We started thinking about going to Spain several years ago, but never quite got around to it. Earlier this year, we were reading the Washington Post and they had an article on a little town north of Barcelona called Girona. This caught my attention, since my father had been briefly imprisoned in Girona during World War II after crossing the Pyrenees with the help of the French Resistance. At the time, we had been debating whether to go to the Cinque Terre in Italy, but the article helped us settle on Spain.
First thoughts were to visit Girona and even to trace some of my father’s footsteps crossing over from France. Then we went to Cancun in July and we met a British couple there and over dinner one night we were discussing our plans and they said that they had a condo on the Mediterranean in the town of Guardamar and that they were planning to be there for a long weekend in October. It turned out that their plans and ours coincided, so we started to finalize our itinerary.
I should note here that neither Laura nor I speak much Spanish. We put together our itinerary primarily based on recommendations by the Rick Steves Travel Guides. We booked all the hotels on the internet (Venere.com).
October 9, 2010
We arrived in Barcelona about 8:30am after our flight from Washington via JFK. After picking up our bags and getting some cash, we found the Airport Bus to Plaza de Catalunya and took a cab to our Hotel, down the block from the Picasso Museum in the Ribera District. We stayed at the Hotel Ciutat de Barcelona on Carrer Princesa.
The room wasn’t ready, so we stowed our bags, got a map and walked off towards La Ramblas. We walked up and down for a while enjoying the sunshine and warm weather, saw some of the street performers and went down to the waterfront and the statue of Columbus. We finally wandered into the Plaza Reial and found an outdoor café, where we ordered some drinks and some great pollo al ajillo and artichokes. The chicken had an almost pesto-like sauce loaded with garlic. Delicious. We sat and ate and watched the people, including bike tours, listening to conversations in a half dozen languages. Afterwards, we made our way back to the Hotel, rested and freshened up. The room was very nice, clean and modern, with a queen-size bed.
Later, we went out for a walk, starting out by checking out the Cathedral. From the plaza overlooking the cathedral, we took a street that we thought would take us back to La Ramblas, but the street was curved and we took all the wrong turns at the various intersections and wound up on the waterfront, about as close to La Ramblas as where we had started out. We walked along the promenade to the Columbus Statue and up La Ramblas and watched more of the street performers in action, winding up at the Market where we wandered up and down the aisles of pastries, chocolate, fish, meat, fruit, and vegetables, fresh and succulent, piled high.
At the edge of the Market, we found a wine shop where they were doing a tasting, so we bought some tickets and tasted some red wine, white wine, and cava (Spanish version of Champagne). I liked the red, Laura really liked the white. We bought a couple of bottles of the white wine.
We walked back to La Ramblas and found an outdoor spot where we could have another glass of wine and watch the street performers. After the drink, we were getting hungry, so we started to walk back towards the hotel. Not knowing the customs of Spain, we didn’t realize that you couldn’t get a sit-down dinner until at least 8 pm. So we went into a Restaurant and thought we might have some Tapas and another drink, but then decided that we didn’t really think the menu options were that great, so we walked on, eventually we decided on a place that was about a block from our Hotel. The food was not that great, but we were hungry so it was very welcome. I was drinking beer at this point and we started to watch the drama of a young American coming on to two young Spanish women. He would talk to them together, then talk to them individually, then go off to hit on some other women, then introduce one or two other of his friends. We were at a small table just removed from the bar and this was all happening at the bar.
Eventually, we got involved (or Laura got involved) in conversation with one of the guys – I think after the women had wandered off and left the “player” alone with his mates. They were an interesting (!) crew. The American, was 23, and wearing an “I Just Got Laid” T-Shirt. He lived in Barcelona and had known the two girls that he was chatting with most of the evening about 3 years earlier (maybe in school?). One was married, but he was still interested in her. He also had an English friend, Andy, who was 29 and from Liverpool and had been living in Barcelona for about 6 years, and was currently selling advertising for Google. Towards the end of the evening, Andy got a piece of paper and pen from the Bartender and had to write down his top things to do in Barcelona. We eventually lost the list (which also had contact information), so I can’t say whether we saw everything on it or not. We definitely went to his #1 spot and a couple of others. The third member of the crew was an older man, about 50, who was from Costa Rica, but had been an American citizen and lived for a time in Minneapolis. He moved to Spain to avoid alimony from a nasty divorce. He was very happy that his kids were now gravitating towards him after years of not seeing them. Around midnight we finally had our fill of drinks and our “friends” had drifted off, so we went back to the hotel and crashed.
Sunday, Oct 10
There were no clocks in the room, which apparently is very common in Spain and we didn’t think to ask for a wakeup call. Anyway, we wound up getting up pretty late and went looking for some breakfast. We thought we’d go to the Picasso Museum, just down the street. We could tell that it was raining, but not much else. Turns out it was also pretty chilly. After wandering around for awhile, we found a little café/bar about two blocks from the hotel. We had café con leche and I wound up having a ham and cheese sandwich on a roll and Laura had a small omelet. After our breakfast, we huddled under our umbrella and walked the short walk over to the Picasso Museum. The rain had eased up a bit, but the queue for the Museum stretched almost all the way to the local church. We decided that we needed to pursue plan B (not that we had one at that point). It was Sunday morning, and it was drizzling off and on, so we ducked into the church. It felt a little strange since the service was going on and we were really just tourists, but we had a look around, enjoyed the stained glass and the interior and then ducked out.
At that point we decided we should take the Metro and see the Gaudi Cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, which is near the top of most lists of things to see in Barcelona. That would potentially kill three birds with one stone. We would get to ride the Metro (a treat in itself and a test of whether you can follow a map and buy the right tickets), get out of the rain for a bit, and finally, see one of the major sites in town. We managed to get the tickets very easily from the Vending machine. We managed to navigate a transfer, get on the trains in the proper direction and wound up at the Cathedral. At the stop, there were (as there often is) two exits and we had no idea which one we should take. As we were walking up the steps Laura said something about how we probably wouldn’t be able to figure out where the Cathedral was. As she was saying this we got to the top of the stairs and I turned around and of course, it was right there across the street. Fortunately, it had stopped raining at that point. We walked through a park across from the Cathedral to get a better view of the front (so we thought). From the side we were looking at, it looks very much like an old gothic cathedral, which makes sense, since it was started in about 1880 when neo-gothic was still in fashion (think Washington’s National Cathedral). But it also has an odd look to it, almost as though the sculptures and carvings and front are melting.
It is very hard to describe. Anyway, we found our way to the ticket line, which was long, but not as long as the Picasso Museum, and the weather was warming up. The actual entrance is around the opposite side, so as we moved along we got to slowly see the Cathedral changing from Gothic to something much more modern. When you finally get around to the front (or is it the back, or neither) the entrance is very modern in design. Once inside, you are treated to beautiful stained glass windows and an inside which is at once gothic and modern. As with a gothic church you have massive towering columns holding up the ceiling. However, Gaudi used more modern principles to create columns that branch at the top to distribute the weight and that also look like trees. To emphasize that, his trees are anchored by a canopy of “leaves”, so you feel like you are standing in a forest. Also unlike most gothic cathedrals, the interior is light and airy with more windows. Gaudi worked on the cathedral from 1882 until his death in 1926, and work has continued in fits and starts ever since. Recent estimates suggest it will be completed in 20 to 50 years.
After the cathedral, we walked up the street from the Metro station and found an outdoor café (Babilonia) for some wine and a late lunch. We had a tasty meal of gambas al ajillo and hummus. After that, we hopped back on the metro and got in line for the Picasso Museum.
Again the line was long, but shorter than in the morning and since it was closed on Mondays, it was now or never. We waited about ½ an hour and to our surprise much of the reason for the long lines (aside from the rain) was that Sunday was free. The Museo Picasso is particularly interesting because it concentrates primarily on his early work, before cubism. So it has drawings and paintings starting from when he was 13-14 years old. As you see him develop over 10-15 years, you find a painter who was able to draw and paint quite remarkable realistic works and had a firm foundation and even classical training. Few, if any, of these early works would be considered masterpieces, but they are very solid and provide a completely different perspective on Picasso and his art. The museum also has drawings and posters that he created as a young artist living in Barcelona and a few later works that he donated toward the end of his life. One interesting collection are a number of studies (deconstructions really) that he did based on a painting by the Spanish artist Velasquez called Las Meninas.
We ate that night near the hotel on the Carrer Argenterias at a restaurant called Taller de Tapas. Among other things Laura had the spinach and garbanzos with a little prosciutto and a lot of garlic, which she got me to eat a little of, and I have to say that it was excellent (and I really don’t like cooked spinach). That was so unusual and tasty, that I can’t recall anything else that we had to eat that night.
By the end of the evening, if not before, we had decided to abandon the plan to take a day trip to Girona. We were having too much fun in Barcelona.
After Breakfast at the Hotel, we took the Metro to Park Guell, which was at the top of Andy’s list of things to see and do in Barcelona. It was a bit difficult to figure out how to get there by Metro and it took me a while (from the map) to figure out which was the closest stop, but we made it (take the Metro to Valcarca station). From the Metro, we followed the signs to the park and as we turned the corner, the street quite literally rose up towards the sky. Actually, it wasn’t a street, since no car could have climbed it. There were a combination of stairs and outdoor escalators (uncovered). Unfortunately, not all of the escalators were working, so it was quite a workout.
This way in to the Park gets you to the pinnacle of a very large hill, where the city of Barcelona spreads out in front of you with views of the Mediterranean, La Sagrada Familia, and Montjuic, a smaller mountain park near the waterfront. Behind, there is an even larger mountain. The Park was designed by Gaudi and was originally intended to be a wealthy gated community of about 60 houses, but only a couple of the houses were ever built and it never caught on and then World War I and other economic turmoil intervened and it was eventually sold to the city as a park.
As we climbed the last bit, to get to the very top, we encountered some musicians. One was playing an unusual instrument that resembled a covered metal serving dish. What he was playing was partly percussion and partly similar to playing water glasses and creating a similar sound. It was very new age. I kick myself later for not thinking of taking a little video clip of it. At the very top there was a guy playing percussion and didgeridoo. It was very interesting world beat sound.
From the top, we wandered down towards the large central plaza of the park. On the way, we encountered a pretty good reggae band and then on the Plaza itself there was a duo or trio playing a more traditional flamenco influenced blend of music. The Central Plaza and the Market which is underneath the Central Plaza are one of the main works completed by Gaudi in the Park along with aqueducts and other infrastructure. We walked down the steps from the market and then toured the porter’s house, which is a little museum. After finishing our tour of the Park, we walked down to the Lessups Metro Stop (definitely better than starting at Lessups and trying to walk up to the top of the Park) and headed back to the Passeig de Gracia Metro stop to see a couple more Gaudi buildings and the Block of Discord. We stopped for lunch in a trendy little restaurant, which was on the second floor of a large building. You had to take one of those old elevators up. It looked pretty fancy and the meal was very good, but it was surprisingly reasonable. Laura had some kind of salad and I had chicken skewers in an Asian Sesame Sauce. We also had some deep-fried artichoke, which tasted a bit like French fries cooked in olive oil. The Block of Discord is a block of buildings in distinctly different, and some would say clashing, architectural styles. One of them is a Gaudi. We hopped back on the Metro and rode down to the waterfront.
We took a walk through the Parc de la Ciutadella, which is near the site of Barcelona Olympic village and not far from our hotel. As often happens, we took the wrong turn out of the Metro station and wound up a little off course, but after walking for about 15 minutes, we checked the map, made a course correction and found our way back to the park, which had a lovely fountain which was built for the 1888 World’s Fair. It also has a zoo, which we did not see and several museums housed in buildings left over from the Fair. Eventually, we got back to the hotel.
In the evening, we walked over to the Cathedral and wandered through some of the back streets looking for a little bar that was a hangout of Picasso’s more than 100 years ago. After going round in circles and not really finding anything, we wound up on a large boulevard, which was crowded with people and had lots of fancy stores lining it. After about a block, Laura said that she really didn’t like the crowd, so we ducked down an alleyway and at the first corner, of course we found El Quatre Gats (4Gats.com). We went in for a drink and it’s a wonderful little place, so we had another drink. We were charging our camera, so we were not able to get any pictures. However, there was a Japanese girl at the next table and she had a great camera. We talked to her a little bit and she agreed to take our picture and send it to us (probably won’t happen).