A review of my stay in Barcelona

montjuicSo, as I come to the end of my time here in Barcelona, I thought now, as I sit in the departure lounge/on the plane on the way home to the UK, would be a good time to share some of my lasting impressions of the city they call…. Barcelona.

The first distinct impression I gained was that the Catalonian Capital was a city of ‘a lot.’ By the term ‘a lot’, I mean that it appears to be a city that offers much for people of all interests, whether that be architecture, greenery, food, culture, arts, bars etc. This I felt was particularly amplified in my particular visit for two reasons. First, I was only there for a weekend, thus I may have felt differently had I been there for a week, and second, the weather, which for significant portions of my stay was distinctly wet. Yet herein lies the rub. Because of the rather changeable weather, I think I may have got a particular sense of this latter quality, one minute I was strolling around in sweet smelling parks and taking in the architecture from outside, the next, due to the onset of rain, I was prancing like a gazelle around a museum dedicated to the works of renowned Catalan artist Joan Miro.

In saying this however, the three particular highlights of the trip are pursuits undeniably best enjoyed outdoors, La Rambla, Bari Gotic and Montjuic.

The first of these can best be described as a long street and area in the centre of the city, which showcases attractively authentic Catalonian ‘old school’ (hey, I’m no architect!) architecture, in the form of picturesque flats, shops and so on, whilst the second, translated as ‘Gothic quarter’, is a small area of ‘Las Ramblas’ especially Gothic in nature. As with most of these things, you can only get a real sense of what this area is like by visiting it in person, needless to say that it was a pleasure to walk around the brown/terracotta coloured landscape and be taken in by the associated ambience. Before moving on, one must also give a mention to the Cathedral (note, NOT the same as the Sagrada Familia), which is also situated in this area, which with its unmistakable Gothic style is also worth a gaze.

Moving onto ‘pastures green’ so to speak is my third highlight, Montjuic, a vast green expanse in the South West of the City. To me, this park is remarkable in many ways, from its lush, sweet smelling flora to the striking buildings that lie within it, most notably perhaps those encompassing the area of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. In a city as metropolitan and densely packed (in the centre at least) as Barcelona, Montjuic provides a fascinating and tranquil other side to the city, and one could quite easily spend a whole day meandering like a dazed goat around the well kept yet wholly natural appearing grounds. What is more, if you do happen to be at Montjuic at the appropriate time of the day, there’s also a rather pretty fountain display to enjoy, undoubtedly worth a watch and a few photos.

As far as my dwellings for the duration of my stay were concerned, I decided after much deliberative research to plump for the ‘Feetup Garden Hostel’ which can be found near the metro station of Valldaura, to the north of the city. My reasons for plumping with this particular accommodation were basically twofold. Firstly, it had an overall rating on Google of over 90%, with many people leaving overwhelmingly positive comments about the place, and secondly, for a rate of 25 odd euros per night, it represented what I considered at the time to be very good value for money for a private room.

Upon arrival (the hostel provided clear instructions via email) I was greeted by a friendly Australian girl, who promptly checked me in and showed me to my room, which she termed as ‘quite small.’ Indeed she was right. The space, although very bright and clean, was rather diminutive in size, if I had to describe it in a phrase, I would say ‘tropical prison cell.’ In addition, I was somewhat surprised to discover that instead of a conventional duvet (I assume duvets are conventional in Barcelona) I was provided with an orange towel like blanket and white sheet to keep me warm. A week earlier, when it was apparently much sunnier and warmer, this might not have been a problem, the week later when I was there however it did however leave me feeling a bit chillier (even with an extra orange blanket provided by the nice staff) than I would have liked. In addition, (and again thanks to the less than helpful weather) due to the room being ‘outside’ (think of it as having a similar vibe to a conservatory/posh shed attached to a house) it was particularly sensitive to noise, whether that be the rain, people talking (in fairness the hostel was on the whole pretty peaceful) or the annoying sound of the vending machine outside my room. Thus, this did prove more disruptive than was perhaps ideal. Apart from the room however, the wifi worked very well, the staff were friendly and helpful and it was in a very quiet neighbourhood, disturbed only by annoying vending machines. Overall then, my stay at the feetup hostel was a mixed experience.

The food on the other hand was certainly not a mixed experience. On the contrary, it was rather good, if on the expensive side. Having tried various tapas bars during my stay, I think the eating of tapas should be a practice which should be imported to the UK at the earliest possible opportunity. For those unaware of this ‘concept’, tapas are basically small dishes of meat, fish or vegetables of various flavours and textures and for those prone to indecision like me they provide a very tasty alternative to a single, larger main meal. Of all the tapas bars I visited (which were all pretty excellent), my pick was an Argentinean place in Caller de Ciutat, which although pricey, was very satisfying and enjoyable, my favourite dish being one that centred around Partridge (that’s the bird, not the comic figure Alan Partridge.)

If what I have described to you so far is the filling of my holiday sandwich, allow me to conclude by elucidating on the proverbial slices of bread. Starting at the beginning (as is conventional), I woke up at 4am on Thursday, and was out the door ready to catch my bus to the train station by 5. It was rather exciting actually, I felt like James Bond on a top secret mission to deliver some classified package, although I doubt whether Bond would use public transport to get to his destination, even if it as integrated as it is in London. I digress. The progress on the bus was swift, such that I was able to get on an earlier train to Stanstead airport, Bond would have been proud.

Upon arrival, there was no need to check in (thanks to compulsory check in with the good people of Ryanair) so I progressed onto security, which despite being slightly berated by a member of staff (with a good Essex smile it has to be said) for not taking off my belt, getting my laptop out etc, went rather smoothly. With plenty of time to spare, I then indulged in a Weatherspoon’s breakfast, feeling the need to share with Facebook a picture of the half eaten contents. Then came boarding, which again, was as smooth as a sausage. Being one of the first onto the aircraft, I managed to get a window seat and was then accompanied by a very pleasant South Korean couple; we chatted about many pressing issues, including the gospel of Jesus Christ, which was nice. Fast forward to the flight home and again, it was relatively pain free. Security was rapid (less than 10 minutes I reckon) and the nice Ryanair staff even let me take my slightly oversized Joan Miro art print as part of my hand luggage, Cashback! And on that note, and in a fun sort of way, we’re back where we were right at the beginning of the article, that being the end of my time in Barcelona.

In summing up, my time in Barcelona was enjoyable. My highlights were Montjuic, La Rambla and Bari Gotic, and the main lowlights were the weather and the hostel. Would I visit again? Quite possibly. Should you bother going? Yes!

Thanks very much for reading.

UPDATE: The following morning (after waxing lyrical about the food) I experienced what can only be described as ‘complete rectal failure’ (plus a malfunction ‘at the other end’) which may or not have been caused by the Partridge which seemed so pleasing just the day before. I’m willing to give the Partridge the benefit of the doubt on this occasion however, and put it down to a 24 hour stomach bug of some kind. For leaving you with that thought, I apologise.

Some thoughts on the Universal Credit

In the midst of much media hyperbole, policy scrutiny and political chatter, the Universal Credit was finally unleashed on the UK Public last week, albeit through a small pilot in the town of Ashton Under Lyme. In what many have dubbed the most significant welfare reform since tax credits, I thought I would offer some observations on some of the opportunities and challenges of this Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) brainchild.

Simplicity

Many will tell you that for all the benefits of tax credits, they were extremely complex; both in terms of the bureaucratic behemoth required to administer the plethora of payments available, and in terms of claimants understanding what it was they were actually entitled to.

To this end, the Government and IDS argue that due to the Universal Credit combining many of the existing tax credits and benefits (such as Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit, Housing Benefit, Income Support, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance and the income-related Employment and Support Allowance) into one uniform payment, simplicity will result. In turn, they argue that this will mean a less complex bureaucratic framework, meaning in turn that fraud and error should be reduced, easing the public purse-strings.

As far as claimants of Universal Credit are concerned, one might also argue that increased simplicity will result in recipients being able to more easily establish how much (or little) they will be entitled to. This is of course on the proviso that claimants will be able to get online and fill out the forms that will tell them how much they’ll get in the first place (the form filling required for Universal Credit award will all be done online.)

Whilst in my view this theoretical increased simplicity is to be applauded, we are still to see how this will work out in practice, and given the recent news reports about apparent problems with the computer system behind Universal Credit, it may be best at this stage to reserve absolute judgement!

Before I move on, simplicity matters because (and this I think is often missed in policy and media debates on welfare) it affects what is known as the ‘take up rate’ of a benefit or credit. In other words, a credit could be worth £1,000,000 to a certain individual or family, but if you need a PhD in order to fathom all the forms then will the eligible family actually be able to claim the benefit and be any better off in reality?

Work incentives

Under the soon to be overhauled system of tax credits, it was, unbelievably enough, possible to be facing a Marginal Effective Tax Rate (METR) of some 96%, meaning that for every extra £1 earned through something like overtime, an earner would only see 4 pence come into the household.

In relation to this, IDS has said that under Universal Credit ‘work will always pay’ and he’ll argue this is backed up by the fact that no earner will face an METR higher than 76.2%; meaning that an earner subject to this METR will see 24 pence come into the household for every extra £1 earned.

Before we got too excited however, where would this ‘reduced’ METR leave the UK in comparison to other developed countries? Not in a very flattering position is the answer. The latest data from the OECD shows for instance that, an METR of 76.2% would leave a one-earner family on 75% of the OECD average wage at the top of the pile of international families. [1] Thus, whilst it’s welcome that the absolute highest METR’s under Universal Credit are set to reduce, it is still worrying that a quarter of all families will face an METR of 76%.

Generosity

Last, but most definitely not least, for all the design details and quirks of the Universal Credit, what most families and individuals will be most interested in is whether the Universal Credit will leave them in or out of pocket in comparison to Tax Credits.

As with most tax, benefits and welfare policy, the answer as to whether you will be a winner or loser very much depends on who you are.

To take just two family types, the respected organisation, The IFS (whose conclusions have been confirmed by the Department of Work and Pensions) have said that

Lone Parents with two children

Working less than 16 hours a week will be better-off

The difference will be very little for those working between 16 and 29 hours, and:

Those working 30 or more hours per week will be slightly worse off.

For couples with two children

Single earner in-work couples will be-better off

Couples with savings of more than £16,000 will be worse-off.

Taking a look at the bigger picture, The DWP published an Impact Assessment in December 2012.  This shows that 3.1 million households will have higher entitlement as a result of Universal Credit – on average gaining £168 per month. Around 1.9 million households will se an increase of more than £100 per month.   2.8 million Households will have lower entitlement- The average reduction will be £137 per month. The majority will have a reduction of less than £100 per month.

Conclusions

All in all, there appears to be some encouraging points to the Universal Credit, not least the fact that it will hopefully prove simpler to administer than tax credits, and will reward those who work for any amount of hours (under tax credits, one has to work at least 16 hours per week before becoming eligible.)

However, there are still too many unknowns in the mix for us to judge whether the Universal Credit will be a success. Will the new computer system be able to cope? Will those without easy and convenient access to the internet end up losing out? How will the financial losers cope with the loss in income? With all these questions still to be answered, there’s still much to play for all parties concerned when it comes to this wide ranging policy reform.


[1] This assumes that the 2011 METR’s for the 33 other OECD nations stay at a similar level when the Universal Credit is introduced.