Saturday, 26 May 2007

The Municipal Elections of Vilanova 2007

When still living in Sweden, one of my friends used to say that he knew of few people who took their right to vote as serious as I do. On Sunday, May 27, we will have municipal elections here in Spain and as local residents coming from another EU country, my wife and I have the right to participate, something I was determined to do. However, work has come in between and I will have to leave home for the weekend. How can I then make use of my small chance to influence the future of my adopted town?

Our rambla is currently decorated with banners expressing political messages. During the first campaign week, I approached the activists from different parties. While all of them were happy to give me their local programs, none of them asked me how I would vote. In fact, nobody asked anything at all and that is highly strange in a country where people are usually overly social. Is it far-fetched to guess that since party preferences reveal a stand point on the civil war, and since the civil war is something Spanish people prefer not to talk about, party preferences by default are more of a secret here than in, for example, my native Sweden?

This week we finally received the election documents. Being the nervous person I am, I had of course already gone to the ajuntament to double check on my rights to vote. “Just be patient”, was the answer the friendly girl there gave me. “This is Vilanova”, she added. We are currently being ruled by a three-party coalition, tripartit, of Partit Socialista de Catalunya (PSC), Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) and the Green Left (ICV-EUiA). I have not seen any poll results, but I have a feeling that they are quite confident to win again. The election material of PSC reached our mailbox only yesterday although today is the official last day of the election campaign.

Coming from the outside, I am highly amused about the number of opening ceremonies our local mayor from PSC, Joan Ignasi Elena, has carried out lately - first at our still empty high tech center Neàpolis and then at La Sala, the town’s totally unfinished exhibition hall for modern art. Although Elena makes great efforts to prove the results of the current government’s eight years in power, his party still calls their program noves idees. How impressive! Just imagine if they had come up with the "new ideas" a bit earlier and not now, right before the elections. They cannot complain that they have not had the time or mandate to act, can they?

On Thursday evening this week, Canal Blau – our local TV station – broadcast a debate between the five top parties. In general, I was positively surprised about the level of the presentations since all candidates made a good impression on me. The ruling mayor Joan Ignasi Elena was the calm, self-confident but still generous leader of the show. I have in fact received PSC’s party program handed over by him personally. Knowing that Spain has a lot of mayors who are best described as corrupt superstars, I must admit that I am very pleased with our mayor’s strive to have direct contact with his constituency. So far in my life, I have never seriously contemplated to vote for a left wing party, but this time I was thinking about maybe making an exception. Sadly enough for Elena, like many other mayor candidates he has decided to promise us a full service hospital, but his PSC comrades from the regional government do not support him. They admit that they will not allocate the money. What a miscalculation for Elena's local campaign.

Partit Popular (PP), which is the main opposition party to the governing socialists in the Spanish parliament, has some nationalistic tendencies which I have big problems to agree with. Still, their mayor candidate Santi Rodríguez and his friends would have had a chance to win my vote in Vilanova if it would not be for PP’s efforts on the Spanish level to turn the municipal elections into a barometer of the political opinion in the country. The president of PP, Mariano Rajoy, claims that he is making constructive proposals while the only thing Spain's socialist prime minister Zapatero is doing, is to attack PP. Rajoy seems to forget that the socialists happen to rule the country and therefore make and execute decisions on a daily basis. If anything, I think that it is PP which is stuck in negative rhetorics and a vote from them in Vilanova is therefore totally unthinkable from my point of view.

Ciutadans is a new party which made a surprise entry into the Catalan parliament in the latest regional elections. They are targeting the Spanish speakers of Catalunya and as not yet committed catalanists, my wife and me ought to be potential voters. But what happened to their alleged civic activism? While I have seen posters of Ciutadans all over towns like Barcelona, Castelldefels and Tarragona, here in Vilanova they are very rare. Their top candidate, Gustavo Vitriago, will have a problem to make it to the municipal council and since I have not managed to see him during the campaign work, I can not say that I regret it. I think that as a political newcomer you are supposed to work harder than the rest, not the opposite.

What I am left with is Esteve Orriols from Convergencia i Unió (CiU). Initially during the campaign I was concerned about CiU copying PP’s role on the Spanish level, that is to criticize the incumbent government and claim that you are a better alternative without specifying what you stand for. After having collected campaign material and seen the TV debate, I feel much more content with CiU. Elena from PSC might be a good mayor, but I cannot say that I am fond of his coalition partners. There are many things to improve on here in Vilanova and that is why I want to see a change. As I see it, local policies on health care, schools, security and above all the gigantesque ongoing housing projects need a revision. Since CiU is the only realistic alternative to the governing coalition, my vote would have gone to them.

Luckily enough for me, my wife is not as interested in following politics as I am. She might have decided not to vote if it would not be for me. On Sunday, I will be out travelling but there will be one representative from my family who will express our feeling about how Vilanova is to be run during the coming years. In politics, change for its own sake tends to be good since it reduces the risk of corruption. Let us go V.O.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

The Víctor Balaguer Museum – good for a rainy day

For people like my wife and me, who do not want to seem lazy or uneducated when we travel, vacation can be stressful. Before we leave for somewhere there are usually so many things to prepare first at work and then for the children at home, that we do not have the time to read guide books. Vacation mornings therefore becomes anything but calm. We take turns – one of us checking up the information we need while the other one gets the children and all their belongings ready for hours of city walks to come.

It would be a relief for us to go to a place like Vilanova. Well, at least as long as we would not plan too many daytrips to Barcelona. To be blunt, I would say that there is not anything special to see here. If someone ever claims that you have missed something important, it reveals that that person is even more obsessed with sightseeing than I am. That is not healthy, so just be happy that you spent your days in Vilanova on the beach, rather than in the dusty alleys of the town.

The risk that you will have hours of rain if you come here in the summer is minimal. However, this spring we learnt that Catalonia does not come with a sunshine guarantee, which we almost had started to believe. If this would happen to you and you start to look fordistraction , do not hesitate to go the Víctor Balaguer Museum. Unfortunately, you can not use the museum as an escape from the heat, since the opening hours allow the staff a siesta during the warmest hours of the day.

This museum is idal for children. I have only taken my oldest son here once, so far, but realized what a good place it is to explain what a museum is all about to a young child. The building looks historical in itself and there are statues and cannons right next to the entrance, as if to arouse the imagination. Once you have entered, you will find a limited number of exhibition halls, not more than any child can cope with.

If I have to comment on the details, I am afraid that my enthusiasm will wane. What collectors brought home from their journeys abroad might have fascinated their less experienced fellow countrymen a hundred years ago, but nowadays, collections of weapons from the Philippines, utensils made by American Indians or Chinese Buddha statues rather make you think of a cheap ethnic decoration stores than high culture.

The same goes for the permanent art collection where you will not find many master pieces. However, some of the paintings show what fishermen’s life could be like in Vilanova a century ago. For me and my oldest son this resulted in a discussion on “now” as opposed to “before” and also served as a reminder about the fact that the sea can be a dangerous place. The old fishing boats in the pictures add an interesting background to the modern ones you find in our harbour today.

Personally, I really like the Víctor Balaguer building as such with its decorations and open spaces and I see the library is a key on how to enjoy the museum. The room is full of historic books and very impressive, but maybe it is a blessing that we are not allowed to open and scrutinize the books as such. The façade might be a lot better than the content.

If anything, some objects of this museum serve as a reminder of how much we Europeans allowed ourselves to bring home from other countries without caring about what the native people thought about that. The most bizarre thing you will find is a mummy and it made me realize that if a museum in Vilanova can have a mummy without being famous for it, it must mean that there are plenty of mummies on display in the world. The mummy is of a five-year-old child. Do I have to add that my son found it really compelling?

Restaurants in Vilanova: Lizarran – as good as genuine

And in the middle of centre of Vilanova you will find a perfect tapes bar, a genuine old place where one generation of chefs has taken over after the other in offering a varied selection of food at very competitive prices. Here you will have a chance to learn more about the local culinary traditions, but still do not have to worry about bringing your children.

A restaurants with those caracteristics would easily attract hoards of tourists. What a pity it does not yet exist! We do have some classy establishments with a special atmosphere serving typical local tapes, but these tend to charge premium prices and they are not suitable for children. Alternatively, you will find less fashionable places serving tapes at lower prices, but these are in the outskirts of the town. Finally, there is one exception, combining a bit of both. In the world of restaurant connaisseurs I am about to commit herecy – the place I will recommend to you is a franchise.

The facilities of Lizarran (address: C/ de Sant Gervasi, 41) are a fake. The rustic wooden details, the old photos on the walls and the hand written menus - everything is standardized and is being presented according to the group’s manuals. Let us now look at the positive side of things. For newcomers to a town, a branded restaurant can be a blessing, since you know what you can expect. Except for that, I admit having been to many branches of this chain and the one here in Vilanova is one of my absolute favorites.

Lizarran is a good place to go for a beer and some snacks. They have tapes, but also the more advanced Basque alternative – pintxos. These are mouthpieces of various ingredients held together by a toothpick. You will find peppers filled with cheese, serveral kinds of tortilla and sausage, fried prawns and skewers of pickled vegetables. Foreigners will experience this as authentic and different - you just grab a plate and then collect the pintxos you want by yourself. To avoid trouble with the waitors, be reminded to keep the toothpicks since it is the number and sizes of the them which will be used to calculate your check at the end of the meal. Lizarran is not expensive (price per pintxo starting from € 1) so here you can give in to the temptation to try many variations.

Pintxos are for adults. Most of them are served cold, and many of them contain spices for an acquired taste. If you turn your eyes to the menus on the walls, you will find that there also is a decent amount of warm dishes. Personally, I have a weakness for Lizarran’s patates braves while we usually order croquetes for our children. Dishes like scrambled eggs and similar indicate that this is a place for fast, sturdy meals. The down-to-earth concept combined with the affordable prices makes Lizarran a natural alternative to a lunch at home, something we regularly benefit from if Saturday shopping has taken longer than foreseen so the children are hungry while we are exhausted.

Maybe this is why Lizarran is such a popular place in Vilanova. If you plan to eat here, I recommend you to go early since the tables fill up quickly when the local people arrive in the afternoon. Look beyond the fact that this is a chain, swallow your pride and just enjoy the pintxos.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Vilanova - well connected, in one direction

In the competition for business and people, a lot of cities come up with funny slogans stating that they are located right in the middle, where things happen. The important thing seems to be the central location while little time is spent on critical questions whether being in the middle really matters. Vilanova i la Geltrú lies right in between Barcelona and Tarragona.

Vilanova is located 50 km south west of Barcelona and the fastest way to get here is by car. As long as you avoid peak hours, when traffic is always congested, the drive will take you 40 minutes from the centre of Barcelona or 30 minutes if you start from the Barcelona Prat airport.

The most convenient roas is the toll way C-32, which is considered a bit expensive by daily commuters (€ 4,85) but we largely have ourselves to blame, since the politicians on our side of the tunnels have not united to negotiate higher subsidies from the regional government, as has been done in other places. The only alternative is to use the old coast road (C-31). This used to be the only direct link to Sitges and Vilanova and we have heard horror stories about people having to go through the sharp curves in an ambulance. With two small children who easily get sick in the car we never hesitate to pay to go through the tunnels.

Having a car is a clear advantage for tourists who want to travel around, especially if the plan is to visit the wine and cava districts around Vilafranca del Penedès and Sant Sadurní d’Anoia. These two towns are only 15 minutes away from Vilanova, but there is no smooth train connection and the public bus service is poorly developed.

For anyone who comes to Vilanova to enjoy the beaches and only wants to make some trips to Sitges or Barcelona for the exciting contrast, public transport is fully sufficient. Rodalies, the local trains, take you to Barcelona Sants and Passeig de Gracia four times an hour. I have to admit that during the last year or so, the trains on this line usually are delayed, resulting in journeys taking up to one hour rather than 45 minutes. To daily commuters, like my wife, this causes a lot of irritation, but we are being promised that the situation will soon go back to normal since it is all caused by the construction work for the AVE, due to be completed before 2008.

The newly remodeled station in Prat de Llobregat forms a part of that package and now when it has been finished we think it was worth the temporary inconvenience. This is where you change trains if you go to Vilanova from Barcelona Prat airport and families with children will appreciate that this is now an indoor station, fully equipped with lifts and escalators. When making the trip back to the airport, before you leave Vilanova, make sure that the train stops at Prat de Llobregat. Unfortunately, not all trains do and the message over the PA-system in the station is only made in Catalan and Spanish.

Rodalies stop going at midnight but that does not matter for those who want to explore true Barcelona nightlife. Since dinners start late, local people come to clubs well after midnight. Several places have 3.00 a.m. as there opening hour so you can easily keep yourself entertained until the train service starts again in the morning. For people like my wife and me, who are simply not created for advanced partying, the only alternative is the night bus, leaving from Plaça Catalunya throughout the night. I am sure that we will use it some day, but so far we prefer taking turns driving the car home. Taxis in Barcelona are relatively cheap, but it will cost you € 70 if you take it all the way out here.

The only bus from Barcelona we make use of is the one from the airport. It goes once an hour and the advantage compared to the train is that you do not have to change. At the Barcelona airport, look for the sign of Mon Bus, where terminal B ends, in the direction of terminal C. Do not be discouraged if you see a Mon Bus coach stop to let passengers leave but does not let you board. That is not the bus you are waiting for but, unfortunately, the drivers are not service minded enough to tell you so. Delays are standard so have patience and feel confident there will be a bus in the end.

In short, Vilanova i la Geltú is very well connected to Barcelona, at least during daytime. To Tarragona, communication is equally efficient if you go by car. However, that is where the similarities stop. For all the history and beauty of Tarragona, Catalonia only has one centre point and that is Barcelona. When checking out the public transport networks here you will immediately find out that Tarragona is just another satellite to the Catalan capital. So if you live somewhere in between, like here in Vilanova, while commuting by public transport towards the centre is easy, that is not the case if you have to go in the other direction. However, do not let this scare you off, if you are here as a tourist. You have plenty of time and Tarragona is well worth a one-day visit. The trains are reliable - they are just not very frequent.

Restaurants in Vilanova: Beverly Hills – as American as it sounds

Restaurants in Vilanova serve Catalan food, Spanish food and Mediterranean food. After some days, many tourists from Northern Europe will start to look for alternatives, especially when the children have eaten croquetes for the third day in a row. Beverly Hills is our city centre’s American alternative. And it is a good place for children – maybe too good.

Before learning to know Vilanova, my wife and I were quite critical about the restaurant offer. This is still a traditional Catalan town and people prefer local food. Furthermore, it is a small town so we were unfair in complaining that we did not find as much variation as we had done in big cities where we had lived before. Already after some months here did we start to discover good places with a more international cuisine and there are plenty of promising places where we simply have not been yet.

One of the places which we found early but disregarded for a long time was Beverly Hills (address: Rambla Principal 80; phone: 93 814 32 68). More than once did we make negative comments about the place being a bad copy of an American diner. I was also moaning about the fact that they have very few dishes not containing meat. But then, one day, it struck my wife that there was a lot of American food which she had missed since we came here. Caesar’s salads and proper hamburgers served as nice dishes and not only as fast food.

Once we had dared to admit the problem to ourselves, we knew where to go for a solution. Beverly Hills offers Tex-Mex starters, a rich selection of hamburgers plus some toasts and salads. We certainly prefer food of higher quality and more attention to detail, but this is good value for money.

The interior of the indoor restaurants carries American artefacts and if you walk through the building, there is a small patio with some outdoor tables on the other side. Except for being hygienic, the paper placemats on the tables give you a chance to study a map of the real Beverly Hills and memorize the addresses of movie stars. I like to find more sophisticated table decorations but understand that the management here might see little value in it. This establishment caters to children and that tends to result in a rough treatment.

During our last visit to Beverly Hills we got a new perspective on the dining culture in Catalonia. Restaurants with local food open their kitchens at 8.30 p.m. or later, which makes this place unique for those who want an early dinner. Apparently, even Spanish families with children do and although I often praise children friendly restaurants, this time we got a bit too much action. Our children are usually calm when we go out, but now we know that it only takes a few other children to trigger their energy.

Our oldest son likes experimenting with things and usually we even encourage it, but we were not at all that proud when, halfway through the main course, he managed to switch of all the lights in the outdoor area just by screwing a bit on one of the colourful lamps covering the wall. Since the lights could not be made to work again, we were lucky that that there were some back-up lamps to switch on so that we and the other guests could finish our meals. Beverly Hills is different and special, so we will come back, but only when we feel sure that the staff will not recognize us any longer.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Bringing the children to the party - or not?

Spanish parents often bring their children to dinners although they begin later than 10 p.m. They seem not to do it out of the necessity that they have not found a baby-sitter, but rather because they want to bring their whole family. Such behaviour seems irresponsible to Swedes. However, do not also we sometimes really want to bring our small ones, although we know that it will be inconvenient?

Swedes make a lot of fuss about children’s bed times and it is not without good reasons: small children do sleep better if they follow the same routine day after day. My wife and I usually prefer to let ours stay at home with the au-pair. However, for Valborg on April 30 - the latest organized party we had with the Swedish community - we decided to make an exception. Not so much because we love the tradition to celebrate the arrival of the Swedish spring, but with the idea to give our sons an opportunity to play with other children in their first language. Last year we did the same and our oldest one had a great time running around with a girl who, if possible, is even more blond and blue eyed than he is.

Our youngest one is still a baby so we never had any hopes that he would enjoy the event. It started at the time when is usually being prepared for bed. During the welcome drink, I was in charge of the two boys and luckily enough for me the small one was so tired that he did not mind two of my friends taking turns to carry him. They are both fathers to be so a little practise did them good, especially for the one who did not seem to have much natural touch with children. I needed the support since my shoulders were occupied by our oldest son. He was so overwhelmed with all the new faces that he refused to come down. It did not help that most people spoke Swedish.

Although tired, the small one still had not fallen asleep when we sat down for the dinner. I was balancing him on my lap while at the same time trying to eat a salad. Every now and then I looked at my wife and wondered why she had to talk so much, instead of rapidly finishing the food and then take over the baby. She did not reveal any intentions to do this, so in the end I put down the boy on the floor for a while and cut the food into mouth pieces in order to be able to shovel them in with one hand. “American” eating manners might lack etiquette but can be highly efficient.

After the starters, my wife went up on stage with the Swedish choir. I was as impressed as always with this dozen of girls, most of them already mothers or pregnant and most of them having professional careers. Our baby boy, on the other hand, did not seem to notice his mother’s participation, but maybe the singing calmed him down because I think that he fell asleep right after.

Except for unnaturally many trips to the toilet, our oldest son behaved exemplarily at the dinner table. The other children were too small for him to play with so instead he spent his time drawing pictures. He did in fact seem to appreciate his mother’s singing. In the dance competition which followed, he would have been even happier to see me dancing with her in an improvised quick-step, but by that time we had already put him to sleep on a sofa.

The baby managed to stay asleep during the dances, but was eventually awoken by the big applause for the winners. When they danced their tango for the second time, I watched it through the windows since I had had to take him outside to calm him down again. This took me so long that it was about time to go home when I finally managed to do so.

And there lies a reminder to why we avoid bringing our children in the evening. It can work for a while, but rarely does so for long. However, since we do not celebrate our biggest national tradition – Midsummer - together in the Swedish community here, I think that we will keep Valborg as second best – the community dinner party of the year where we will bring our sons. To teach them a bit of our traditions and with the hope that there will be other children to play with.

Restaurants in Vilanova: Gas 26 – lounge inspiration

Vilanova has quite a number of stylish restaurants working with chinaware and glasses of classic brands on tables laid with crisp white linen. While many of them show interest in modern cooking techniques like foams and taste contrasts, very few of them strive to be trendy. Gas 26 (address: C/ Gas 26; phone: 93 815 74 29) is a refreshing exception in having picked up international influences also beyond what comes on the plate.

A couple of years ago, the whole concept of dining out was transformed. What earlier had been eating halls were turned into public living rooms where the focus was shifted from the food to the total experience. Places like the Buddha Bar in Paris or Bed Supper Club in Amsterdam, were the trend setters in offering sofas and relaxing lounge or chill-out music in the dining area.

At this time, I was living in Thailand with my family and while prejudice has it that Asians are just copying what Westerners come up with, a more positive interpretation is that they are fast to be inspired and rethink. Lounges rapidly popped up first in the exclusive areas of Bangkok but then also on many of Thailand’s exotic beaches. It is true that the outdoor versions were quite pale replicas when compared to the originals, but vital ingredients such as the music, the colours and the finger food were all there.

To find the same atmosphere in Vilanova is not possible. Our local xiringuitos, the kiosks along Platja de Ribes Roges, might look a bit like lounges from the distance, but as soon as you come closer you start to see the flaws. The music they play tend to be the radio and while they rent out beds and low tables on the beach, you have to make do with all but cosy standard seating when you eat. We still occasionally go here for a beer or a soft drink, but have learnt not to order food, since we have always been disappointed.

Instead, the place in Vilanova where I get the strongest lounge feeling is Gas 26. In order not to disappoint anyone, my wife wants me to underline that this is above all a proper indoor restaurant. She is true in so far that you can not squeeze in sofas and armchairs in an establishment which barely has space for ten tables. At the same time the husband chef and wife waitress who run the place make many references to where they have found their inspiration and I think that they deserve some praise for a good job. A bare and lit up stone wall serves as a historical contrast to minimalistic decorations in silver and white. To stress the modernity, instead of decorating with textile, here you find disposable alternatives and especially the grey napkins truly feel like linen. The focus in on the food but it is the selected lounge music, played a bit louder than in other restaurants, which adds the final touch.

As always in Spain, children are welcome, but I honestly do not think that this is a good place to bring them – the place is simply too small for them. With Vilanova standards Gas 26 is an up-market establishment serving creative versions of Mediterranean food (€ 10 for starters and € 18 for mains), so we prefer to reserve it for special occasions. I am happy that there is at least one restaurant in this town which helps me to recall nice memories from lounges elsewhere in the world.