is predominantly electrical so look for places that include utilities. Putting down deposits can be complicated because they are large sums of money, normally a months rent and owners can take their sweet time getting it back to you. The person you are probably paying money to is likely a broker and the person who owns the apartment or is the super could be somebody completely different who doesn’t speak English which complicates they whole process.

Three websites stood out for finding places to live:

http://www.barcelonapoint.com/

Rented a Flats by Days apartment through this website and we had an amazing experience, they have a set of apartments right in Barri Gotic on Belafilla that they do not ask for a deposit and provide utilities and internet included. Beautful places with high ceilings and all the amenities included with a great price.

http://www.flatsbydays.com/

http://www.cometobarcelona.com/

Flights

To fly into Europe, it is cheapest to fly out of Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal and into London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, or Paris and then connecting with a low fair airline to Barcelona (be cautious of strikes). Provide yourself with a couple days in your layover city in case of a strike and to tour. If you are diligent at checking prices or use an agent/flight booking website you can find deals direct from Calgary. I found Air Transat to be the cheapest flight from Toronto. Erin and I were able to land a week early in Greece to hit the beaches and then spend an extra ten days in Ireland and London at the end of the semester for less then $900 CDN. Air Transat is somewhat no frills with no free alcohol, economy class seating is comfortable but tight, and the planes don’t have in-seat entertainment units. Use Expedia and CheapTickets websites to search for tickets using flexible dates. Pay attention to checked luggage allowances as not all airlines are created equal. When booking your flight into and out of Barcelona, remember that there is one major airport and another in Gerona 70 minutes away.

When traveling in between European countries use these websites:

http://flights.traveleurope.com/ (cost comparing website that does not include normally easyjet or ryanair)

http://www.ryanair.com/en (Some flights out of Gerona, airport 70 minutes away)

Ryanair is incredibly cheap, expect to not depart on time, and for them to try to charge you for every little thing. That all being said, they can get you around Europe on a shoestring budget. Print your boarding pass as they charge 40 Euros if you forget. Make sure your carry-on fits the dimensions, they tend to be very forgiving for backpacks.

http://wizzair.com/ (Eastern Europe Carrier)

http://www.easyjet.com/asp/en/book/index.asp?lang=en (Some flights out of Gerona, airport 70 minutes away)

For the most part book your flights directly from company websites, only use Travel Europe as a cost comparison site as it charges a $20 fee for booking. Ryanair, Wizzair, and Easyjet normally has great sales close to departure date so keep checking these low cost airlines for sales of $5-$10 one-way tickets before taxes. These are the sales you want to jump on. Veuling is the Spanish low cost airline, keep an eye out for sales on their homepage too, their sales normally happen a couple months in advance like more traditional carriers.

Transit/Train/Airports

Metro

BCN metro

The BCN metro system is amazing and fairly robust. A 10-ride one zone ticket costs around 7-8 Euros and covers most of Barcelona proper. Purchase these tickets using the machines found at all metro stops. You can change the language to English on these machines and only need to select an Adult 10-day zone one ticket. The remaining zones you will likely not need unless you are traveling to the suburbs or on one of the field trips with studio. Metro stops at around 2am at night and then restarts at 4am in most areas. This works out perfectly as people tend to go clubbing until 4-5am in the morning in BCN. The transfer between lines at Urquiano and Passieg de Gracia are super long walks of a block or two underground, this is sometimes unavoidable. To orient yourself down in the Metro look for the signs that say the end of the line to tell direction of train. Keep an eye on your stuff as its a prime place for theft.

Eurorail

The train system in Spain is in my opinion, one of the worst systems in Europe. RENFE the national carrier does not run high speed trains, their website has an English side, however the website train search tool is complicated and half the time does not work. The network is based on all trains going to Madrid and then exiting the country so I wouldn’t recommend anyone buying a Eurorail pass. If you plan to go to Zaragosa to see the Zaha bridge then the train is probably the best way to get to there. Montserat also requires you use the RENFE train

Getting to and from the airport

http://www.barcelona-tourist-guide.com/en/airport/barcelona-airport-transport.html

Taxi is the easiest way and can cost around 20-30 Euros from the airport to Gotic. If you have large baggage and they need to put it in the trunk, they will charge you so carry your packs with you in the back seat. The convenient Aeroport Bus leaves from Placa Catalunya to the airport regularly and visits both terminals. It costs around 5-6 Euros and is the best bang for your buck to get to the airport. You can buy your ticket right on the bus. The cheapest way to get to the airport and my favourite for all those weekend trips is to use the Metro and RENFE Train. Purchase a 10-ride zone one ticket and you can get to and from the airport. The train goes to only Terminal 1 (the terminal that low-fair airlines flight out of), however you can take a free shuttle to Terminal 2. Take the metro to the stops Clot, Passeig de Gracia, or Barcelona Sants (otherwise known as Sants Estacio) Then transfer to RENFE train heading to Aeropuerto. RENFE train lines have a different symbol then the M symbol for the subway.

To get to the Gerona airport 70 minutes away where the majority of the low cost airlines fly out of, use the Barcelona Bus that departs and arrives from Barcelona Nord bus station near the Arc de Trimof (you will soon realize that all major European cities have an Arc similar to Paris). One-way and Return tickets can be purchase from the bus station for 20-25 Euros. The bus ride is the only way to reach Gerona Airport but is fast and is timed around Ryanair flights.

The 90 Day Limit – Schengen Area

http://www.voyage.gc.ca/countries_pays/report_rapport-eng.asp?id=274000

You can’t get around the Schengen Area 90 day limit, although many students by no fault of their own due to the air traffic controller strike have overstayed their 90 day limit and not been penalized. Erin and I were able to stay in Europe for 102 days by flying out of Barcelona on the 90th day to Ireland and then London. Ireland and the UK are outside of the Schegun area and we planned to spend the last 12 days here. Spending a weekend or longer in Ireland or the UK is a great way to extend your trip.

Theft

Theft is a problem in Barcelona that you can avoid. Women should only use purses that zip up, avoid purses that only partially close with a latch that someone can sneak a hand it. Keep your purse and laptop case in front of you with a hand on it. Men should avoid putting their wallet in their back pocket. If some stranger comes up to you and puts his hand on your person, this is likely a distraction while they reach for your money so push them away and yell at them. Thieves likely will run away as they tend to only want your money. Watch your backpacks on trains keep them in front of you, the Metro is a great place to get robbed when you are entering and leaving the train. During our stay in Barcelona we had people get robbed after visiting the ATM because they are being watched, people lose their purse after putting it down, and backpacks when they were not watching it in train stations. Beware of the area around our studio and on Las Ramblas, especially chicken corner and Placa de Orwell. Everyday someone was robbed including people in our program, fights break out at chicken corner all the time. This is because drug dealers are always at this corner. You will see tons of cops, however it does not seem to stop the crime.

Maps

Buy a small map of the city and metro which you can pick up when you arrive. Metro maps are free at the main stations. They are incredibly useful to have while traveling during the day.

Museum Card
The Articket BCN card is the must have card for museum and art lovers in BCN. You pay a lump sum fee of around 20-30 Euros to get into seven museums including the Picasso Museum and one of Gaudi’s houses. Its great bang for your buck if you plan to go to at least three museums.

Phones

You can buy pay as you go phones for fairly cheap local calls and text which is a great way to stay in touch with your class or call friends you make in town. I paid around 13 Euros for my phone and spent about 20 Euros a month on phone cards. This was the best way to stay in touch with our class and if you make friends in the city. If you want to call back to Canada, stick with Google Phone or Skype, it is the cheapest.

Some Advice

What I regret most about the trip is that I traveled every weekend I was in BCN. I only spent 4 weekends in BCN and because of that I did not have much of a chance to make friends with the locals or other exchange students at the local universities. There is a ton of students at the BCN universities that speak English, try to make friends with as many as you can. It is always fun!

 

Future Topics:

Food

Clubs

Football – FC Barcelona

Traveling for Architecture

Bilbao/San Sebastian

Zaragosa

Madrid

Rome

Florence

Ireland

Greece

Munich

Berlin

Nuremberg

Oslo


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