Just after the winter holidays, Gretchen and I decided it was time to buckle down and start planning trips. Instead of just talking idly about our plans to visit cities outside of Italy, we sat down to do our research. Ryanair, Easyjet, e-dreams. There are a lot of options. And while I will say that a 30 euro Ryanair is a revelation, I’m not so impressed with their operating schedule. A 6 am flight? No thank you.
Nevertheless, I’ve booked a number of jaunts outside Italy. First up was Barcelona, perfectly timed to coincide with a long weekend. And even better – Gretchen’s 23rd birthday!
We arrived in Barcelona late Friday afternoon, and immediately had to stop ourselves from speaking in Italian to bus drivers, waiters, and clerks! My Spanish is limited to “Hola” — but as we were soon to learn, Catalan is a whole different animal. After a nice walk from Placa de Catalunya to our hostel, we were getting particularly hungry. But in our effort to be authentically Barcelonan, we decided we couldn’t possible eat dinner until at least 10:00. We simply had no other choice than to hit up a grocery store and snack as we wandered in our new city. Cheese puffs and strawberries — only high class meals for us.
Our evening tour of Barcelona included a nice walk to see Gaudi’s Casa Mila and Le Pedrera by night. They are beautiful structures, but we never went inside. As privately-owned properties, the owners charge 18-20 euro for admission. No thanks! After that, we headed to Barcelona’s most famous street, La Rambla. By evening the street is relatively quiet, nothing like it would be the next morning. We made our way all the way down to the statue of Christopher Columbus that sits by the port. After exploring the Rambla del Mar, we felt contented with our evenings introduction to the city. We headed back to (finally) eat dinner. A great recommendation from the hostel, that was only a few streets away. Thank god, because by the time we finished eating we were exhausted and needed to crash.
Our Saturday morning started with the offer a free walking tour of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. Couldn’t say no to that. Our tour guide took us around to all of Barcelona’s best sites, and also explained the intricacies of Catalan culture and the independence movement. Then we were off for lunch with our tour group— where we of course had to try Spanish paella. I was a little intimidated by the mussels at first, but you’ll all be proud to know that I thought they were delicious.
We had to rush off after our long lunch to get from Barceloneta to our 4:00 reservation at Sagrada Familia. (You always have to appreciate a good subway system – we just made it!) And — wow. Sagrada Familia has been in construction for over 100 years an will probable take another 100 more to finish. The details are amazing, and the afternoon light coming in through the stained glass windows was breathtaking in person. We spent our due time admiring the Basilica, and then made our way to the line to ascend the Nativity tower. A high-speed elevator takes you up 170 meters, and you’re greeted with a small standing area, but a breathtaking view of the city. Since the church is still in construction, you can’t explore as much of the roof as you can in Milano’s Duomo. After enjoying the view, we made our way back down via the long spiralling staircase. Dark, full of hidden nooks and crannies — an experience for sure!
On the dinner menu Saturday night — tapas. The first place we tried was packed to the brim with eager diners, so we headed to another place a few blocks away. The tapas were good, but not life changing, and unfortunately we were seated next to a table of loud Americans, which did not set the atmosphere we were hoping for. By the time we finished eating and paid our bill, we realised if we didn’t hurry we were going to miss meeting our new friends from the walking tour, Chris and Sheena, at our 10:00 Flamenco show. We hurried as fast as we could, even running down La Rambla, but by the time we made it was well after 10 and the doors were closed off. Fortunately, the show only lasts 30 minutes, so we were still able to meet our new friends afterwards. And the Placa Reale is not a bad place to sit for 20 minutes.
As we hit the bars, our original plan not to mix liquors flew out the window. After wine with dinner, we moved onto (free) tequila shots, mojitos, then back to Sangria. But we had to celebrate Gretchen’s birthday right! After our first bar we headed to another place our tour guide had told us about — a very old club in the Placa Reale with a hidden, unmarked entrance. Called the Pipa Club (i.e., an old pipe and cigar smoking club), we found it based on the slightly-intimidating bouncer standing outside a door that otherwise looked like an apartment. He waved us through and up a set of stairs, where we had to present ID in exchange for an official club membership card. Barcelona is so cool.
My cocktail, a Caipirinha, was PRETTY STRONG, but you can’t leave a drink unfinished. We grabbed a table and soaked up the cool vibes here, with live music and two different bars in what looked like an 18th century lounge. We stayed until 3am, when the place closed. And yet for Barcelonans, this is just the beginning of the night. The next logical step would be to find a dance club and keep ourselves out all night. We headed back towards our hostel, hoping to find a good place. But we soon realized that most clubs were all by the port, in the completely opposite direction from where we were staying. Poor planning on our part — but we figured that 4 am is still a respectable hour for a birthday celebration, especially considering our day would be starting early tomorrow.
By 10 and we were up and out of the room — all the way in Gaudi’s Park Guell. Most of the park is free, but to enter the Monumental Zone, where most of the actual buildings are located, you need to reserve a time. Again – we just made it – the Park is far away and up a steep hill and we weren’t exactly at our most energised. But the Park was worth it. Gaudi’s visions are impressive as always, and the landscapes and views from the Park can’t be beat. We took out time here, not feeling rushed as we headed to our 2:00 lunch reservation at one of the oldest restaurants in Barcelona. In Las Caracoles (translation: the snail) we were seated right next to the open kitchen. With a direct view of our paella being made! Fantastic.
We weren’t quite sure what should be next on our agenda, so after lunch we made our way toward the Arc di Triomf. These are always majestic and I think more American cities should adopt them. Walking along the street leading to the Arc, we passed numerous street performers and a team of guys blowing giant bubbles for kids to play in. Well, for the kids and two twenty-three year old English teachers.
Next to the Arc is the Parc de la Ciutadella, which was unexpectedly wonderful. Europe sure knows its parks. With the opportunity to rent a row boat, visit the zoo, watch a tap dance practice, listen to music — this was probably my favourite place in Barcelona.
Finally, we made our way to the beach. We had to dip our toes in the sand, and the water, even though it wasn’t exactly warm. But I certainly felt lucky, especially knowing that back home in Ohio, everything was covered in snow.
On Sunday evening we had booked a dinner through EatWith.com, a website that matches travellers with locals willing to host dinner. We ate typical Catalan cuisine at Vanessa’s house, an ancient and typical Barcelona building. I can’t recommend this website enough! We finally got the chance to meet a real local, we ate amazing food, and had some amazing company with a handful of other visitors to Barcelona. I’ll definitely be using EatWith again.
Our last full day in Barcelona was over. On Monday afternoon we’d be flying out. We rose early in order to get breakfast and explore Barcelona’s famous market, La Bocqueria. Despite the animal intestines and heads floating around, I loved it! We had some great fresh fruit juices and sampled cheeses and fresh bread. And finally, before we left, we had to stop in a cafe for churros and chocolate.
We waved goodbye to La Rambla, our very favourite new street. Then it was time to head home — just a shuttle bus, a plane, another shuttle, a train, and a metro ride until I was back safely in Brescia, with a visit to another country under my belt.
I loved Barcelona, but many people are quick to point our that it’s a different culture from what you’ll find in the rest of Spain. I left Spain with a new resolve to learn Spanish and to visit more of the country. If only I had the time!
I’ll be spending the next few weeks in Italy, but don’t worry. Gretchen and I have something else up our sleeves. Look out for my adventures in Dublin, coming up in March.