Monday, 25 May 2015

Temps de Flors: Girona's Flower Festival

For me, the term 'flower festival' conjures up images of posh middle-aged ladies in fussy blouses and pearls, primping their prize hydrangeas before the judges pass by. Thankfully, Girona and Chelsea couldn't be further apart: Temps de Flors is a city-wide event that appeals to a much broader demographic. And best of all? It's free.

Located north-east of Barcelona, the petite city of Girona is photogenic at any time of year. Its Barri Vell (old quarter) has a definite French feel, its winding alleyways opening out onto unexpected placas ideal for a leisurely drink. It's a colourful place at any time of year: its riverside is flanked by multicoloured houses, representing every shade in an artist's palette. For eight days each May however, Girona takes on an even greater charm when spaces around the city are decked with floral exhibitions for Temps de Flors.

Gorgeous Girona from its Eiffel-designed bridge

Celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2015, Temps de Flors is no fusty flower festival; it's a vibrant event that appeals to all ages. Both public and private buildings can put on floral exhibitions and invite visitors inside to admire their creativity – this year, there were over 100 spaces listed on the Temps de Flors map. Some of the most impressive entries are outdoors, such as the floral carpet covering an alleyway leading to the Cathedral, or the flower-bedecked steps leading to the Cathedral itself. Others are tucked away in private patios, opened to public eyes for the duration of the festival.

Look a bit closer at those flowers...

Let's be clear, we aren't just talking about a few bouquets or floral tributes adding a splash of colour. Some of the Temps de Flors exhibits are on a seriously grand scale, enlivening a whole street, while others are enticingly creative. Stepping closer to view a patio wreathed in a wave of white flowers, I realised that said flowers were actually plastic cups – it's certainly one way of avoiding the wilted look of some exhibitions come the final day. Non-horticultural items are often integrated into exhibits at Temps de Flors: one popular entry featured orange bicycles, while another placed wire sculptures of animals alongside floral tributes.

Don't forget to look up

Girona goes all out for Temps de Flors, with a gastronomic strand completing the offer. As part of Gastroflors, a range of restaurants around the city offer set menus, often with a floral twist (although this isn't universal). What is universal though is the fact that they're better value than eating à la carte: 4 tapa-sized courses at divine cheese and wine bar La Simfonia set us back €18 each, while El Boira's €20 three-course menu proved a much bigger lunch than we'd bargained for. If you fancy something a little lighter, other restaurants and bars offer a special tapa during Temps de Flors. In addition to gastronomic treats, there are also free concerts which pop up at venues around the city.

Unfortunately the festival's now over for this year, but if you fancy visiting in 2016 I'd highly recommend it. It's a fresh way to see beautiful Girona, with the bonus of free entry to sights that would normally be closed to the public.

Wilted, but still pretty

Top tips for visiting Temps de Flors

  • Visit early in the week. Temps de Flors spans two weekends, so if possible plan yours for the first – some of the flowers were looking decidedly sad by Sunday 16 May. Even better, visit mid-week - Saturdays in particular can be crowded, with queues to visit popular exhibits such as the Arab baths.
  • Pick up a map. All participating venues offer a free A3-sized map with the 100-plus entries marked. There's also a summary of their 10 top picks, which this year included the Cathedral, Sant Martí church, the Arab baths and Casa Lleó Avinay. If you're more digital than print, you can download an audioguide app. 
  • Take the train. During Temps de Flors, Renfe offers a discount on return tickets between Girona and Barcelona – this year it was 35%.
  • Stay overnight. Days can be overwhelmed by coach trips, and with exhibitions open until 10pm (midnight on Wednesday and Saturdays), it's worth staying over to see Temps de Flors crowd-free – and to take advantage of Gastroflors, of course. This year, the river lit up at night with illuminated floral decorations twinkling like jewels on the water.
Have you visited Temps de Flors? What's your favourite spring festival in Spain?

Temps de Flors 2016 runs from 715 May.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Local travel: Seeing the best of Madrid with Trip4Real

Here's a preview of my latest piece for Flush the Fashion...

If you’re an independent traveller, the phrase ‘guided tour’ probably conjures up images of a busload of backpack-wearing, camera-toting tourists being shepherded round a city’s top five sights. And the guide themselves? No doubt a strident umbrella-waver feeing their flock with facts. You’ve likely observed many such scenes around the world as you sloped past, preferring to retreat to a nearby café.

Locals can show you where to take the best photos...

But by opting out of tours, are we missing out? Guide books, blogs and websites can give us pointers, but their inanimate nature can’t make up for the human touch. What if the guide wasn’t a shouty tourist board official, but a friendly local – maybe someone you’d be friends with if you met them back home? And what if they offered the tour in a group that’s less-than-bus-size – maybe even private?  Well, not only does such a tour sound highly unlikely, it also sounds expensive.
Step in Trip4Real. This Barcelona-based business counts Catalan chef Ferran Adrià s one of its investors, and connects savvy European locals with travellers who expect more from a tour. Research can tell you where those top five sights are, but it can’t necessarily show you the city’s quirkiest street art, its most Instagram-worthy angles or its coolest cafés. Residents with a particular expertise or just a desire to show off their city at its best can offer tours and experiences via the Trip4Real website: from photo walks to cooking classes to country hikes. The range of activities varies from place to place but is ever-expanding, as is Trip4Real’s list of cities. And what do they all have in common? Invaluable local knowledge at a reasonable price.

For my first Trip4Real experience, I thought I’d put this local knowledge idea to the test and see what difference a personal insight makes. I skipped the tapas tours and personal shopping services in favour of a walk around my current home city, Madrid. The ‘From Madrid to Heaven’ experience is offered by lifelong resident Montse, and takes the popular local saying 'De Madrid al cielo' as a starting point for showing you what she believes to be the best of the capital city. But would her ideas teach a resident of three years anything new?

You can find the rest of the article, including the best views of Madrid and a surprisingly good tapas spot on the Plaza Mayor here
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