Old-fashioned rides at a Catalonian amusement park bring out Shaney Hudson's inner child.
I'M IN an 89-year-old contraption that looks like a half-dismantled, one-armed Ferris wheel. My compartment is the shape of a tin of Spam and the safety railing comes up just over my waist. There's no roof, no straps and, just to make me feel even more insecure, my metal box groans and tilts each time I move. I am not comfortable, I don't feel safe. I'm not happy, Juan.
However, as the Talaia tower at Tibidabo amusement park starts to lift me to a distance of about 455 metres above sea level my fear is quietly replaced with wonder.
The 360-degree view of Barcelona is unrivalled, wrapping around the forests of the Collserola mountain range and across the sprawling metropolis to the sea. Below, fun-fair rides cascade down the mountain side, spinning, reeling and looping in bright colours. Behind me, the Temple of the Sacred Heart, a soaring cathedral built on the mountain, is a calm contrast.
Barcelona's Tibidabo, on the slopes of Tibidabo mountain, is a favourite with locals, accessible by a rickety, 100-year old funicular. It has become the darling of international travellers since they saw a glimpse of it in the 2008 Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
For €11 ($16) you can buy a Sky Walk ticket, which gives unlimited entry to the park's old-fashioned amusements. It's this section of the park that most people come to experience — the Ferris wheel and Talaia, a two-tiered carousel and the Avio, a red airplane that rotates around the mountain. The Avio is the park's iconic ride, modelled on the first plane to fly between Barcelona and Madrid. Opened in 1928, the plane's ornate interior is all panelled wood and leather. The plane rotates, powered only by its noisy propeller. It's a quaint ride that capitalises on the views, not one that's high on thrills. But the simplicity of it is charming.
Complementing the old-fashioned rides are traditional sweets available from the candy bar. I watch as baseball-size apples are dipped and rolled in a bubbling pot of toffee before being left to sit on a thick bed of sugar. I bite in and the toffee shatters like broken glass.
We explore the Sky Walk area: it includes kids' rides, a playground, parkland, picnic spots and a damp, cold cinema showing a 10-minute documentary about the park's history. However, we quickly learn that the Sky Walk's real treasure is its museum of automatons - a snapshot of a world long gone.
The collection is considered one of Barcelona's best and consists of 40 automated amusements in pristine working order. Underneath the Avio in a former ballroom, all are rigged to perform small movements at the push of a button.
Some automatons are familiar, like the fortune-telling gypsy bearing an eerie resemblance to the one from the Tom Hanks film, Big. Some aren't that PC - an older automaton simultaneously raises the French flag as a man is guillotined. Some are simply spectacular: with a push of a button, a curtain is pulled back at the end of the room to reveal a stage filled with life-size dancers and musicians performing a jig.
The automatons were collected between 1890 and 1950; the collection so unique that during the park's heyday in the 1950s, an American called Walt made several aggressive attempts to buy it for his Californian theme park. Luckily for Barcelona, he failed.
It wasn't the first time Tibidabo's treasures have come under threat. The park has been on the brink of closure many times, menaced by the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the horrors years of World War II and, at the turn of the millennium, bankruptcy. However, in 2000, Barcelona City Council became the custodian, with the aim of preserving the park.
Being at Tibidabo feels like stepping back in time. From the amusements to the picnic tables to the old-fashioned foods, the park echoes a simpler, more carefree era. The best part? No queues and unlimited rides on all Sky Walk amusements. So I hit the Talaia tower again, just as the sun sets on a perfect Barcelona day.
KLM flies from Sydney to Barcelona, priced from $2709. 1300 392 192, klm.com. Tibidabo is accessible by bus from Placa de Catalunya or the Blue Tram (€4.70, or $6.70, return) from the Av. Tibidabo metro stop (line L7). The tram connects with the funicular to the park (€4). Bus and funicular fare are reimbursed when you buy an admission ticket.
Gran Hotel La Florida, C. Vallvidrera al Tibidabo 83-93, has rooms priced from €199 a night. +34 93 259 30 00, hotellaflorida.com.
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