Etoeklis “Theo” Nikolaou spills the beans on what it’s like to be a tour guide in Barcelona, as well as revealing a few of his favourite spots around town.

So tell us about yourself. How has a Greek guy ended up settling in Catalonia via the UK, Germany and Argentina? 

I guess everything starts from our childhood…the fairy tales and the stories we grow up with. One of the legends in Greek culture was the story of Odysseus, who travelled for 10 years before he found his Ithaca. His priority was to discover the unknown. At the age of 19, I took part in in the Erasmus programme in Portugal and my desire was the same. I wanted to challenge myself, to live in a different culture with people from all over Europe,  even though I didn’t t speak Portuguese. Years later I completed my MA in the UK where I studied international relations and worked in London as a journalist for various organizations. I also lived in Berlin and in Buenos Aires working in journalism.

As Odysseus discovered his Ithaca, the same happened to me: Barcelona became my Ithaca. Barcelona is a multicultural and typically-Mediterranean city, modern and open to the world: it benefited from the Olympics and didn’t waste the opportunity like Athens did.

Also after my experience as a journalist, I decided I wanted a more relaxed pace. I always enjoyed telling stories so I thought I could do this with visitors, presenting my city and telling stories without pressure. So I decided to be a tour guide.

Do you think there are two Barcelonas: the one we saw on TV news  a lot last year and the “actual” one visitors will experience?

There are more than two Barcelonas. There is the touristy, promoted Barcelona…a city that can offer you a glass of sangria and a paella at the sea front, a visit to Camp Nou and a walk along Las Ramblas.

Then there is the other city, the one for the locals. You probably you have to wake up at 6am to enjoy one of the most beautiful sunrises of your life while you paddle surf at Barceloneta. You may have to stand in a queue waiting for fresh churros in the oldest churrerja in the gothic quarter, the Xurreria dels Banys Nous. Get ready to walk a lot to find your peaceful spot at the Jewish cemetery in Montjuic before you go to one of the local music festivals in Gracia.

Regarding what we saw on TV news last year, it is true that the city was presented as a dangerous destination due to unrest. That is absolutely not true, if you keep in mind that even on the day of the referendum I was working, showing the city to visitors without any problems. Surprisingly, and in contrast to what we know about hot-blooded Mediterraneans, the Catalans demonstrate in a totally peaceful way.

Have you seen a drop off in numbers since last year’s political events?

There was a sudden drop off on the number of tourists between November and January, as a consequence of the political instability. The image of the city was traumatised and there was a perception that Barcelona is an unsafe place to visit. As soon as the heat came back and the independence drama was over, normality returned to the city.

Is there a different feel to the city since last year, or would that be an exaggeration?

The city is developing into a mainstream global destination, ranking third in Europe after London and Paris. This year 4 per cent more tourists are expected to visit. There’s no different feeling to last year. Barcelona has taken one of the top positions in terms of global destinations, and even political dramas don’t seem strong enough to discourage millions of visitors from discovering one of the most beautiful cities in the world,

What are some of the places you take visitors to on your tour? You say there is no charge for your tours but how free is free?!

First of all, I should explain how the touring industry used to work. Until a few years ago there was only one option for a tourist to go on a tour. They would have to pay a guide normally between 40 to 70 euros for a 3-hour tour. But now, backed by European law, many companies offer so-called free tours, clarifying that every tourist is free to decide the value of the tour, as long as the guide is not supported by the company. This new model has given the opportunity for many students and backpackers to enjoy the benefits of a walking tour at a very low cost.

Which nationality are the best tippers and who are the worst tippers on your tours?

Tipping is an action that depends on each culture and economy. It is easy to understand that US or Canadian tourists are the best tippers because tipping culture there is highly developed. On the other hand tourists from countries with less developed economies can not afford to give a big tip.

Where do you like to go on a day off?

One of the main reasons I feel like at home in Barcelona is the Mediterranean sea. This is where I belong and this I where I enjoy spending my days off. However the beach in Barceloneta is usually crowded so I prefer to take the train and head either north, closer to the village of Mataro or southern, to Sitges.

Where is your favourite place for tapas and a cold beer?

Any place with a long history. As long as they have survived, it means they know how to do something well. El Xampamyet is a tapas restaurant in the neighbourhood of El Born, close to the Picasso museum. I would recommend trying the homemade cava and the tuna and octopus tapas.

What is an “almost secret” spot in the city that you’d pretty much not reveal…but for us, you’re going to. 

There is a hardware store, Servei Estacio, near Passeig de Gracia. Go inside, to the second floor and open the door at the back. You will get a perfect view of the back yard of Casa Batlló, Gaudi’s masterpiece.

The second spot is the roof terrace of the hotel Barceló Raval in Raval, which offers a 360 view of the city. A visit there for sunset with an Aperol Spritz seems to me a great way to round off a day.

Theo works for Donkey Tours

 

Eurostar trains started a direct service between London and Amsterdam earlier this month. To tie in, I went to the Netherlands’ largest city for the Times to search out 20 hotels that – with a bit of advanced planning and out of high season – have rooms for under £100 a night.

Sorry…because of copyright, if you want to see the full 20 you’ll have to be a Times’ subscriber and log in here >>> TIMES <<<

Email me if you want to know which of the twenty was my favourite!

Have you been to Amsterdam? What hotels would you recommend?

I was travelling a lot in January and February and have not had chance to upload a few of the articles I have had published recently – so here goes.

If you have a Times subscription you can click through on the link and read these pieces online.

HOW TO HAVE THE SWISS MOUNTAINS ALL TO YOURSELF THE TIMES

St Moritz

VODKA, SAUNAS AND SNOW IN KYRGYZSTAN THE TIMES

Kyrg

TOTALLY CHILLED: MY GYM CLASS IN THE ICY BALTIC THE TIMES

Denmark

MY HIKE THROUGH THE HILLS IN MADEIRA – WITH A WHITE RUM OR TWO THE TIMES

madeira

THE 10 BEST NO FRILLS FLIGHTS THE MAIL ON SUNDAY

MonSun

I’ve often wondered what goes into writing a travel guide book. I mean where do you even start?

David Nikel knows, having recently completed Moon Travel Guides‘ first Norway edition.

I chatted with him about what goes into producing one, as well as picking his brains on holidaying in Norway.

David Nikel pic

CAN YOU TELL ME A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF? HOW DID YOU END UP IN NORWAY AND HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN THERE NOW?

It’s said that people move to Norway for the money and stay for love, or move for love and stay for the money. I fell into the first category! I moved to Oslo in May 2011 in my former life as an IT contractor as the money on offer was 50% higher than in the UK. Less than two years later I really liked the country, I had met someone special, but I hated the job. So I took my hobby writing and turned into my job.

WRITING A GUIDE BOOK MUST BE QUITE DAUNTING? WHERE IS THE VERY FIRST PLACE YOU START WHEN EVERYTHING IS A BLANK CANVAS? WHAT WAS THE MOST DIFFICULT THING ABOUT WRITING IT?

There were many points when I thought “why did I do this!?” but the end result made it all worthwhile.

This was a first edition guidebook, which isn’t so common these days as most guidebooks have most major destinations covered already. While starting from scratch is daunting beyond belief, there was a significant outlining process before I was given the contract. This gave Moon confidence in me, and meant I didn’t start with a complete blank canvas, and could properly plan my research trips.

The most difficult aspect of writing the book was striking the right balance between entertainment and information. There’s nothing worse than a dry guidebook devoid of any personality, but at the same time people turn to guidebooks for facts. It was also quite tricky to put myself in the shoes of a first-time visitor, as I have lived in Norway for several years. I took the opportunity to ask fellow travellers I met along the way what questions they had. This helped enormously!

Hurtigruten-ligger-til-kai-i-Bodo-042010-99-0005_1500

HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO RESEARCH THE WHOLE COUNTRY?

This is a difficult one to answer as I had travelled extensively before starting the book research, having written about Norway on my own blog and for magazines and websites for several years. So I had a lot of the background information already. The actual process of taking trips and writing took around 12 months, with a further six months of editing and answering questions from the editors after that.

NORWAY HAS A RATHER FIERCE REPUTATION FOR BEING EXPENSIVE. AS A TOURIST WHAT ARE THE BEST WAYS TO SAVE MONEY?

Planning in advance. This goes for the obvious, such as buying train and plane tickets at least a week before travel, right through to planning meals. If you know roughly when and where you are going to eat, it can bring the cost tumbling down. Indian, Chinese and Thai restaurants tend to offer the best value in most towns. Traditional Norwegian food is expensive pretty much everywhere.

If you are planning a road trip, avoid chain hotels and plump for one of the countless cabins (called hytter or rorbuer) around the country. They are basic but great value, and often come with kitchenettes so you can prepare your own meals. If you’re in Norway for a week or more, the savings here can really add up.

Nordlys-Tromso-102004-3-2063_1500

WHAT WOULD BE YOUR IDEAL ONE-WEEK SUMMER ITINERARY FOR A FIRST TIMER?

The classic journey is Oslo to Bergen on the train, or by car. The train is one of the world’s most famous journeys, and with good reason. You soar over a mountain plateau and see snow on the ground even at the height of summer. Connect to the Flåm railway for a beautiful trip from the mountains down through the valley to the shore of a fjord.

Bergen can be uncomfortably busy in the summer so Stavanger and Ålesund are good alternative choices, especially if you have a car. Both cities are within easy reach of fjords – the Lysefjord and Hjørundfjord respectively – so you won’t be missing out.

WHERE IS YOUR SECRET-SPOT IN NORWAY THAT YOU’D (ALMOST) LIKE TO KEEP FOR YOURSELF AND WHY?

Lofoten’s recent popularity probably disqualifies it from having a secret tag, but outside of July it’s still relatively quiet. The islands are simply stunning, with cute fishing villages surrounded by granite mountains soaring from the ocean. The only downside is the fishy aroma. The fishing industry is still important to the local economy and racks of drying cod are a common sight across the islands!

My other tip is the UNESCO World Heritage site Røros. The central streets of this tiny former copper mining town is like something from a fairytale, especially during winter when snow is guaranteed for months on end. Despite being hours from anywhere, the town remains a thriving community thanks to its focus on sustainable tourism and local food production.

Lofoten-Rorbu-042010-99-0009_1500

MAYBE YOU ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO HAVE FAVOURITES, BUT IF YOU DID, WHICH HOTEL DO YOU LIKE BEST IN NORWAY AND WHY?

I much prefer to stay in cabins as the value cannot be beaten, but if I had to choose a hotel it would be the Scandic Nidelven in Trondheim. Most of the rooms overlook the river and marina, while the hotel’s breakfast has picked up a dazzling range of awards. For me breakfast is one of the most important parts of a hotel stay, and so many hotels in Norway offer the same basic buffet of bread, ham and cheese. By contrast, the Nidelven offers chefs who cook omelettes or a stack of pancakes to order, and even a barista.

HAVING LIVED THERE FOR A WHILE NOW, WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE TRAIT ABOUT NORWEGIANS? IS THERE ANYTHING THAT STILL PUZZLES YOU, PERHAPS MAKES YOU HAVE A WRY SMILE?

Norwegians are generally quiet and reserved, so it can be really difficult to get to know them. The one exception is when they’re out on the hiking trails when they turn into the most outgoing, friendly people on earth. The Norwegian love of the outdoors lifestyle is well-documented (there’s even a word for it, friluftsliv), so it’s almost as if that’s where their true selves are hiding. The funny thing is, if you bump into the same person a week later in the city, they’ll probably be silent once again. Maybe a slight nod of the head if you’re lucky!

Norway

VISIT NORWAY

The answer – obviously – is DestinAsian magazine, which features two of my articles this month. One on east London’s favourite hipster hang out, and the other on the Aurora Borealis.

Click below to enlarge, or even better, buy a copy next time you’re passing through Hong Kong or ShanghaiDestinAsian Shoreditch Jpeg

DestinAsian Northern Lights JPEG